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Chapter 14: How to Flirt With Your Customers

A little smile, a casual glance, a few flattering words… It doesn’t take much to spread a little love. And let me tell you, we’re starved for the stuff. Many throw the word “connection” around pretty liberally. I’m a little cynical. Sure, lots of people are happy to jam a business card in your face, but this in no way represents a real human connection. Many of us are lonely.

Get in a bus accident

Last Wednesday the driver of the 135 seemed to have dozed off, awaking at the last second. He only escaped “creaming” the back of a small sedan by pounding on the brakes and veering wildly. Passengers were tossed about, and a few colorful words of surprise were barked. That’s all it took. The person beside me turned and did something rather unbelievable: she started talking. For the next 10 or 12 blocks we chatted about this-and-that. Upon reaching her stop, she noted, “It’s weird, people never talk unless something like that happens.”

She was right. A number of people on the bus struck up conversations with the people around them. This was different from what one generally finds on public transit. On your average day, you’ll see cell phones, iPods, and portable game devices. A few read newspapers and books; others blankly stare out the window. It’s incredibly rare for people to speak with one another.

We don’t talk to “strangers.” No, we sit down, find something to bury our heads in, and keep our mouths shut. You’d think there was some kind of legislation in place, given how obediently we follow this code. Most days, it’s rare to even see a smile on the bus. Here we all are texting our friends in order to stay connected; meanwhile, interaction with real people around us seems almost unnatural.

We love moments of connection

That bus serves as a model for today’s world. We’re all connected but in an abstract way. Many of us have hundreds of “friends” on social networks, but are only connected to a few on a personal level. Some mask what they truly think in an effort to maintain control. We’re also going a little bonkers, because words like “friend,” “connection,” and “network” don’t seem to mean that much any longer.

At any moment, we could break through this façade. Little is actually required to make this happen. We don’t need a new technology, slick campaign, interactive strategy, scheme, or gimmick. All that’s required is a small, simple gesture. We just need to flirt. This isn’t particularly difficult; yet, it’s amazingly effective because so few do it. We’re sheep. We take the path of least resistance and rarely ask whether ours is actually the right approach. Just think about spam in its broadest form: unsolicited telephone calls, direct mail campaigns, and good old email newsletters*. Lots of companies do these sorts of things yet they only work on the rarest of occasions. So why do we do it? Laziness and fear—we just don’t have the guts to get out there and flirt.

*Some email newsletters are actually quite good. Sadly it’s only one in every thousand.

Love through lard

I worked for a short while with the “Master of Flirting”. At the time, I was so self-conscious that I could hardly open my mouth—particularly around women. With that in mind, you can likely imagine how amazed I was to witness how easily he could strike up conversations. This was by no means the limit to his flirting; he did it everywhere. (Even when depositing a check.)

At that time, it wasn’t uncommon to have to go into the bank to deposit a check or make a payment. Doing so was a complete and utter drag. Upon arriving, you’d need to fill in a series of stubs for the transactions you wished to make. You’d then stand in a 30 person lineup, while two grumpy tellers slowly worked their way from one to the next. Occasionally you’d be met by a friendly representative, but that was rare. The sheer volume of customers, coupled with how understaffed banks were, resulted in a frustrating experience. The aforementioned Master of Flirting never suffered in such settings. Instead, he got special attention every time.

What was his secret? How did he circumvent all those headaches and instead get special treatment? Did he have someone on the inside? Was he on a costly plan that gained him special access? Nope—he just brought in boxes of donuts at random intervals. That’s right; an occasional six dollar investment got him past all the bother. He also said “thanks” a lot. People seemed to like that.

How to flirt

The Master of Flirting wasn’t particularly attractive, successful, or wealthy. None of the things I expected to make a difference mattered to him. He just talked to people and made pleasant gestures. By contrast, when I tried to get a date, I’d often come up with an elaborate plan for how to win someone’s attention. This hardly ever worked. It took me forever to learn that you don’t need to do anything really original to break the ice—saying “hi” is often enough.

