I write about Live Production, IT Infrastructure, and Leadership.
♥️🤔🙏💪🙋♂️– that's me.
♥️ – Love is my highest goal.
🤔 – Curiosity drives me.
🙏 – my love for Jesus guides my decisions.
💪 – With boldness I realize goals.
🙋♂️ – I make a contribution and try to make a huge difference.
If you are a portable church or a church with fixed installations, one of the important components are your cables. Treat them well and they will treat you well. If you maintain your cables well, you will safe time and money.
As Saddleback Berlin we always had to work with boundaries such as time constraints , budget constraints and so on. We want to create a great Worship experience but can not get away from those limitations.
We are struggling with accepting any kind of boundaries. We always ask ourselves: “Isn’t there a way to simplify this? There must be a better way.” And I encourage you to have someone in the team who does this all the time. It is somehow inconvenient to get those questions but it helps you think out of the box.
At Saddleback Berlin we questioned the way we setup our stage and one part of it is how we do our cabling. We basically sticked to the principle to use the shortest cable possible.
On stage we implemented multi-core cables which bundle a set of input and outputs in one thick cable. Additionally we plug our instruments and mics with the shortest cables possible to those multi-cores. We also teach our people how to coil cables which helps reducing setup time.
Let’s dig a little deeper in those three areas:
1. Keep the multi-core cables short
With a multi-core cable several cables are combined in one line. Usually there is a row of plugs at one end and a strip with several connectors at the other end.
At Saddleback Berlin we are using a digital snake with 32 inputs and 16 outputs to connect the stage with the sound board with just one Cat 6 cable (RJ45). On stage we use several smaller multi-core cables to provide connections at several positions of our stage.
With multi-core cables it is fairly hard to find the exact needed length so we end up buying multi-cores always longer than we need them. But when we are having our stage always in the same size and in always the same building we can reduce the range of those multi-core cables by just tying them shorter and fixing this length with a cable tie.
The second binding is then loose, so that every stage manager knows that he can release this binding and then the stage box has exactly the right length. Each Stage Box is labeled with the same terms as shown in the table above, i.e. Front, Left and Right.
2. Keep the cables for instruments and microphones short
We use color coding for the cables that we make available to the musicians. Each color stands for one cable length. In our cable box we then have a small manual explaining the meaning of the colored marking (the cable length) and then write behind it for which use this cable length is suitable (e.g. 5m for singers and 3m for the keyboard or guitar). The shorter the cable is, the faster it is rewound at the end and the longer the cable is, the worse it is usually coiled and next Sunday the trouble is big if someone tries to get the cable apart again.
3. Learn how to coil cables
We don’t explain to everyone how to roll the cables correctly and knot-free. From my point of view this is a waste of time. We expect our Stage Manager and Producer to know how to roll up the cables correctly. They are also the only ones to roll up multi-core cables and cables longer than 5m.
Well coiled cables come loose immediately; in fact I can hold a well coiled cable at one end and then throw it out straight and without loops or knots on the floor. With a badly rolled up cable it can take – depending on the length – a minute until it is unknotted. The shorter the cable, the less problematic it is, so it is worthwhile to use short cables for the majority of cables.
You should learn how to coil cables properly and teach your Stage Managers and Producers how to do it. I found this video sequence which helps a lot to learn it:
This may have been my shortest article ever but the principles are simple and the effect is huge. If you keep the cables as short as possible (but never shorter than needed of course), if you tie your multi-core cables and if you teach your core people how to coil longer cables it will pay off.
You will be quicker with the setup as well as with the tear down. This will result in more time for practice and sound checks. This will ultimately benefit a better worship experience which is our end goal.
You can see that even a small thing like the cabling will benefit your end goal if you do it right.
Let me know what you’ve done to optimise your cabling by posting a comment below. Also feel free to point any question to me.
At churches we are always challenged to create a great sound experience with little budget and time at hand. We made great experience with our digital soundboard and I will explain why I think you should go for a digital soundboard instead an analog version nowadays.
I will explain you why a digital soundboard helps you get more variety in your sound, how it helps you to continuously improve your sound, how you can separate duties, how a digital soundboard helps you train your people at sound and that it comes with a much better price.
A disclaimer: I’m biased for Behringer
The one and only digital console I knew at the time I was studying audio engineering was the Yamaha 01V. It was the first affordable digital console but its usability was just horrible.
At this time Behringer as a vendor was just seen as the evil one. They did cheap versions of existing devices. So when I first saw the X32 in a church I was really disappointed. But the Production Director at this time just encouraged me to give it a try. Which I did and I was really impressed and excited.
Therefore I can speak very well about the X32. We use it at Saddleback Berlin and we made great experience with it. It is a good price with a huge stack of features so I can definitely recommend it although there are a bunch of other great digital soundboards out there.
But now let’s start with the five reasons why you should choose a digital soundboard over an analog one. Let’s go!
(1) A digital soundboard brings more variety to your sound
There are two reasons why a digital soundboard brings more variety to your sound.
