Bring Yourself to the Customer Conversation

On Steve's Mind: a Newsletter

One day in 2005, I found myself in a conference room in Sausalito, California with the top management of Kimpton Hotels.  This was the first meeting, in what would prove to be a very valuable business relationship.   I didn’t yet know much about the company, except for my experiences as a hotel guest.

Ditch the PitchAt one point in our meeting, the Kimpton executives described their employee culture.  They told me how they honor the individuality of each employee, and how this translates into much better customer service. Instead of “hiring for a type,” I heard that Kimpton looks for unique people to hire, and encourages those employees to be themselves and express their individuality on the job. I was told I would see plenty of dreadlocks, nose rings and crew cuts if I visited their hotels; specific characteristics would depend on the employees working that day, not on any corporate mandates.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical about the truth of these statements. Would Kimpton employees concur that management gave them this freedom? Would employees love the company for it?

As my company conducted research with employees, we uncovered that the answer to both of those questions was a resounding, “Yes!” Not only did we learn this was true as we conducted numerous meetings and workshops with Kimpton employees, we also saw how fostering employee individuality translated to strong customer relationships. (For more on how Kimpton employees build customer relationships see pages 94-95 and Chapter 5 in my book We: The Ideal Customer Relationship.)

Why can an employee who is encouraged to express his or her own individuality have better success building relationships with customers?  Philosopher Martin Buber provides a beautiful exclamation.

Some of you may remember Buber from a class in college. He is best known for his book I and Thou, which teaches us that the most important and meaningful part of our existence happens in our interpersonal connections with other human beings.

As essential problem of inter-human relations, according to Buber, is the “duality of being and seeming.”  When a person proceeds from being, she brings the essence of herself into the encounter. When a person proceeds from seeming, he is more focused on the image he wants to create than on who he really is.

Consider your own personal experience. Isn’t it easy to tell when someone interacts with you authentically, as his true self, or when another person interacts with you in a posed, manufactured way that is designed to create a specific impression? Maurice Friedman, Buber’s biographer, describes that, for Buber, a “precondition of genuine dialogue is the overcoming of appearance. If, even in an atmosphere of genuine conversation, the thought of one’s effect as speaker outweighs the thought of what one has to say, then one inevitably works as a destroyer. One irreparably deforms what one has to say: it enters deformed into the conversation, and the conversation itself is deformed.”

Wow. If you are not truly yourself when in conversation, that conversation becomes “deformed.”

Which brings us right back to a front desk in a Kimpton hotel in 2005. When employees are encouraged to bring their true selves into customer encounters, the customer is more likely to feel a meaningful connection that leads to a feeling of a differentiated relationship… which leads to loyalty. The encounter will feel true, and never fake. Contrast this with the preening waiter approaching your restaurant table, with his hands together in an unnatural, affected position, asking, “So how is everything today?” Do you think that is how he acts when he is with his friends?

Put Buber’s Philosophy to Work in Your Business

First, bring yourself to every interpersonal interaction in your work. When you are persuading a customer or collaborating with a colleague, do it as your true self. Focus less on the impression you want to make and more on being who you are.

Second, as a leader, encourage your people to proudly bring their true selves to work.  They will create better customer and co-worker interactions, and they will also make you more money. If you’re not sure about that, just ask the stockholders of Kimpton Hotels, who sold their company to InterContinental Hotels Group for $430 million. Although I don’t know the details behind the deal, my experience with Kimpton gives me confidence that without their employee culture, the company would not have created this kind of value.

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Posted in Conversation, Customer Encounters, Ditch the Pitch, Loyalty, We relationships
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