Acting in this way had a great impact on his life. There was a steady parade of beautiful women who moved through his life, seemingly tripping over one another; likewise, people treated him well in every shop and restaurant we wandered into. From my vantage point, he seemed to be living a charmed life. I did question how sincere his actions were but I couldn’t argue that he had uncovered a secret that few others had. It was simple but incredibly powerful. His great, pivotal, game-changing, insight?

People like to feel special.

Simple, right? It’s something we all know or should know, but tend to miss entirely. When were you last in a meeting in which someone asked, “How do we make our customers feel special?” Right… I thought so. We get so caught up in what we’re thinking, saying, doing, and needing that we miss out on one of the greatest opportunities in marketing.

Think about the people who have immediately made an impression on you—those who you’d like to meet again because they make you feel good around them. How did they do it? I’d guess that they somehow made you feel special. They complimented you on your shirt, told you they loved something you did, or just asked questions about you. This is basic stuff and it works. Flirting starts by establishing the simplest form of interaction and leads to making someone feel special.

I love how flirting is both easy and makes life brighter: A quick email to tell your partner how great you think they are, making note of someone’s birthday with a cupcake with a candle, or calling the manager over to tell her that the pasta was remarkable. Try a day of it; you’ll be surprised by how hard it is for people to hold back a smile.

This habit of “making people feel special” works as well for companies as it does in personal interaction. It’s a secret weapon for the small company. Multinationals are like the high-school prom queen. They don’t flirt with anyone because they don’t think they have to. Everyone’s already looking at them, so they can do whatever they want. This doesn’t last forever; the prom ends at some point, as does the reign of any company. Flirting might be the part that eventually turns the tables.

Delightful utility

When we reach for household objects we expect little from them other than that they function. This acceptance of the status quo leads us to overlook the opportunities to redefine otherwise banal experiences as something special. Just think about those companies who have rewritten otherwise “boring” categories by delighting their customers.

Toilet brushes are boring, but Michael Graves’ translucent matte plastic version with its elegant form changed all of that, affording a little beauty where it hadn’t been expected. Herman Miller’s skeletal Aeron chair—that sells for several times more than any other office chair—becomes an icon representative of how much management cares about staff. OXO adds beefy rubber grips to common kitchen utensils and makes them more wieldy, desirable, and profitable.80

There are many products that delight us, but I’ve chosen these examples because they’re not altogether that different from their stock counterparts. Graves’ toilet brush doesn’t clean a toilet differently from a less beautiful one. Few saw the necessity to redesign the office chair, but the Aeron redefined the category. Similarly, OXO Good Grips could have been devised by anyone—but weren’t.

I would love to talk more about how we can delight with design but that will have to wait for a future book. Still, I felt I would be negligent to not address this point, even if briefly. The things we make, as much as how we speak and act, help flirt with customers for us.

Less yelling, more seduction

Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan are the duo behind Method: a company that has made something otherwise banal delightful—through good design. Their company makes cleaning products (not something most of us are terribly excited by) and their customers talk an awful lot about them. Method makes cleaning products less harmful by using biodegradable ingredients from natural sources including soy, coconut, and palm oils.81 They also use recyclable materials in their packaging, offset with renewable energy credits, and avoid testing their products on animals. These are admirable values and they give us good reason to pay attention.

I hardly believe this to be the sole reason we buy Method’s products. An informal survey of the cleaning products section at any grocery store presents us with an array of day-glow packages screaming for our attention. A visual pollution of sorts: few of these products consider the user’s desire for delightful objects. These are brutish, industrial-looking offerings that do little to engage us. Instead they yell, clamoring to be heard amongst the equally hideous alternatives they share shelf-space with. Method changed all of that.