First, there is no direct connection between your physical inputs and your channels. This gives you flexibility in raising the same input signal for different purposes. There is also no direct connection between your physical output and your mix busses, inserts or matrixes.
Second, with the utilisation of scene files, presets, and cue lists you can influence the sound on the go and you can still ensure a minimum standard quality. Let’s dig a little deeper in these aspects.
(a) Reuse input channels for different purposes
With a digital soundboard you can route any input channel to any fader on your console. Some soundboards are more flexible in such configurations (e.g. Allen & Heath).
On the X32 you should not route too excessively because it can be very confusing to troubleshoot problems.
The way we make use of it at Saddleback Berlin is we like to reuse some of the input signals. For example, our announcer is using the same microphone as one of the vocalists. But of course a singing voice sounds very different then a talking voice and one person has a very different frequency spectrum and dynamic than another person.
So, using the same settings for equaliser, compressor, gates and effect devices would lead into one voice sounding great the other sounding awkward. And if you decide to go for a consensual setting both voices sound strange. Of course you can make use of a second microphone, but with a digital soundboard you don’t need to.
As long as you’re okay using the same microphone type for a singing voice and a talking voice you can just route the same input to another channel on your soundboard and use a totally different preset. When the vocalist is handing over the mic to the announcer you mute the vocalist and unmute the announcer and both sound great.
(b) Prepare an instrument for different situations
At Saddleback Berlin we love the acoustic guitar. Sometimes she plays alone, sometimes she is completely covered by the keys or by the electric guitar. It is nearly impossible to make a setting that works well if she is playing alone or the full band is playing.
With our digital soundboard we have established an acoustic guitar setting that works well with the whole band and we have another setting that works perfect when the guitar is playing alone.
So, if the environment changes during a song I can just bring one fader up and the other down. I can tell you if you do this well no one will notice it’s two presets they will just recognise the acoustic guitar is always present and always sounds great.
(c) Make use of scene files, presets and cue lists
A scene file (some soundboards call it show file) is a basic settings file for your soundboard. When you load this file you just go back to a baseline of your soundboard setup. The routing, the channel allocation, the settings per channel, the sends per channel, the settings for the mix busses and for the effects are just reset to the baseline you once declared. It’s your personal “factory reset”. It can be used for a general basic setup of your board or as a real show file for a certain tour.
In addition a preset file is doing the same for a single channel. You can just load the settings for your acoustic guitar to any channel you want. Doing this will reload those settings such as channel name, gain levels, insert configurations, dynamics, equaliser and auxiliary sends into the selected channel.
With a cue list you can create snapshots of certain aspects of your soundboard and then create a playlist order of such snapshots which you can then recall during the service in that particular order. So, instead of using two channels for the same acoustic guitar you can also load these presets into the same channel and create two snapshots which you then recall whenever needed.
I personally struggle with such cue lists because I don’t like the way it is implemented on the X32. I have more control when I use two channels instead of a cue list. But you will definitely benefit from using a cue list when you need to do a lot of changes at once.
(2) A digital soundboard helps you continuously improve your sound much easier
Just to make it clear: the Beatles didn’t have a digital soundboard neither did they have a lot of the effects and filters we are using today and they were great, creative musicians and build an awesome sound.
Nevertheless our ears are used to what we listen to on Spotify or on radio and thus certain types of sounds. When those ears are stepping into our churches it’s easier for them to connect and feel “at home” when they can relate to the style and sound of the music. We want our people to connect to God and this is just easier when they can relate to the music.
That said it pushes a lot of pressure on the worship team and on us, the sound engineers. And I can tell you with the constraints we have to manage this is much easier with a digital soundboard.
Use and improve your presets
At Saddleback Berlin we reuse our presets every single Sunday. Now we have people who are not yet very familiar with all the settings of a soundboard. But that’s not critical. When we make use of those preset files we can focus on balancing the mix and create a good sound experience this way.
Some of our sound engineers are very experienced and they get to the soundboard prepared and willing to optimise one certain part of it. It might be they don’t like the current settings of the acoustic guitar or they want to check the mic position and the settings for the kick drum to get more kick out of it.
They play around with those settings and at the end of the service they conclude a certain sound is now better than before. These new settings are then stored in the related presets file and maybe also in the general scene file. So from next Sunday on this is our new reference.
This way we constantly improve our sound and develop a better experience at church.
(3) A digital soundboard can be operated by several people for different purposes
Most of the digital soundboards allow remote controlling and you should make use of it.
There are several use cases where this can help you improving your mix but the main one is that someone can take care of monitor mixes for the worship team and the sound engineer just takes care of the sound in the house.
At Saddleback Berlin given the time constraints we have this was a major milestone to optimise communication between the worship and the production team. Now the sound engineers were able to focus on the mix and were not distracted by any requests from musicians regarding their in ear monitor mix.
This remote controlling also allows another person to mix an overflow room, a nursery room or maybe the sound of a TV screen in the coffee bar area.
