A few weeks ago I was in the Toronto Pearson International Airport headed back home. I got my boarding pass, and the ticket listed my gate as 97. As I got through security and customs, I noticed I was standing at Gate 1. Letting out a slight groan, I started walking, watching the gate numbers increase one-by-one as I headed to the gate assigned to me. When I got to the end of the building, the gates were numbered in the 80s, but there were no numbers in the 90s. I was confused. A polite Canadian custodian read the puzzlement on my face and offered help. The gate I was looking for was in a new annex, and I’d walked by the turn to the annex a long way back. I thanked him and backtracked to find where I needed to be.
Similarly, when my friends and I were in London, we spent the last few nights in a hotel near Heathrow Airport. The hotel added a new wing, and our rooms were located there. The desk clerk pointed to a hallway, and we started our walk. When we got to the end of the hall, it ended; there was no turn. We backtracked and eventually found where we needed to turn to find our rooms. There was a sign, but it was a small bronze sign with very little distinction between the lettering and the background of the sign. It was also in a poorly lit part of the hallway. When I first saw it, I assumed it was pointing to an ice machine or a vending machine.
I tell myself that I do a good job of paying attention. But, do I? Complacency kicked in when walking through the Toronto airport, and I completely missed the very large sign pointing the direction of my gate. The London hotel was different. I was paying attention, but the sign was so small and difficult to read that I dismissed it as not important enough to point the correct way.
Thinking of this is a good wakeup call to me that I need to do a better job of examining signs. We all have signs in business. Whether they are sales reports, balance sheets, income statements, or other reports about the business, they are signs. How do they compare to the benchmark? Why is business getting better? Why is business getting worse? What is working? To what messages do the customers respond? Where do the patterns emerge?
The most important question to ask about a business situation – whether positive or negative – is “Why?” There may not be a straightforward answer. It may take a hypothesis that will lead to a theory about “Why.” A hypothesis is a guess, an assumption. A theory is tested. Sometimes it has to be retested. This is where marketing can be both a science and an art.
Signs aren’t meant to be distractions, they’re meant to show the way, even when logic tells us it shouldn’t be that way.