Designers including Karim Rashid and Joshua Handy were enlisted to sculpt the forms for their packaging; meanwhile, the clean type, reserved color choices and minimal treatments emotionally resonate with buyers. Frankly, the end result shouldn’t be so notable; it’s just well packaged soap made more sustainably. Given the alternative, though, Method gets a lot of mindshare, praise, and press.

Something has changed, and a walk down that aisle of cleaning products today illustrates how the “prom queens” are quickly following suit. Many copy-cat products now vie for a piece of the action Method has generated. In a 2008 Fast Company profile, founder Eric Ryan noted, “When we started this company, we had a saying that we were never going to try to out-Clorox Clorox. We shifted the playing field where now companies are trying to out-Method Method.”82

Delighting a customer is a little like an unexpectedly fun first-date: it sticks with us for a long time.

Is this really “grand”?

Rise and shine...

     Rise and shine...

          Rise and shine!!!

(It wasn’t until she shouted for the third time that I actually heard.)

This “rise and shine” is how my morning begins at the Grand Hyatt in San Diego. A little fatigued from a day of flying, eating poorly, and not enough sleep, I make my way downstairs to grab some breakfast: nothing fancy, just some eggs. All that I find open is the hotel’s coffee garden (there may have been something else—I didn’t look that hard). I order a juice, breakfast sandwich, and espresso. I then sit and read my magazine.

Although I provide an appropriate tip, the person at the counter doesn’t bother to tell me where I can find my juice; nor, does she walk the ten feet to bring me my meal. Instead, she yells at me until I finally hear. I collect my breakfast: a chewy piece of ham mushed into a rubbery, micro-waved English muffin. There’s little “grand” about it; then of course, that adjective seems misused at the Hyatt. As my visit continues, I find myself asking why I feel so cynical about this place—particularly its chosen descriptor.

On first inspection, the lobby is certainly grand. It seems almost opulent, with marble flooring, high-ceilings, and an army of concierges welcoming visitors. It’s not like they spared many expenses in creating the space; it’s nice in a “look at me” sort of way. One colleague noted that he half-expected Joan Collins to walk out, as the space seemed like something from the television program Dynasty. The structure and the chosen treatments don’t seem out-of-line with its name; yet, I still feel ill at ease.

Perhaps my misgivings have something to do with the degree of consistency here starting to reach monotony. Upon entering my room I experience a little déjà vu. What I find is almost identical to the one in the Boston Hyatt I visited a year earlier. Same television, same programming, same beds, same layout, same bathroom, same curtains, same, same, same. Consistency is important but this starts to feel bland and flavorless. Worse yet, it seems that there’s a charge associated with even the smallest conveniences, and this makes me grumpy. Even if you spend a few hundred dollars for the room, they still “get you” for using the gym, making a local call, or hooking up to a Wi-Fi connection.

Later I start to note that how many similarities the Hyatt has to an amusement park. The veneer is impressive in a way, but upon going to another you realize that each is almost the same as the last. And everywhere you turn, you need to pay for something else. It’s awfully difficult to be delighted with something when it feels so much like a collection of toll-booths.

Marta and Troy’s wedding

Contrast this with the night that Amea and I spent at the Trickle Inn near Salmon Arm. We were on our way to our friends’ wedding and needed a place to stay for the night prior. Marta suggested a little bed and breakfast near the wedding venue. Now, I should probably clarify something right here: I don’t much like the idea of bed and breakfasts. Waking up in someone else’s house has never turned my crank, and the possibility of it being a “dive” leaves me reluctant to test my luck.

Salmon Arm isn’t a big place, and driving after work would get us there quite late; so I acquiesced. Upon arriving, the “design-snob” in me was rudely awakened. I nearly laughed out-loud at the flowery patterns, doilies, and decor—all of which left me feeling quite out of place. The lack of a television was also a disappointment, as I wanted to watch Seinfeld and drink a scotch before retiring for the night. I won’t lie to you; the space itself doesn’t elicit any fond memory on my part. (Others might have found it homey and comforting.)