The only thing you need to make this happen is (in most cases) a Wifi router, which you connect to your soundboard, maybe additional Wifi repeaters so you always have a good connection wherever you need it. Then you need a tablet or a bigger smartphone where you install the app of your soundboard so you can control it from there.
(4) With a digital soundboard you can do virtual sound checks
“What is a virtual sound check?” you might ask. It means you record your service on a multi channel recorder and later you play it back into your soundboard and it seems like the band is playing live.
Those virtual sound checks are amazing for training sessions. You can replay the whole session wherever you want and your team can learn how to mix certain situations in a more relaxed surrounding.
But of course you can do those virtual sound checks with an analog soundboard as well. There is just the question how do you record the channels?
Most digital soundboards come with a multi channel digital output. That means you may plug your computer per USB or Thunderbolt cable, you start a recording application (Logic, Adobe Audition, …) and name your channels and here you are.
(5) A digital soundboard is more cost effective
I bet when you grow as a church or just in what you expect from your console, you quickly reach the point where the digital board supports you better and is also much cheaper than a comparable analog setup. Let us compare both setups to see the difference.
Let’s imagine a setup you might find a lot in churches: we have a band with two singers, one of them playing a guitar, someone who plays keys and we have a drum set which we take three microphones for. Additionally we have two people making announcements or the sermon itself.
We want the monitoring to be individual for every musician and singer. This way we simplify communication and improve hearing experience. Best case we even go for In Ear monitoring to ensure lower stage volume and improve control for the sound in the house. Although the monitoring system is not relevant for the choice of the soundboard, the number of mix or auxiliary busses we need to feed the monitoring has a huge impact on the soundboard we need.
If we take all of this we might have the following setup for both cases: two mics for the singers which can be reused by the announcers, a DI box for the guitar, two DI boxes for the keyboard, three mics for the drums (kick, snare, one overhead).
The analog setup
We search for a soundboard that has a minimum of 12 inputs and at least four mix buses or auxiliary channels. Those four channels are required for the four monitor mixes. This is a very minimal setup because it gives literally no space for growing and improving things.
The Yamaha MG20 XU comes with 20 input channels and 4 auxiliary channels, one of which can be used for the internal effect device. The mixer even comes with a compressor in every channel although you can just set a threshold, other settings are not given.
The mixer comes at a price of 649€.
This console is neat. It’s basically everything there what you might need for mixing in a church. On the other hand when you have more practice and you want to continue to improve the sound or your band grows you will probably miss some functionality.
You might then want 8, 12 or even 16 mix busses because you need more monitor mixes or you want to bring the signal to a nursery room or to an interpreter. You want more different effects on your mixes. Or you want more options for equalising or compression.
In this case you might choose the Soundcraft GB8-24+4 it’s worth 2.900€. This mixer brings four equalisers with two bands having a flexible frequency. The board comes with eight mix buses. It also comes with a compressor in every channel.
So now you have a much better mixer that gives you more flexibility and room for growth. Still you will experience the boundaries of having just two flexible equaliser bands and your compressors lack of options.
In comparison: the Behringer X32
I could take just another digital console but as I shared I just know this one the best. There are way better consoles but the X32 is definitely affordable for smaller churches and it comes with a great set of functionalities.
The X32 comes with 32 inputs and 16 outputs plus additional 6 auxiliary outputs. 16 mix busses will serve you well for a lot of cases. Every channel comes with four full parametric equalisers and a compressor with a full set of parameters (frequency, bandwidth and gain).
All of these components come with a reasonable quality and the soundboard comes with a price of 1.700 €.
You might think why should you ever need 16 mix busses? I can tell you this might not be relevant for you now as it was for us during the first two years. But then we grew in our attendance (which I’m praying for it will happen to you as well) and in our expectation for quality. And finally we utilised them all.
Conclusion on the price comparison
The analog Yamaha console for 650€ might serve you now but it creates boundaries just from the start and my opinion is your soundboard should never stop you from growing and improving.
The analog Soundcraft still has some boundaries. However it comes with a much higher price with its 2,900€.
In comparison the digital Behringer X32 with its 1,700€ comes at a reasonable price and a lot of inputs, outputs, mix busses and a great set of functionality. It will support you best to grow as a worship team and in improving your sound.
I’m really excited about digital soundboards, as you can tell. But I hope this list helped you to understand all the benefits you get with a digital soundboard.
With a digital soundboard you get more variety in your sound. It helps you to continuously improve your sound. It also helps you to let more people work with the soundboard at the same time and it helps you train your people.
All of this comes with a much better price than with the analog soundboards you find in the market. Yes, analog soundboards start at a lower price so it seems to be easier to start, but this comes with a trade off and I want to motivate you to steward your budget well and that doesn’t mean to buy cheap but to buy smart.
I love to see your comments or questions on this and I’m happy to answer them as best I can.
“It’s easier to just do it myself!” Did you hear this phrase before? Did you have this thought before?
