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Beware the Nantucket Sleigh Ride

As a young boy, I was enthralled with Herman Melville's book “Moby Dick”. The daring tale of Captain Ahab and his crew hunting the giant albino sperm whale captivated my boyhood imagination.  

The island of Nantucket was the home base of the whalers in the novel. My wife and I had the good fortune to visit this beautiful island whilst I was conducting a strategic planning workshop a few years back. It’s like a time capsule of the 1800’s. I imagined how lively the village must have been at the height of the whaling economy, prior to the invention of the electric light bulb.

Nantucket sleigh ride

The local whaling museum depicted a scene of terrified sailors on a whaling longboat hanging on for dear life whilst being taken on a “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”. This term refers to a harpooned whale dragging the whalers' boat along behind it. The speed of the sleigh ride could reach up to 23 mph (37 km/h) and some powerful species of whale could dive and drag the longboat and its occupants beneath the surface. Once the whale had exhausted its energy, the sailors (if still afloat and alive) would kill the whale and harvest its oil for lighting and heating.

The Best Laid Plans...

I use the analogy of the Nantucket Sleigh Ride to teach clients about the dangers of not focussing on their target market customer. "Harpooning" the wrong customers can pull you in a direction you never intended to take, and even sink your business if you are not careful.

As I stated in the article, “How To Identify Your Ideal Target Customer”, there is only one winning strategy: You need to carefully define your target market customer and then deliver a superior offering that is designed specifically to delight that type of customer.

Your target market customer is the center of the bull's-eye. It’s who you have in mind when you develop your product/service, and who you think of when you create your marketing communications. You create and deliver something remarkable for customers exactly like them.

"Thar' She Blows!"

Imagine you are a B2B company. You have identified your ideal target customer as being a small-medium sized business (SMB); a company of a certain size, structure, and complexity, with a certain number of employees, and with clearly defined needs that your offering is designed to solve in a remarkable way.

You design your business to serve these tuna-size clients (SMB), but occasionally a giant whale (large Enterprise) enters your sales funnel. Your staff, which you hold accountable for revenue generation, turn their boat to follow it. The adrenaline flows due to the size of this potential catch. Dollar signs flash before their eyes as they throw their backs into catching up to the whale and hurling their harpoons into it.

Let's say they succeed. Whoosh! Now your company is being dragged on a Nantucket Sleigh Ride.

Here’s how it often plays out:

  • The whale is bigger and more powerful than your company
  • The whale pulls you in the direction it wants to go
  • The whale is more demanding than the target customers you typically deal with
  • The whale expects you to add features and services to cater to its unique needs (features and services that may not be applicable to your target customer base)
  • The whale soaks up a disproportionate amount of your product development and customer service resources
  • The whale frequently expresses dissatisfaction with your offering (not surprising as your product/service was not designed for whales in the first place)
  • The whale’s complaints and bullying attitude upsets your frontline staff
  • The whale starts dictating your company strategic direction.
  • You react to the whale’s needs, rather than carefully choosing the best way to allocate your precious time, money and resources

After being dragged on a wild Nantucket Sleigh Ride over the horizon, you realize that you have to let the whale go. Your culture suffers even more as you argue amongst yourselves. Did the whale break the rope? Did you cut it to save yourselves?

Adrift Without the Whale

Does that even matter? Because regardless of who broke the relationship off, you are left adrift, tired and exhausted, many miles off course.

As you nurse your wounds, you remember that guy Stephen Lynch who delivered a workshop to your company once where he said that the most important strategic decision you need to make is to clearly define who your target customer is, and then focus your resources on building something remarkable for that target customer.

He said you can’t be all things to all people, because strategy requires trade-offs. This means saying yes to some things, and no to other things.

A Successful Fishing Expedition

It also means saying no to some customers, even if it seems that doing so means giving up opportunity. In fact, not every customer is a good customer. When you're on a Nantucket Sleigh Ride you miss more opportunities than the whale is worth.

The essence of having a strategic plan is choosing what you are not going to do. It’s a harsh lesson that you just learned the hard way. So you promise yourself that you will never let a whale tempt you and drag your boat off course.

So when, six months later, another tempting whale comes up in your sales funnel, you're prepared.

Your sales team says, "Hey! This one is gray! We can handle a gray whale! That albino one was crazy, that's why we suffered for it..."

Instead of letting them take off after it, you show them your One Page Strategic Plan. You remind them that strategy isn't about a wild ride. It's about success, which comes from closing the right customers and making them very happy.

Get the World's Best One-Page Strategic Plan

Topics: Strategy

Stephen Lynch

Author of the award winning business book Business Execution for RESULTS & President of RESULTS.com, Lynch is an internationally known Strategy Consultant and a contributing writer for The Economist magazine.

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