Advanced Lighting Systems was the get-it-done company. We were a huge success because we delivered products that were built right and on time. If you’re scratching your head and thinking that doing what you said you were going to do should be a given instead of a competitive advantage, I’m with you. But in the entertainment industry, most of our competitors were either inefficient, incompetent, or incapable of producing the kind of quality products we specialized in. Honoring our commitments was more than just a good business practice, it was a matter of personal integrity.
Our closest call was an optical-fiber curtain for the Country Tonite Theater in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The curtain was going to be the major backdrop for a new show and we were running behind. The show opened on Friday and the glue finally dried on Thursday. Once we got the curtain packed up, it was too big to air freight, and sending it by truck wouldn’t get it there on time. My dad and I looked at each other, and without a word we knew what we had to do. We rented a big cargo van, loaded up the curtain, and hit the road around 7 PM. Eighteen hours later, after winding through the mountains of Tennessee, we pulled up at the theater, helped install the curtain, and left as heroes.
Did I have options? Sure, if you include not keeping your word an option. We could have double-talked our way into a delay by blaming the wait on other vendors, on technicalities, or even on the customer themselves. I’m sure we could have gotten away with that but we would’ve never seen another order from them. On top of that, show business production folks typically jump from project to project and theater to theater. If we hadn’t shown up on time and the show had to be canceled, that news would have gone viral and our market share in that entertainment hotbed would have plummeted. Instead, we drove all night to deliver the curtain on time. Did the customer know that? Nope. They just thought we had great customer service. Ultimately, in show business you have no choice; you have to show up because the show must go on.
Our decision to compete on service came down to a two-word mantra: No excuses. It doesn’t matter how tired you are, how sick you might be, or if your personal life is in upheaval. You have to do whatever it takes—whether that means pitching in on the production floor, getting your hands dirty in shipping, or driving cross-country—to get the job done. Once you make that commitment to be all in, your mind becomes clear to focus on solutions instead of excuses, and you end up getting a euphoric high from accomplishing the impossible. The second you start making excuses, you might as well lock your doors and shut your business down because someone else is going to come along who’s hungrier than you are.
In 2002, we bid on a big fiber-optic curtain for Britney Spears’ tour. We wanted to get it because featuring her name on our client list would open even more doors for us. Unfortunately, Jack, who was in charge of Britney’s team, selected FiberFan, one of our competitors. Three weeks later, on a Monday morning, I got a call from Jack. “I just checked in with the people we gave the order to,” he said, sounding a bit desperate. “They’re running a week behind and the show starts this Friday.” When I asked Jack how I could help, he asked if I could make the curtain. I said, “Well, I’ve got all the materials but we’re super-busy. Let me see if I can reprioritize any of the projects I have on the floor that have some extra time built in.” I huddled with my floor manager and we determined that we could move some things around and squeeze in the job, but that it still would take some serious miracle-making on our part to get the curtain finished and on a plane in only three days.
I called Jack back and said, “Listen, here’s the deal. We’ll get it done. I’ve got a dedicated crew that’s willing to work all night if they have to. But this thing might show up literally an hour before the concert on Friday.” I could hear him breathe a big sigh of relief. When I told him I wouldn’t charge him a penny more than our original bid, he protested and said he was ready to write a bigger check. I said, “No, that’s not necessary. What I want is your business in the future. I don’t want you to even consider another company.” Without hesitation, Jack said, “No problem, you got it.”Immediately, we cleared production space and got to work. For the next three days, it was all Britney Spears all the time. We finished the curtain on Thursday morning, packed it up, and couriered it to the airport. Jack had it that night, twenty-four hours before the concert. He called me in shock and said, “How could you build this in three days when your competitor couldn’t do it in four weeks?” I said, “There’s more than one way to make things happen. It doesn’t take that long to build, but it takes a lot of organization to do multiple projects at once and do right by all our customers.” Jack thanked me profusely, and I said, “Look, it’s not your fault that FiberFan is running late. I don’t want you to wear egg on your face in front of your clients. What was most important was to make sure this concert happens.” Jack was true to his word and gave us a ton of business going forward.
That type of scenario was not uncommon. We got a lot of last-minute orders as word spread that we were the company to call when everyone else said no. Not only did we save the day for panicked customers, we often charged less than our competitors thanks to our location in a rural Minnesota town that gave us tax-increment financing to build a facility.
One reason we were able to be so flexible and accommodating is that our entire company was in one building while our major competitor’s headquarters was in one facility with their manufacturing in another. That might work if you’re a huge manufacturing firm, but not if you’re in an entrepreneurial business. You need the entire team there working together, with everybody grabbing something and helping out if needed. Everyone at Advanced Lighting cared about getting things right and doing things right. Whether it was me, our CFO, or a salesman, someone was always walking the shop floor lending a helping hand or double-checking packaging. Our goal was to establish such high standards of performance and trust that our customers wouldn’t even think about going someplace else.
We grew even more successful when we branched into other markets. Custom manufacturers who built LED fixtures for the architectural market typically demanded a minimum of four weeks for jobs and often told frantic customers who called on the due date that they’d have to wait another week or two. That’s not how we did business. If a building was framed in and ready for custom fixtures to be hung, our being late could cost a union crew thousands of dollars. As architectural firms learned that we always kept our word, our phone started ringing off the hook.
Over time, our hard-earned reputation for guaranteed quality, on-time delivery, and low cost made us the go-to choice for any and all fiber-optic lighting products. Our value proposition was so unique that after I sold the business, I got a call from a former customer who urged me to jump back in the fiber-optic business. He said, “I’ll open up the business for you and guarantee you so much per month if you just start another company so I can buy from you again.” I thanked him but explained that I intended to honor my non-compete clause. Still, it felt good to get the offer, and it drove home the point that top-tier customers will always demand the very best quality and service and pay handsomely for the privilege.
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