I did. I am a certified Audio Engineer. For more than two decades I’m doing live sound in churches. I’m hearing everything. I see everything. A speaker turned in the wrong direction. An equalizer switched off which was on before. A vocal sound with too much compression. A de-esser set to strong or bypassed.
Sometimes it’s hard to just enjoy Worship because I‘m constantly observing every aspect of the production. Now there are these volunteers you know? And they don’t see it. They don’t hear it. So, why even care, I better do it myself, right?
I will explain you why we should thrive for higher purposes and I will explain you how I overcame those thoughts and implemented healthy procedures and systems.
Why you better don’t do it yourself
We need churches with loving atmospheres
I’m serving as a Production Leader at the Berlin, Germany campus of Saddleback. In Berlin less than 2% would claim to be a follower of Christ. Also, people in Berlin are very isolated. Many people would say they do not have a real friend.
So, there is a lot to do as a church. We need to create a welcoming and inviting family so that people find a home. We need to create an atmosphere of authentic love. First and foremost that can only happen if we let Jesus change our heart and we let him open our eyes for other people.
People are searching for “intimacy, meaning and a destiny” (Soul Cravings, Erwin McManus) which affects every aspect of our lives. And it is affected also by what we do as Production Leaders. Jesus created people with certain gifts, passions, and abilities and who are we to judge people and stand in their way?
The production of a Sunday service is one of the most undervalued ministries in the church. Only when it’s done bad everyone notices it. Rarely will people notice when we do a good job and really mixed the worship as best as possible. They will all just say: the worship was great today.
Because of that it’s usually people that are shy or introverted to tend to serve in those positions. Maybe they love music and worship in particular and they want to support it, but they would feel very uncomfortable on a stage. As a Production Leader it’s my job to create a great atmosphere in my team where people love to serve and they feel appreciated for what they do. And since no one else might do it, you as a Production Leader need to do it.
As a Production Team we are part of the church and when we as a church want to create a welcoming and loving atmosphere we as the Production Team should do the same. Our job is not only to create a great worship. Our job is to create a great church.
We need more churches
Less than 2% of people living in Berlin would claim to be a follower of Jesus. Heaven has enough space for 100% and God has never created a person He doesn’t love and He has never created a person He doesn’t want to live forever. All that to say it’s a lot to do for us as churches. We need more churches, we need bigger churches, we need healthier churches.
Close to where I live there is a small park with a tower that plays bells every hour. It plays a very old hymn from the 17th century which the church in which I grew up sang a lot. Every time I cross this park and it plays this song I begin singing the lyrics – very oldish style lyrics. I sometimes imagine every person I pass would sing this song as well because everyone just knows it and loves to praise our Lord.
I think that’s what God wants. We trust him completely and we praise him for everything in response. So Production Leaders all around the globe: we need more churches, healthier churches, small and big churches.
We need more Production Leaders
If we have more churches or bigger churches we need more sound engineers, slide operators, light operators, stage managers and so on. Maybe today you’re a church with 80 attendees and you might think why do I even need all of these roles?
Good question and I would throw back the following questions: What would your church and especially your team look like if your attendance grows to 500 people? Or what would it look like if your pastor plants four more churches and he now needs tech leaders for those?
If we lack developing new people in tech, worship will not grow but shrink in quality and thus will hinder the church to grow further. I can tell you I don’t want to be the guy being responsible the church can not grow as expected. It’s people’s eternal lives at stake. Too important to miss that.
All that to say there is enough reason to overcome our quick reaction: “I better do it myself.” So let’s make sure we don’t fall into this trap. But how?
How we overcome “I better do it myself”
As churches we need more great production teams and leaders. So, the main reason we should overcome our “I better do it myself” mentality is we need more sound, graphics, light and video guys. And God is preparing people for such ministries.
Therefore the only way to overcome this unhealthy mentality and behaviour is to understand our role is not to make the production but to make a great production team.
If you’re a pastor and you want to make this happen you must find the right leader for this position and as a leader in this position you need to understand the why of your ministry, you need to implement the right tools and you need to establish reliable mechanisms.
Define the why of your role
If you read this and you’re a pastor I encourage you to search for someone with leadership potential, a passion for music and an understanding of tech and give him the responsibility to lead the team. Sometimes you find those people in the worship team and you need to re-position them. Although this is painful first it will serve both teams in the long run and ultimately the church will benefit from it a lot.
Now you’re given the responsibility of “doing tech”. As mentioned before “tech” is one of the most undervalued ministries in church. “Just make sure we can hear everything, it’s not getting too loud and there is never a feedback” might be your job description.
Don’t get me wrong. I know there are more important things to do as a church for sure. Let me compare it to my home. If you would ask me what’s most important in my home I would probably say something like time together, love, kindness, fun and so on. That’s at the heart of our family and for sure this will instantly change if we have a power outage. Power is a very foundational and existential service nowadays. As a society we’re depending on it.
