Saturday, May 06, 2006

Nantucket: Staples Founder Shares Success Secrets

This marks my second year at the Nantucket Conference, where we're a sponsor this year. On the ferry ride over on Thursday, one of the attendees recounted the true story of walking up to the check-in desk at the elegant White Elephant hotel a couple of years ago to ask for information about high-speed access. The desk clerk replied, "On yes, the high-speed ferry leaves just a couple of blocks from here."

I don't think that would happen today.

Friday kicked off with the very down-to-earth Tom Stemberg, founder of Staples and Zoots and now a partner at Highland. There's no doubt that Staples was a success in part because it was a great concept at the right time. But Tom was devoted to customer service, which ultimately set Staples apart. (Chasing Staples' success, 27 office superstores have been funded over the years.) Tom noted that as Staples headed to $1 billion in revenue, there were more and more layers of people to insulate him from what was really going on in his stores. So he started spending two days a week in the stores, criss-crossing the country from Boise to Boston.

He'd walk into a store and ask for an item. He had some great experiences, like the time he posed as a customer who'd lost his phone charger. The sales associate explained that the store didn't have the Nokia version, but the generic version worked fine because he had tested it himself, but he also offered to order the Nokia version and express ship it to his office the next day. And by the way, did Tom need the Nokia headset?

This was a great example of "Staples Makes it Easy" in action.

But then there were visits like one to Rhode Island, where he walked in to find a line of seven customers at the register, while the store managers were drinking coffee in the back room. Tom sent the bagger to open another register and started bagging himself. While the guy at the register hadn't recognized Tom, when the manager arrived on the scene, he most definitely did.

"I'm guessing he didn't take a long coffee break for awhile after that," Tom explained.

He also noted that these stories of his guest appearances made the rounds. He learned that travelling with a supervisor was a bad idea, because they'd start tracking him by state. It was much more effective to play "mystery shopper" on his own.

Tom shared a few quotes from Blueprint to a Billion, which he highly recommends. Based on his track record, I'm sure it's worth a read.

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