This Time Its Personal

People are much more likely to be moved by story than by argument.
What Business Are You In?

I sometimes surprise clients by asking what business they’re in. They typically think it’s obvious (and possibly find me a little naive for having to ask!). Accountants are quick to point out that they number crunch for their clients, hoteliers that they are in the hospitality business, whilst restaurateurs gently remind me that they are in the business of preparing and serving food. One hotel-owner put it even more succinctly, telling me that he is simply in the business of selling beds.

In my experience, this is largely no longer true. The vast majority of hoteliers and restaurateurs are neither in the business of selling beds nor food. The market has moved on and most have moved on with it. We are now in the people business. The sale of beds and food continues to provide the means by which we look after people but it is no longer our primary business.

Our own experience of life in general will tell us that this is the case. In almost every commercial exchange, people buy people rather than systems or things. An increasing number of businesses are beginning to recognise this and to adjust their business goals and strategies accordingly. The international brand Starbucks, which has changed the face of the coffee business worldwide, probably put it best: ‘We’re not in the coffee business serving people, we’re in the people business serving coffee’.

Most recently in The Brand, I wrote about the importance of storytelling for the business owner, particularly in hotel and restaurant businesses. This time out, I had planned to outline how we might go about telling the story of our business in a compelling way.

However, in the meantime, some of you have suggested that I might usefully offer a little more background on the people side of the business before describing how narrative might work in telling their story. This strikes me as a very good idea.

The Personal Touch

Once upon a time, all business was personal. We lived in smaller groups and bought from and sold to people we knew. We lived side by side with them and watched them at work every day. We bought our bread from the local baker and our meat from the neighbourhood butcher. We enjoyed a personal relationship with these traders and our thoughts on the quality and value of what they offered were intimately bound up with our regard for them as people. In almost every instance, reputation was local.

The industrialisation of the western world brought mass-production and severed a great number of these links and local relationships. At the same time, customers were still looking for many of the reassurances offered by the former local arrangements.

The brand was initially introduced to provide the recognition and assurance of quality that was previously available through the older links and relationships. Its role widened further as the market recognised that as customers we prefer the personal relationship and touch. Our experience of both capitalism and socialism has taught us that, even in the name of efficiency, we don’t like to engage with either faceless corporations or uniform groups.

Despite (and perhaps, in part, because of) the great many changes that have taken place over the past few generations, we continue to be social animals. People continue to buy people and we are increasingly resistant to the notion of being sold something by a system or process.

As a result, one of the principle tasks for the hotelier or restaurateur is to personalise the business exchange for the customer. This is not as difficult as it seems. A great strength of narrative as a business tool is that it enables the business owner to animate the relationship with the customer through the devices of character and plot. Perhaps the most powerful way to engage a customer in any narrative is to tell the story from the point of view of one of the characters or protagonists and demonstrate by analogy the benefits that the relationship brings.

This is an approach pioneered by Richard Branson with Virgin and Steve Jobs with Apple. Each of them invoked the narrative of David & Goliath, the little guy taking on the bully against the odds, suggesting that it was we as customers who ultimately benefited from their willingness to go to battle on our behalf.

The Face Of Business

We have seen this for ourselves in the business world in Ireland. Many of our successful businesses tell a compelling personality-driven story. The case histories of Ryanair, Superquinn, Esat, Independent Newspapers, Renault Ireland and Peacock Alley are principally the stories of their owners or primary drivers. Their personal narrative is woven into the plot to generate powerful stories that engage us and command our attention.

Their stories are not told only as colour pieces in our newspapers and magazines but are the stuff of which many a business article is made. They are recounted to investors in the City, to AGMs and to business partners, very often to great effect.

In the hospitality business we have seen the rise of the celebrity chef and, in some instances, the celebrity hotelier. There are fewer of the latter in Ireland but in the international cities, it is not unusual for an hotelier to be larger than life and to be broadly synonymous with the hotel in the minds of his customers.

In our dealings as customers with these businesses, it is easy for us to take a cue from the core narrative and to interact with the business as though we were relating in some way with its principal. For a great many years, the customer at Superquinn behaved as though she was paying a visit to her local grocer. Similarly, the student who flies cheaply to London or Paris enjoys putting one over the fat-cat airlines and is as outraged as Michael O’Leary when the EU or Aer Rianta is seen to threaten cheap fares.

Meanwhile, staff-members in these companies often take on some of the behavioural habits of the personality behind the business. The typical manager at a branch of Superquinn often seems to me to be as cheery and colourful as his inspirational boss. Meanwhile, staff at the low-fare airlines can share some of the characteristic abrasiveness and impatience of their driving force.

When we encounter these individual ambassadors, they offer a powerful reminder that we are in the personal territory carved out by their leaders. Love them or not, we are no longer buying from an anonymous organisation but have chosen to engage in a relationship which is essentially personal.

Take It Personally

The challenge for those who are leading hotel and restaurant businesses is first to tease out the personality of the business in order to enable the customer to choose to develop a personal relationship. This then has to be maintained consistently so that every interaction with the customer reinforces this attachment and encourages both the loyalty and honesty that are the marks of a strong relationship.

This can be hard work and takes the typical business owner into unfamiliar territory so it is not surprising that many managers abandon it in favour of a more nuts and bolts approach. Nor is it surprising that customers in such businesses often feel as though they are stepping onto an assembly line that aims at a laudable but ultimately unsatisfactory form of perfection or efficiency.

This is where the owner or manager unwittingly creates a brutal rod for the back of the business. People are very unforgiving of systems – they often provoke rage in a way in which people cannot – and an approach which focuses on building a system rather than on building relationships prompts very little sympathy when mistakes are made or the system fails. The owner who has invested in a personal relationship for his business typically enjoys much greater leeway and far more generous opportunities to recover after slipping up.

So, What’s The Story?

This brings us back to where we started earlier. As we have seen, the most powerful and effective way in which to develop and express the personality of a business is through story. It is through narrative that we can begin to underline qualities that it is often difficult to simply assert. People are much more likely to be moved by story than by argument. It is one thing to talk about hospitality and another to demonstrate it through an account of how hospitality is practically demonstrated and experienced in the business.

These stories may be found in the history of a business and its people or they may need to be created. One way or another, they need to be told. This is not to simply go down the route of theming a business (although themes can have a role to play in relating a story). Telling the story of your business goes deeper than that.

Next time out in The Blend, I will begin to describe how storytelling works for a business and how owners and managers can use this tool to truly differentiate their business, demonstrate the benefits they offer to their customers and build a loyal and productive relationship with them.