Today music plays a vital role in the lives of people. Thanks to streaming services like Spotify we have all music of the planet at our fingertips. The way music is produced today is very different to how music was produced during the times of the Beatles. A lot of technology goes into the production today. So whether they know it or not people come into churches with a certain expectation how music sounds. And the more we meet such expectation the more they feel at home. There are other more important aspects but this is still relevant.
If you lead your production team you need to explain their role in the health and the growth of the church. It’s important they know they’re just not moving faders or showing the next slide. They’re helping people to connect to God. And when people connect to Him they will find their purpose in live and ultimately serve the whole Kingdom.
If your team understands the whole picture it’s way more exciting to serve in this team.
You always hire more than you actually need
You might think as a church of your size you just need one at the soundboard and one clicking the slides. Both are willing to come every Sunday so I just need those two.
With such conclusion you just decided to not grow in the team and in conclusion this might be a bottleneck in the further growth of the church itself.
So be sure you make the church aware of you’re always open for new people to join. New people can always shadow existing ones and if you have more people in the team you can also always think of next milestones to improve the quality of the sound, the graphics and so on.
Implement the right tools
Tools can help you a lot to simplify things. These are the most important tools we use (in brackets you can see the specific tools we use at Saddleback Berlin):
A tool for managing and scheduling people (Planning Center Online Services)
A tool to organize songs and program flow and communicate it with the team (Planning Center Online Services)
A tool to communicate with the team (WhatsApp)
A flexible and programmable (digital) mixer (Behringer X32)
A tool for preparing and showing slides for lyrics, announcements and the sermon (ProPresenter)
A tool for playing music for intro, outro etc. (Spotify)
The more you can integrate those tools with one another, the more you can concentrate on your people.
You will find a lot information about those tools in other articles, so I will resist the temptation to explain their roles and reasons here in detail.
Implement reliable mechanisms
This one is the hardest part because now you need to reflect on what makes a great production at your church. What makes a great sound? What makes a great visual appearance? What makes a great lightning experience?
When you figure out what aspects make a great production you implement mechanisms that ensure those aspects are always taken care of, independent from the team on stage or at the front of house.
A couple of easy mechanisms to implement are:
Put labels on your cables that show their length or their purpose
Make the description of those labels visible evrywhere for everyone
Teach people to search for descriptions of labels; self service is always quicker and the learning curve is much better
Put labels on inputs and outputs so that their purpose is clear
Use multi core cables
Use multi core cables to bring inputs and outputs close to where the worship team has their mics and instruments
Think about using several multi cores not just one; several smaller multi-cores at certain positions are better than one big one in the middle
Use a digital sound board and make use of it excessively
Use a standard show or scene file which represents your standard setup for things that never or rarely change (sections, layers, effects, routing, matrix etc.)
Use preset files for every vocal and every instrument and store them somewhere centrally (i.e. Google Drive or Dropbox)
Every Sunday load the standard scene file and then all needed preset files. This way you ensure a certain level of quality
Every Sunday concentrate on the whole mix but also on a certain channel to optimise
After the Sunday when you found better settings for a certain vocal or instrument, store this setting as your new preset file and use this one from then on
Create checklists for every single position
The checklists describe the order of activities for setup, rehearsal and tear down
Review those checklists regularly and improve them whenever needed
Train your people
Train them on your mechanisms
Train them on the checklists
Teach them on their job role
Ask them for how they see and experience their role regularly
In October 2019 we had a special event at Saddleback Berlin. We where celebrating our sixth anniversary. For this special event we brought our whole church together which usually meets in two services. In addition we had a special guest, Rick Warren, author of „Purpose Driven Live“ (sold 16m times).
This Sunday we where 700 people in one room. This is essentially four times more people in one room than usual.
The event was a blast in all aspects. We made mistakes but we get the setup done on time, the worship was amazing, the sermon was great and we had a lot of fun as a team. But we also get aware of the fact we’re not yet ready to be a church of 700 people at the same time. We were able to handle it once but that doesn’t mean we can handle it every week.
The whole team was very excited about that specific event so everyone wanted to take part of it. It was a much bigger effort than our usual Sunday in terms of planning and operation. Would that team have to handle every Sunday this size the team would drown.
So we’re not yet a church of a 700. We would need to grow the team in terms of number of people and in terms of our skills. We need to grow and optimize our mechanisms.
Wether we are a church of 50 people or a church of 5,000 people we always need to think about how we structure our team for growth. The mission of our team stays the same independent of our size, but our team structure, our mechanisms, our tools and our checklists will look very different.
That’s why there will never be a status quo and we always stay flexible in the way we do and structure things.
Wether I’m a founder or a director or a team leader with my team I’m building something that serves someone which I can call “my customer”. We tend to forget for whom we are providing our products or services.
This morning I had a short conversation with the bus driver. I usually need to scan my ticket to validate I’m allowed to take the bus. Those scanners are broken quite often (which is another interesting topic to write about 😃) as it was this morning. So, I said to the driver: “It’s broken, isn’t it?” “Yeah it is, unfortunately. But no worries, just get in.”
