Slogging my way through a convention this week in Los Angeles, I had a brainstorm. The clouds parted, the sun came out, and little bluebirds flapped away into the horizon. I had to sit down. My brain weathered the storm, thankfully, but not before a few cells wafted up through my cerebral cortex.
This does not happen every day. The longer I keep doing this job, the more infrequently a brainstorm occurs.
In the early days, I had ideas coming out of my ears, which must have looked weird. Why can’t someone make a hotel door key that is impervious to magnets and cell phones? What would it take for a car to understand the context of your day (e.g., running late for a meeting) and offer to help? I’m always analyzing and inventing. I study casino carpets in Vegas and Segway rental agreements in San Francisco. Put something in front of me and I will immediately start trying to decipher it and make it better.
But this brainstorm was different, it had more weight. It hit me that every company except Apple, who can do whatever they want and treat customers like tree stumps, lives and dies based on how customers interact with employees. Let me explain that a different way. The employee is the company. Meet someone who treats you like you are a visiting alien from Uranus, and you will have a low opinion of the company. When a salesperson is rude, the company is rude. But when an employee provides outstanding service, we view the company itself as outstanding.
This will not make any sense if you think about products and services as being an extension of the company, an entity that exists at a street address or as part of a tax arrangement. Meaning, if you think of a company as a conceptual brand apart from the employees, it will be hard to grasp the idea that every point of contact gives customers a good impression or a bad one. I like how Jason Fried puts this: everything you do is marketing. I might extend that a bit and say everything you do is the company.
Okay, here’s why I felt this way at the convention. It’s an auto show, where I am covering the technology (of course) but also gawking at the Jaguars. (It’s a win-win for a geek/motorhead like me.) Every car company is here, selling their five- and six-figure wares. You walk into the Acura booth, get one impression, then walk over to Audi and get a different impression. Sadly, a few booths are ghost towns: dust blowing through, a crotchety old-timer leaning against a fence post. A few are brimming with excitement. The product is front and center. But you know what? The people in the booth are the company. I mentioned that this is not true of Apple, but it is true of every other company. Land Rover, Acura, Infiniti – they are all here, and none of them are impervious, not even BMW.
I first realized this at the Bentley booth. The woman who greeted me had a broad smile and a firm handshake. She knew her stuff. She mentioned that one model was for the high-tech grandpa, one was for those who want to scare the crap out of passengers (a sporty model), and one was in between. Brilliant. She had a well-rehearsed line that helped me get the big picture in a short time.
Then I went over to the Lincoln booth.
They had a secret new car that was hidden (not that effectively) behind two glass doors. There were two women guarding the car. Neither were armed. I asked to gain entrance into this (ooh, ahh) secret chamber, and they said no – you had to check with someone on the PR staff. Okay, that made me a little consternated. I came back later. No PR staff present. I came back a third time. Sorry, we can’t let you in without permission. I thought about raising a big stink, but that’s not my style. (E-mail to the rescue!)
My takeaway? I don’t care anymore about Lincoln’s secret car or the secret chamber. I decided to visit booths that had cars out in the open.
In the end, each automaker gave me a different impression. Friendly, helpful. Elitist, rude. Excited, knowledgeable. These personal contacts were make-it-or-break-it moments for me, especially in such a foot-worn state. I now view a handful of companies as monoliths of innovation and design, and a few as crusty bloats. My perspective is not perfect. On another day, at a different show, I might view each company differently.
So what to do? I say: hire only the best. When employees at a company stand in a tight circle talking about what they are going to do after the show, they make the company look elitist. When a company has employees who know what they are talking about, smile warmly and greet outsiders, and are organized enough to follow-up with people and maintain the relationship, the company wins. No business is ever going to be 100% perfect. No person is 100% perfect. One step in the right direction: start seeing employees as the conduit for a successful company, and not as a means to an end.