Executive Q&A: OfficeMax Co-founder on How to Win Over Customers

Entrepreneur Michael Feuer shares customer strategies and insights on tackling business challenges.
Customer Experience

Many of the most successful businesses start by spotting new opportunities in common products. OfficeMax co-founder Michael Feuer took common commodities-office supplies-and transformed them into a multibillion dollar empire at its peak.

In his latest book, Tips from the Top: 100 + Award-Winning Columns Proven to Solve Complex Business Puzzles, Feuer shares the lessons he learned as an entrepreneur and CEO in a collection of columns. 1to1 Media caught up with Feuer to discuss the transformation of the retail space, Amazon's strengths and weaknesses, and his next venture.

1to1 Media: What do you want readers to come away with from reading your book?

Michael Feuer:
The takeaway for readers is you can do anything as long as you have a plan. And as I explain in my book, the biggest mistake companies can make is to look at everything through their own lens instead of the eyes of the customer. The challenge is to position your products and services in the perspective of what's in it for the customers.

All marketing in effect is one-to-one marketing. Just like when a politician is speaking with someone, the best marketers make that person think he or she is the only person in the room. Giving the customer what they want, when they want it, at the price they want, in a way that someone else can't, is how you build loyalty. The problem most companies have is they make it more complicated than it is.

Several of your columns are about change. How would you say the retail environment has changed since you co-founded OfficeMax?

MF: Retail has radically changed. Most retailers would say it's because of the Internet. I would say it's because of one word: awareness. People are more aware than ever of the true cost of products and services and that takes price off the table as a bargaining chip. Now it's about, 'what can you do for that customer differently?'

Customers are looking for an emotional reason to do business with you. But don't worry about the customers who are mad at you. You can solve their problems and they'll tell all their friends about what a great company you have. Worry about the ones that you don't know about. You've lost them forever and they'll still tell all their friends about you. One of the things I talk a lot about in my book is when something doesn't go right, the person making the decision has to take responsibility for it.

You also discuss the importance of a chief opportunity officer. What role would a chief opportunity officer play in an organization?

MF: A chief opportunity officer has to be a combination of a skeptic and a Pollyanna. He would report to the CEO or executive committee and be an integral part of the management team. This person spends time learning and sitting in all kinds of meetings to look at opportunities across the business. Sometimes when you get too close to a problem, you overthink it. The chief opportunity officer would be the person who looks at everything and knows when to drill down. Companies call them different things. You need someone to be responsible for looking ahead for new ways to do things. Part of the challenge is because we live in a world of immediate gratification, companies sometimes miss great opportunities. They also have to look for the obvious. Most of the money in my opinion is made by reinventing some of the most obvious things.

Look at Apple. It was one of the last companies to enter the phone business. And today the company is killing it in market share. That's because Steve Jobs took a device that had been around for 20 years and took it to a new level.

What do you think about Amazon? Where are the chinks in its armor?

MF: I love Amazon, but the chinks in its armor are their spending with little regard for investors, which could become a problem. And full disclosure: I own a lot of Amazon stock. But at the same time, I think Amazon owns the customer. I'm a Prime member and I can buy something on Amazon and receive it before I remember to go to BestBuy. What I also love about Amazon is it gets more than one bite of the apple.

For example, I just bought a new coffeemaker. Three days later I get an email: Dear Mr. Feuer, we hope you're enjoying your new coffeemaker. Did you know you could buy this special filter and we can send it to you in two days? I think that's brilliant. Information is power and they have the power of understanding who their customers are. The negative part though is you can make the case that as a public company, it took shareholders' money so it has to play by the public's rules.

Which topic of your book was the most difficult to write about?

MF: I love writing about communications and looking through the eyes of the customer, but the toughest topic was about office politics and the pettiness of people. But it's unavoidable. I was trying to paint with a broad enough brush to make the topic applicable to a wide audience. I'm actually a skeptical person but I'm also an optimist because I was born into poverty. I started with $20,000 and turned it into a $5 million company and then I hit $3 billion in less than eight years. But the most exciting part of my career was in the first year when I had this vision of where I wanted to go and I loved putting it together.

What are you working on next?

MF: I continue to write a column [in Smart Business Magazine] every month. I'm also writing another book. This time it's fictional, and the working title is "Shakedown." It's about a CEO of a public company who is aggravated by how he's shaken down by so many different groups and it turns into a murder mystery.