I was a bit surprised about the moment and had to figure out why. I realized this bus driver was really polite. When was the last time I did interact with a bus driver not being annoyed by people? Here he was, just a very nice bus driver. He was old, maybe in his late 50s or early 60s.
Companies exist for a mission – doesn’t they?
I’m making this up a bit now because I do not really have enough data to proof it, but I think people who are older received a better communication what their job is about. The senior management knew their company exist for a purpose and everything needs to be aligned to such purpose – the organizational structure, the processes and people need to understand their role in that overall purpose.
A bus driver’s job is to bring people safely from A to B and let them have a good experience about the ride. A woman working in a bank is supposed to make opening a bank account a pleasant experience so they share it with friends. A man in a man’s clothing store is supposed to help me to find a suit that suits me well.
A company exist for a purpose. It has a mission. Usually this purpose is to solve a problem of a customer whether it is a person or a company. When you meet the people at the forefront of such companies you can really see how they’re infected by such purpose. And that’s usually a great moment of customer experience. Young companies keep that mission alive as if it is still their first day.
If I have a great customer experience I will naturally share it with other people. Nowadays even more than ever because it is easier to share experiences with many people but also it seems like those type of experiences are fewer.
Executive’s focus change to revenue and costs – is that healthy?
In a lot of companies over time the focus shift from their initial purpose to revenue and costs. It’s nothing bad about making money and controlling your costs. When you find a problem worth solving and have a great solution for it, you should also consider how to make money with it and if the price would be accepted by customers for that particular solution. You need a reliable business model.
It’s more a question of priorities. Every person in the company needs to understand, why this company exist. What problem are we solving? For whom are we solving that problem? Do we earn the trust of our customers? Do we earn being paid fairly for what we do?
If we keep all those questions in mind then “The Score Will Take Care Of Itself” as Bill Walsh describes in his book where he explains his leadership approach as the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. With his leadership approach the team won the super bowl five times. His assumption was to just do the right things and then as a result you will win.
Over time companies tend to be more afraid of their revenue than about their purpose and that’s when it gets unhealthy. If sales no longer grow as usual or even decline, this is not a sign that the purpose of a company is lost, but a sign that the problem that was initially solved is now sufficiently solved or is better solved by others. It is time to look for a new problem or to work on new solutions.
When such things happen, it’s just a sign that we as a company have rested too long on the successes of the past and started thinking too late about new products and services: What is the next problem that we can solve, in terms of our mission as a company? With one companies mission there are always several problems to solve.
I remember that almost 30 years ago I learned at school that we would run out of oil today and that it would lead to great chaos. We were too dependent on this raw material for transport, electricity and heat. Obviously it didn’t happen this way. But now with the climate change we are faced with an even bigger problem.
We had 30 years to fix one issue that would have reduced the problem of the climate dramatically. But we haven’t. Change is expensive. And as long as you focus on revenue and cost you will never lead through such a relevant change.
But the need for change piles up over time and so do the costs related to this changes.
The automotive industry in Germany is an example for such behavior. Our cars are loved worldwide: Mercedes, BMW, Porsche. The world loves our cars. They are comfortable and fast. We invented the automobile (Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler). Why? They wanted to build a vehicle that could drive “independently“, without horses, to allow more people mobility.
For 30 years we have known that we must say goodbye to combustion engines. We know that all our mobility depends on it. And we do nothing. Because it costs something. We have lost the vision of providing mobility for all and are focusing on our own sales and profits.
In the end not only the automotive industry in Germany suffers, but since 25% of the German employees work directly or indirectly for the automotive industry, the whole nation suffers.
Now other automobile companies, such as Toyota or Tesla, which have been dealing with alternative engines for many years, are entering the field. We smiled at them for a long time and now they are increasingly taking over the leadership of the entire industry. We just slept through it. Our own interests outweighed the interests of our customers.
It is not healthy to pursue turnover and profit as top priorities. In the long run, this will have trade offs. But if we have the customer as our top priority, then we feel better when requirements and needs change and we can respond to them better, are prepared for them earlier and can tailor our products and services better to our customers again.
Customer’s expectations change – stay curious about it and be obsessed for customers
One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature. … People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’.
I used to buy movies until I could rent them in a store until I could rent them via an online supplier until I could just stream it from Netflix. The experience got better and better for me as a customer.
I used to have a great experience in a retail store when I bought clothes. I’m still willing to pay a higher price on clothes when someone helps me find the right clothes. I just recently went into a jeans store to buy one jeans. I took two jeans, two sweaters and a shirt. I just had a great experience and this is rare nowadays.
What does a customer satisfy? It seems to me such question is asked way to rarely. And maybe your people at the front know really well, but do you ask them? Do you encourage them to make the customer experience better? Do you encourage them to create ideas how to serve customers needs better?
The bigger your team or your company gets the harder it will be to transport the vision to everyone. Your people on the front line who interact with customers on a daily basis always need to know what problems the company wants to solve. They need to always remember what’s the companies vision. This is the only way they can properly structure and focus their own work.
