Three Keys for Success in Business (and in Life)

Over the years I’ve learned a bit about business—what to do, what not to do. Honestly, the most important things are the ones we all learned in kindergarten (to paraphrase the title of Robert Fulghum’s well-known book)…things like tell the truth, play fair, don’t hit people, say please and thank you, clean up your messes, etc. But to build on those fundamentals, here are three simple rules to help you succeed in business (or in life, for that matter). At least they sound simple.

Key #1: Under-Promise and Over-Deliver

If I had to pick just one rule for success in business, it would be this one. Aren’t we happier when we get more than we bargain for? Don’t we want to pay less than expected? Get something faster than anticipated? Don’t we love it when a product or service we purchase delights us beyond our expectations?

There’s a lot to unpack in this idea of over-delivering. It starts by meeting customers’ or clients’ needs at a high level of quality, competence and service, and then going a little further. It means offering competitive pricing (not inflate pricing just to be able to charge less or offer a discount or rebate). Ultimately it means consistently delivering a little more. If we promised a dozen, deliver a baker’s dozen. If we promised something in five days, deliver it in four. As often as possible we should try to surprise and delight our clients or customers.

And for goodness’ sake, if we can’t do more than we say we’ll do, we should at least do what we say we’ll do. Underdelivering is the best way to hurt a relationship—business or personal.

How does this help us succeed in business? It says we care more about our customers than our bottom line. It shows we care more about long-term relationships than short-term gain. 

Key #2: Never Burn Bridges

There’s a scene in the movie You’ve Got Mail when Tom Hanks says to Meg Ryan (shortly after his mega-bookstore chain puts her little independent bookstore out of business), “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” After which, Meg Ryan unloads in a classic soliloquy about how that just means it wasn’t personal to him, but it sure as hell was personal to her. It’s hard to separate our business and personal lives, because as much as we try to compartmentalize, we’re the same people in both places. We get our feelings hurt in both our busines and personal worlds. We might be respectful and considerate most of the time, but we can also hold grudges, get angry or resentful, try to get even, and all the rest of the things we should never do.

In my experience, no key has had better long-term business benefits than this one. When customers are unhappy, apologize and try to make it right. Don’t burn the bridges, even if they hurt your feelings or are unreasonable. When a client with whom you’ve had a long relationship leaves you to sign with your competitor—be gracious, even if you might be tempted to act resentful in the moment. Ask what you could have done better, ask if you can stay in touch. Don’t run the bridge.

How does this help with business success? I’ve seen it happen very frequently that former clients someday call to reconnect—often after moving on to a new job at a different company. Referrals and repeat business from customers (or former customers) are golden. Plus, isn’t it just better to go through life without a lot of negative baggage from the past?

Key #3: Respond to People in a Timely Manner

This one may not seem to have as much gravitas as the first two. But in our hectic day-to-day lives, it can sometimes be the little things that matter most. 

We all have too much to do. Too many emails, voicemails, texts and chats to respond to, on top of our already way-too-long to-do lists. Most days we just want it all to stop! It’s easy to forget that on the other end of those emails, voicemails, texts and chats are people wondering if we got their messages—and perhaps anxiously awaiting a response. They are all busy too, and maybe your prompt answer lets them cross something off their to-do list or somehow makes their day a little better.

My rules of thumb are:

  • We should reply to text or chat messages quickly (as soon as we can get to them, or at most within a few hours) 
  • We should reply to emails and voicemails the same day (or at most within 24 hours). 
  • If we can’t provide a thorough response within that timeframe, we should reply with, “Hey, Bob, message received. I’m working on this and I’ll get back to you by…”

How does this help us succeed in business? It demonstrates that we pay attention and listen when our customers, colleagues, partners and friends talk. It shows that we respect their time, as we want them to respect ours.

Do as I say, not as I do

As parents, we often find ourselves giving advice to our children that we have a hard time practicing ourselves. I wish I could say that I have always practiced these three keys faithfully, yet I know that I’ve fallen short more often than not. Maybe the forth key should be no regrets 🙂 The first step is awareness. After that, it’s up to us to just do our best.

Finally, note that I didn’t say THE three keys to business success. I’m sure there are many more that are also very important (feel free to share yours in the comments below). But, if we can try to do the three things in this post as often as possible, we will be making deposits in our relationship bank accounts (business and personal) so that when we inevitably fall short, we have a balance to draw upon.

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