The Leading Role

In a real world, the business-owner has many customers, each wanting to be king and each vying for attention.
If I Ruled The World

Some of the great service literature talks of the customer as king and pictures a realm where the buyer holds sway and the seller dances watchful attendance. For the customer, this is a great state of affairs. There is something majestic in standing at the centre of the world, monarch of all you survey, whilst others move about at your bidding. Your wish is their command. This is an ideal existence, a paradise made for one.

However, very few of us live in this best of all possible worlds. In a real world, the business-owner has many customers, each wanting to be king and each vying for attention. Few owners draw business from one place only and have the luxury of being able to focus on one customer alone. And yet as customers, we often suffer from what the parents of only children in China call the ‘little emperor syndrome’, the belief that the world exists just for us, and for us alone.

So what happens when other rulers invade the realm and lay absolute claim to the allegiance of the seller? This is a challenge facing owners in all walks of business. If left unaddressed, it can undermine the very foundations on which the buyer-seller relationship is based. In a world where customer is both king and absolute monarch, heads can roll, and too often the first to go is that of the seller whose loyalties are divided.

My World Would Be A Beautiful Place

A few days ago, I had a late afternoon meeting with clients in the lobby café of a hotel that attracts a lot of such meetings. Throughout the week, it’s not uncommon to see business discussions taking place at most of the tables and chairs clustered about the space whilst solitary guests work on their laptops and mobile phones at others. There is a definite, if discreet, buzz of commerce in the air. Attentive waiters are on standby, ready to bring refreshment on command. In the weekday world of this lobby café, there is no doubt that the businessman is king.

As I arrived for my meeting however, I found that something had changed. At first glance, things looked the same. There was the usual mix of business suit and smart casual at the clusters across the lobby. At the table next to mine, I heard typical snatches of commercial chatter. No change there. So what was different? I looked around me a second time, this time a little more carefully. It’s true that first time round I had missed that a large group of tables at the far end of the lobby were unoccupied. This time, I saw that they bore ‘Reserved’ notices. And then it clicked. Since I had arrived, none of the usually attentive team of waiters had caught my eye. None had approached me to offer refreshment. It went a little further. As I looked around, it was apparent that I was being studiously ignored. Attention was clearly elsewhere. Each of the waiting team had their eyes fixed on the doors at the entrance to the hotel. Who or what were they waiting on?

As the wedding party began to arrive, it became obvious that they had reserved more than the tables in the lobby café. Not unnaturally, they brought with them the heightened excitement of the big day out. Volume levels rose and I could see as the various business meetings around me broke up that my colleagues were struggling as much as I did to make themselves heard and understood above the din. Those on mobile phones stepped outside to continue their conversations, whilst my own meeting companions suggested that we move elsewhere in search of a quiet corner and some waiter service.

Two worlds collided in that lobby and the businessman who had been king until that moment saw his reign usurped. As the crown slipped from his head, he was left in no doubt as to where he stood in the pecking order. As he stood vanquished and dispossessed, his exile seemed complete. At that moment, the prospect of his returning again to the place where he had so recently ruled the roost was highly unlikely.

Happiness That No Man Could End

At least, that’s how I saw things. Perhaps you think I exaggerate? Does a no-nonsense businessman really see himself as king? Is that the experience of customers everywhere? Certainly, as I moved with my companions towards the exit, we felt somehow banished, and I overheard those around me echo those feelings of unwelcome and vow never to return. Listen for yourself to the words of a customer who has fallen down the pecking order and what you hear is the language of the dispossessed. There is a ‘little emperor’ in all of us who likes to feel as though he is at the centre of the world and resents being pushed to its fringes.

But few of us live in such a perfect world where we have the wherewithal or stature to demand the undivided attention of our host. Instead, we find ourselves jostling for position with others whose demands rank alongside our own. So how does the business-owner, who must successfully host a wide range of customers, cater to their various and sometimes competing requirements?

A Smile On Its Face

The first thing to do is to know your customer. Watch how they use your product or service. Understand how they see themselves and how they wish to be treated. Ask them what they need.

Many business-owners hide away behind reception desks and in offices and devote little time to knowing their customers. As a leader, your role is to understand what they need and want and to shape your business accordingly. Map out how customers relate to your business, what part it plays in their lives and note where their requirements dovetail with and where they diverge from those of your other customers.

Of course, you must be realistic. Sometimes, it’s not possible to cater to the competing requirements of a wide range of customers without pulling your business badly out of shape and pleasing no one. In such cases, you must resist the temptation to be all things to all men and discourage or refuse fly-by-night business that is going to hurt your relationship with loyal and returning customers.

A business that poorly handles the competing needs of its customers risks being seen as two-faced or, at the very least, insincere. As host, you must satisfy yourself that you can take up a position from where you can relate naturally with your different types of guest. The great leaders are often described as having the ability to make their listeners feel as though each is the only person in the room. The great host makes each ‘little emperor’ feel as though he is at the centre of the world. He does not crown one customer at the expense of another. This is the gift of attention and reflects a natural or a learned talent to know what each person requires from you at that time. The conscientious host mulls this over ahead of time and plans accordingly.

Not If I Ruled The World

As I have said elsewhere, the role of the host is primarily as leader. You cannot afford to play a minor part. Both your customers and your team look to you for a lead.

You must marshal them both and direct the action rather than throw up your hands helplessly and abandon your guests. In my recent experience with the wedding party, our host could have played his part easily by setting out the lobby more thoughtfully and creating a natural buffer area between the two types of customer. An astute host, with an eye for diplomacy, might have eased the situation by having staff warn business-users of the impending arrival of the wedding party and apologise for the disruption that would follow. He might have eased it further by appealing to our more tolerant side (“they’re going to be a bit noisy, you know how it is on a big day out”) and, perhaps, by offering a complimentary refreshment by way of acknowledging our discomfort. He certainly wouldn’t have offered us the cold shoulder in the somewhat cavalier hope that we would fade to the margins and return another day with our indignity forgotten.

Sunshine In Everyone’s Sky

As a guest in that situation, what I missed most in my host was a sense of authority. Even my own ‘little emperor’ knows in his heart that there are other kings out there, each of them as entitled as he is to the loyalty and devotion of his host. However, he does not easily abdicate his privileged place at the centre of the world. He must be managed skillfully, taught to share that space and coaxed to yield up some of his more unreasonable demands.

This requires authority, one that is founded on a thorough knowledge of the customer and a balanced understanding of what he and his fellow customers need. Otherwise, the host runs the risk of banishing his guest to the margins and sending him into exile forever.