The other day I went for a virtual haircut at a virtual barbershop. While I was there I was offered a delicious virtual cappuccino, which I drank from a very nice virtual cup.
There are many activities where the virtual world can’t substitute for the world where barbers use sharp scissors to cut hair, and real coffee is drunk from real cups. Sometimes that’s easy to forget, especially at a time like this, when so much of our interfacing with the world is through our computer screens. Amazingly, many people have found that they can still accomplish a lot of their work while staying at home. Imagine describing this situation thirty years ago, and telling someone back then how whole office blocks would be closed down, and yet major businesses could continue to function, from people’s bedrooms!
But, like my haircut and cup of coffee, some business offerings simply must happen between people, trading solid goods and services. In the covid-19 crisis, these have been the most affected by lockdowns and social distancing. They are also the most vulnerable businesses, at any time.
Why? Let me explain.
If you are a cosmetician say, or a car mechanic, you start out with a set of skills which over time you refine as you become ever better at your job. You probably learned your skills from someone more experienced, usually by working for them.
In time you say, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this!” And maybe you look at your boss, and also think, “Why should they be getting all the profit out of my efforts?” And so you start your own business. Not because you are particularly business-focused, but because you have a skillset which is in demand. So, let’s say, you start a beauty salon, and because your work is good, it attracts customers. Soon there are so many customers that you need to hire extra cosmeticians, and a receptionist, and so on. Even if you never thought of business planning, your business is growing anyway, so you roll with it, and hey, it feels good!
What started as a simple extension of your own skills develops with time, and you need to buy all sorts of specialized equipment. You move out of those cramped rental premises to a better location that you own. And your customers come to you because they trust your professionalism.
Or do they?
Yes, of course any business person must be professional, but at the meeting point of non-virtual worlds (or as we used to call it ‘the real world’) there’s a lot more going on than merely professionalism. Let’s say I go for a special meal with my partner. The professionalism of the chef will play a big part in our enjoyment, but if the waiter is rude or unknowledgeable, then it’s likely we’ll say “Never again!” The same applies for any other touchpoint between supplier and consumer. When I take my car to be serviced, my number one requirement is professionalism, but I wouldn’t mind being charmed just a little bit! It comes down to simple communication, even if that communication is sometimes just a smile or a few kind words.
And if there’s a serious problem with my car – or if the chef can’t cook the meal I’ve ordered – then I really need to hear it in a way which I can absorb, and accept. There has to be an interaction on the human level, otherwise we may as well go to a virtual restaurant and eat nothing, or have our virtual mechanic make precisely no adjustments to our car. The Human Factor matters, but many businesses forget this, or never realize it. The threat to these businesses is more often than not coming from inside the enterprise, because the proper attention is no longer being paid to customer relationships. When this is coupled with the double whammy of an outside threat, such as the covid-19 crisis, then the risk of business implosion is even greater.
Many people who begin their own businesses start from a skillset, not because they attended a charm school. If they were lucky, perhaps their boss showed them by example how to deal with customers. Chances are though that their employer was also somewhat lacking in the Human Factor. What does it cost to smile when someone comes into your salon or café? How hard is it to communicate about special offers, or new initiatives? Answer: often pretty hard, apparently.
One of my evergreen concepts that I ask every client is, “Are you Serious About Success?” People always say, “Of course!” However I often don’t see that commitment. And anyway there is no such thing as ‘100% success’, because there’s always some new mountain to climb. Let’s say you get your beauty salon or garage up and running. Do you start to need more real estate, more employees, better tools? The answer is Yes, always. Our customers never stand still, and neither can we. If we do, then customers will walk straight past our stuck-at-80%-successful offering, and head for the next place round the corner. The one where you get a great haircut, a good cup of coffee… and a welcoming smile.
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