By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2009

During these severely tough economic times, I can’t help but think of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest.  And I remember sitting in an auditorium many years ago with all the new University of Vermont freshmen when we were told to look to our left, then to our right and that one of those students wouldn’t be at UVM next year. The message was clear: Work hard and excel.

Success in business during a deep recession—when beating last year’s numbers by double digits may not be realistic—can more sensibly be characterized as hitting last year’s numbers, growing market share or sometimes just surviving. The winners in these times are businesses that maintain the highest possible standards, companies that embrace excellence in every discipline and by every employee. The losers most often don’t.

The other day I walked into a major phone company’s store to check out a new BlackBerry that I was excited about and on which I had done some research. I soon discovered I knew more about that model than the representative who offered to help me. He turned me over to someone else who lackadaisically not only proved useless but, even worse (if possible), suggested that a competitor’s phone might be better for my needs but his company would provide better service (a questionable and undocumented assertion). I left the store perplexed and disappointed. Why was I allowed to leave without someone conducting a comprehensive study of my needs followed by an equally comprehensive presentation of all appropriate phones matching those needs? Where was the product and sales training? Where was the caring? My disappointment was compounded by the larger significance of this negative experience. We’re in a deep recession, and I walk into a store with a purchase in mind and am allowed to leave unsatisfied.

There may be a silver lining in today’s depressed economy. First-rate businesses will survive and get better by working even harder and smarter and will raise the bar for others to follow. In a strong economy, even mediocre businesses can do well. Mediocrity today, however, is just not enough. Maybe that’s a good thing.   

Certainly there are extenuating reasons for today’s business failures unrelated to maintaining high standards. Death, illness, disaster, loss of credit and under-capitalization are a few. Sadly, well-run businesses may fail. Not so sadly, poorly run businesses will most likely fail, done in by not caring and not being exceptional.           

It seems to me that mediocrity doesn’t deserve to succeed, while exceptionalism should always prosper. This scenario may in fact occur as this recession continues.

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