They also need this to be able to better assess where the company is not solving the problems well at the moment. Furthermore, they must have the opportunity to share this information with the company.
People on all levels have to make decisions everyday. The more guidance you give them upfront the more decisions they can make on their own and never need to ask their manager or higher levels in the organization. The more decisions people can make on their own, the quicker your organization can react on certain market conditions.
How to put customers first
Problem understood but now how can we really put customers first? How can we act on it? First, we need to make clear why our organization exists. Second, we need to constantly communicate that mission to all levels of the organization. Third, we need to implement feedback loops so that when we lack to deliver what we promised we get to know this and can act on it and failures are not repeated. And fourth, we encourage everyone to invent & simplify.
So, let’s dig deeper in every topic.
(1) Make the organizations mission clear
Why does this organization exist? What would the world miss, when we wouldn’t exist anymore? How and to what extend is your company making a difference in the world?
This is not an easy question. But if you aren’t able to phrase your mission how should your sales people know? How should your support team know? How should your business development team know or your marketing team?
In his legendary video at TEDxPuget Sound (back in September 2009) Simon Sinek explains how great leaders inspire action by defining the Why? of an organization:
A companies mission statement is the companies purpose described in a nutshell. It’s describing the Why of your organization.
Here are some mission statements from different companies. Review them for yourself and ask yourself which of those would inspire you as an employee working daily in such organization and making a difference in every customer or team interaction:
The mission of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is to work for the protection of all human rights for all people; to help empower people to realize their rights; and to assist those responsible for upholding such rights in ensuring that they are implemented.
When Amazon.com launched in 1995, it was with the mission “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.” This goal continues today, but Amazon’s customers are worldwide now, and have grown to include millions of Consumers, Sellers, Content Creators, and Developers & Enterprises. Each of these groups has different needs, and we always work to meet those needs, innovating new solutions to make things easier, faster, better, and more cost-effective.
We are one of the biggest producers of premium cars and the world’s biggest manufacturer of commercial vehicles with a global reach. We provide financing, leasing, fleet management, insurance and innovative mobility services.
Siemens is a global powerhouse focusing on the areas of electrification, automation and digitalization. One of the world’s largest producers of energy-efficient, resource-saving technologies, Siemens is a leading supplier of systems for power generation and transmission as well as medical diagnosis. In infrastructure and industry solutions the company plays a pioneering role.
When you formulate your mission think of customers reading it. Is the mission inspiring customers?
Review your mission statement if it is still relevant 10 years from now? How about 50 years or 100 years?
Your mission statement should inspire customers and your employees. It should be relevant for the long term even if the products and services your organization is providing most probably aren’t relevant anymore 50 years from now.
(2) Transport this mission statement into every department and to every single person – constantly and forever
You never just define your mission statement and then hope everyone will get it. You never ever stop to communicate it. When you do it you need to translate it to their everyday lives. What does Tesla’s mission “Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” mean for a line worker or for sales guy in the shop?
Amazon has a very helpful approach to constantly communicate the mission and its meaning to the organization. It’s the Leadership Principles. You find management and staff to quote the Leadership Principles in their daily communications.
Every of these principles have a short description to give a bit more guidance. Those Leadership Principles should help every employee to make decisions on a daily basis that match those principles.
Saddleback Church where I volunteer in leading the Production Team for the Berlin campus has established a set of values which describe our heart and passion. The values together build the acronym S.A.D.D.L.E.B.A.C.K..
Second Chance Grace Place
All Nation Congregation
Deliberate Pathway to Growth
Love in Action
Kid & Family Focused
Many organizations put posters on walls stating the values of the organization. And then no one follows these values, no employee, no middle manager, and even none of the executives.
In this case you can also dispense the posters. Find a way to translate your mission into guidelines for each employee to follow when they need to make decisions, and then highlight on a daily basis how your decisions have been guided by these guidelines. In this way, the guidelines are not just empty words, instead the guidelines are breathed life into and they become actionable.
(3) Establish a feedback loop
If people understand the companies vision and mission and the guidelines to bring this mission to life, they can clearly see where the organization lacks to fulfill it or where it gets off track.
Let’s take the Amazon’s Leadership Principles as an example for teams that work at AWS. A developer might now see where his team doesn’t act frugal (10th principle). A sales guy may see in a customer conversation where he doesn’t work customer obsessed (1st principle) but focuses too much on internal processes. And when his team is involved in it he might write to the team:
“Guys, I just realized we lost #CustomerObsession in the way we handle the current opportunity. The customer is searching for [xyz] and we deliver him [abc]. So, lets get back on track and search for a better architecture to meet his requirements…”
Sometimes the feedback is relevant for managers or executives of a team or department. It should influence their decisions. So we need to establish mechanisms to share such feedback with managers or other departments.
The smaller a company the easier it is to transport feedback to everyone. Everyone has somehow contact to the customer. Everyone is customer-focused. Everyone is willing to establish changes to serve customers better, optimize products, services and the business model. The bigger the organization the harder it gets. Distances between people seeing a problem and people being able to fix the issue gets bigger.
