Small business promotion with retail speaker Tom Shay
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Abbott and Costello teach business strategy

It is about ‘who’ and ‘what’

In the mid 1930’s a burlesque act of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello was formed. Of all their performances over 22 years, the one they are most famous for is entitled, ‘Who’s on first’. In the routine the two performers are talking about a baseball team that Abbott is going to manage. Costello is asking Abbott the names of the players on the team. Abbott states that many professional baseball players have unusual names as witnessed by his new team.

Without repeating the masterful routine, the position and the names of players mentioned were:
First base: Who  Second base: What  Third base: I don’t know  Left field: Why
Center field: Because  Pitcher: Tomorrow  Catcher: Today  Shortstop: I don’t care

Listening to the Abbott and Costello routine, which you can easily find online, you will hear that Costello is confused. In asking Abbot who is playing on the team, one of Costello’s first question is, Who’s on first?” From there Abbott and Costello go back and forth as Abbott attempts to tell Costello the names of the players.

Like that confusion I see businesses are equally confused today. They are struggling to understand why they do not have as much business as they used to. They don’t understand why they are unable to command the loyalty of the customers that their business once did.

If they were to listen to Abbott and Costello, they would find the solution within that funny routine; using an analogy from baseball, these businesses don’t know the position they should be playing. The business may sell a product, food, or provide a service. The prime time of the business was many years ago. The business might have never been thought of as being progressive, but at a time when there were fewer choices for people to spend their money, the business was profitable and busy. They did all they needed to do for the business to succeed.

This earlier time, when the business was more successful, the business was known by what they sold. The strategy of a successful business was simply to attract more market share. ‘What’ was the second baseman for Abbott’s team.

There were signs, much like those used in baseball that should have given a business clues about changes that would be coming. Any business in a community that fails to look toward tomorrow is doomed. Tomorrow was the pitcher for Abbott’s team.

Most baseball games last only nine innings, but many businesses thought today would last forever. To them, tomorrow would surely be just like today. For the insurance agent, they continued to expect that all their customers would either walk in or call to renew their policies. The restaurant thought people would forever want the same meals; no consideration was given to the changes in what Americans liked, healthy options or portions.

 ‘Today’ did not happen all at once, it was a gradual change that many businesses did not see coming, but now they see it. Today was the catcher for Abbott’s baseball team.

For some business owners when asked about how they see their business some twenty years in the future, the answer is, ‘I don’t know’. Perhaps the biggest challenge the business owner had would be that of determining who would be the next generation or person to operate the business. They think the business will continue to exist.   ‘I don’t know’ was Abbott’s third baseman.

Having seen that tomorrow became today, and today bore little resemblance to its predecessor, why haven’t the businesses made changes to themselves so they will be in business in the next twenty years? Or why won’t they at least close the business so that the community can get a new business in that location? ‘Why’ played left field for Abbott’s baseball team.

There are two players on Abbott’s team that we do not have the space in which to elaborate nor do we have the desire; ‘Because’, the center fielder and ‘I don’t care’ the short stop. There is nothing we can do about the business owner with an answer of ‘I don’t care’ and the part of the sentence that comes after ‘Because’ is not likely to be an answer that is logical.

Abbott and Costello do not name the right fielder, but there is one position we have not mentioned; the first baseman. His name is ‘Who’. This is the key to solving the problem; when Abbott said, or Costello asked, ‘Who’s on first?’ they were sharing what has been the problem and what the solution is.

A business that identifies itself by ‘what’ they sell or do is likely to always be looking for customers that want their product or service. We have just observed how the ‘what’ has changed over the years. When the business fails to change the what, they are likely to be looking at a continually diminishing group of customers to market to.

Business is, and always should be, about the ‘who’. Paying attention to the customer means the business changes as the customer changes.

 ‘Who’s on first?’ Name the most important factor to a customer; name the first consideration a business should have and the answer will always be the customer. That’s who! Because who is on first.

Tom Shay is a fourth generation small business owner providing proven management and business building ideas through his Profits Plus Seminars, Profits Plus Solutions coaching, books authored, and articles written. Tom can be reached at 727-464-2182 or through his web site:

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