The biggest problem is to prohibit failures as early as possible. Toyota established a methodology called “Stop the Line“.
Stop the Line manufacturing is a technique introduced by Taiichi Ōno in which every employee on the assembly line has a responsibility to push a big red button that stops everything whenever they notice a defect on the assembly line. … His idea … was that by fixing inefficiencies and problems as they occur what you’re doing instead of maximizing your existing process is actually proactively building a better one.
When he put this system into practice he found that some of his managers took his advice and some didn’t. The managers who implemented Stop the Line had their productivity drop by a shocking amount; they were spending much of their time fixing defects on the line rather than actually producing any goods. The managers who hadn’t listened thought this was a great victory for them, and I can just imagine them feeling sorry for poor Taiichi Ōno who would be ruined for having come up with such a horrible and wasteful idea.
Before long, however, something strange started to happen. Slowly but surely the managers that had spent so much time fixing defects instead of producing goods started producing their goods faster, cheaper, and more reliably than their counterparts to the point where the caught up with and then exceeded the lines who hadn’t made improvements. The initial investment in improved process and tools had paid off and Toyota went on to be quite successful using this method. Even today their engineers and managers share a cultural belief that their job is not actually to manufacture cars but instead to learn to manufacture cars better than anyone else.
This is a really good example of establishing a feedback loop. People at the front line realize quickly what’s going wrong. Now put some tools in their hand to make sure those failures will not be repeated and will be fixed as quickly as possible. Establish this “Red Button” in your organization and encourage the teams who really use this “button” and search for root causes and fix those to increase the overall quality of your products, services and company in total.
(4) Encourage every person to simplify and invent – in small and huge ways
When people know the organizations mission and they know the principles behind it, they see where the organization miss opportunities to satisfy customers. They also see where customer expectations change or where new problems evolve. They can see those things better than the leaders reviewing their dashboards.
Now, what if we build mechanisms that people seeing those issues can actually fix them themselves? There are problems that are easily fixable so we only need to encourage people to fix them in their team.
There are other problems where it needs more collaboration to fix the issue. Reasons might vary from the team seeing the issue has no permissions to change it, because the permissions rely on another team to the problem is a cross-functional issue which means several teams need to work together to fix the issue.
Sometimes it needs a whole new product or service to get customer satisfaction to a new level or to solve a new problem that came up with several customers. In this case establish mechanisms that gives people the opportunity to just build those products or services.
Google gives its people 20% slack time where they are supposed to work on projects and products where they think it could be beneficial for the company or customers or both. Products like Google Mail and Google Maps rose from such Slack time.
Amazon has established innovation processes where people with an idea write a six-pager narrative and get funds and support for the project from the senior management. Products like Amazon Web Services and Amazon Go were started by this.
The bigger a company gets the more it tends to protect what it has accomplished instead of reaching out for the next thing to build. We know those stories of companies like Nokia and Kodak who didn’t see the changes coming with smartphones or digital cameras. In 2007 Nokia were on the cover of Forbes with the title: “Can anyone catch the cell phone king?“.
This was almost five months after the announcement of the iPhone at Apple’s own Worldwide Developers Conference in 2007. Less than five years later Nokia was broken by Apple.
Jeff Bezos once wrote in his 2016 Letter to Shareholders: “Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten.”
If you want to stay on track with your organization for the next decades this just means you need to take some serious bets. Although the payoff might be 100 times of your initial investments those payoffs come later, maybe five or even ten years later. The bigger your company gets the more bets you need and neither you nor your closest leadership team can come up with all those ideas to bet on. You need the whole organization to think big and come up with amazing ideas.
Encourage them, and establish mechanisms that support to bet on good ideas. And understand you will not always see it as a good idea. Sometimes you have to disagree and still commit. This is how Jeff Bezos continues to describe it:
This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.
This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.
Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself “well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way. And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I’m just glad they let me in the room at all.
These days we need companies or teams that remind themselves about their purpose. What is our mission? What motivated the founder to start this company? What is the accountability of our team?
The world is changing quickly and todays products are getting irrelevant much quicker than decades ago. So it is more relevant to know the mission of the company and take the products and services of the company as a vehicle to fulfill that mission.
We also need to be aware about the fact those products and services get irrelevant soon, our mission doesn’t. So, what’s the next product or the next service to fulfill that mission. These are bets we need to take. And bets are expensive that’s why they are called bets. And the executive team will not have enough ideas for those bets. We need the entire organization to stay aware of the constant changes needed to fulfill our mission.
At Amazon we say it’s always Day 1 because: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.” (2016 Letter to Shareholders.
If the people in our organization know the mission, they know they guidelines and they know they are encouraged to invent and simplify your organization will come up with a lot of ideas to bet on if this makes the world a better place and serve customers better.
So, let us remind ourselves about our roles as a team or as an organization, and let’s build great products and services and always put our Customers First.