We awoke to gorgeous sunshine on the day of the wedding. I was quite ready to bolt and find some breakfast in town, but on our way out we bumped into one of the owners. She was dressed for yard-work and tending to the vegetable garden. Smiling, she asked what we’d like for breakfast. Amea and I were both eager to forge out on our own. Noting our hesitation she filled in, “How about a couple of omelets?” We felt badly about saying “no,” so we accepted the offer and made our way to the dining room. Moments later our host appeared in full chef’s garb. (I did a double-take as I wasn’t sure she was the same person.) Chef’s hat and all, she had performed a little transformation. We spoke for a while about the morning, her place, and a number of other things.

She then went about treating us to a breakfast that has become somewhat gilded in my memory. Fresh eggs coupled with basil from the garden, fresh coffee, toast, and so on. This wasn’t a remarkable place, but that breakfast was delightful. As a result, that B&B will remain in my mind for years to come. I’ll continue to talk about that quaint place with awful decor, where the owner surprised us with an amazing breakfast and some friendly conversation.

It’s hard to flirt with everyone

Let’s step back a moment and consider the Hyatt and why this doesn’t work there. It seems there’s little stopping the Hyatt from delighting us like their smaller counterparts; one might even suppose that they’d have a clear advantage in doing so. They have greater resources, more staff members, and better management systems. Given such an advantage, it’s hard to imagine why, I find myself smiling about the Trickle Inn but disenfranchised by such a distinguished brand.

Part of the challenge I suspect, is that they’ve set our expectations so high. At the “Grand” Hyatt, I expect to be amazed by how high they’ve set the bar. Instead, I feel nickel and dimed every time I try an amenity. Joy quickly erodes when I need to ask how much things cost before considering them. (This isn’t particularly conducive to “delight.”) A greater challenge yet, is that Hyatt employs 90,000 people.83 Is it possible for each of those people to make every customer feel special? How would you systematize such behavior? Sure, you can document such protocols in a training manual, but... well... good luck with that.

The breakfast at the B&B was memorable in a way that the Grand Hyatt will never be. Big companies need to be safe and consistent, which isn’t a bad thing, but it can make them a little less interesting. This leaves them with fewer opportunities to delight us. It probably doesn’t matter, though. The Hyatt surely makes lots of money, and it would be utterly impossible for them to delight everyone. As is also the case with Starbucks, consistency is often what’s necessary once an organization reaches ubiquity. There’s little wrong with this, but it does give small, smart companies an opportunity to differentiate their offerings. Flirting for companies like yours and mine isn’t hard to do well; for those “grand” ones, it can be cumbersome.

Inside access

I think that most companies see their customers as outsiders. These companies spend a lot of time trying to get what they need, but have a hard time doing so because they don’t see people; they see wallets. It doesn’t have to be this way. What if we invited customers into our worlds and shared our passions with them? This might mean a tour of the kitchen for “foodies” who arrive at our restaurants. It could involve a weekly ride at your bike shop, in which you connect personally with those who’ve bought from you—and perhaps even those who haven’t. You could even write a blog containing insider information that only select clients can access. Just remember to give them the good stuff.

Inclusion like this is great, but it can lose its value if you give it to everyone. If you do something like this, I ask you to concentrate on those who love your brand, patronize your business most, and already spread the word for you. Take that small percentage of customers and ask how you can reward them very, very well. It may be expensive to do so, and perhaps it should be. If these people are good to you, it might be wise to do some heavy-flirting (another completely fabricated term). Get close to them, share something big, and let them know how much they mean to you. After all, does anything make one feel as special as being allowed into another’s inner-circle?

Flirting doesn’t have to stop

After a couple of years of working closely with one of our favorite clients, I decided to step back a little. I was still directing his projects, but thought one of our designers should take on the core design and production tasks. In my mind, this wasn’t a particularly big deal; the assigned designer was seated right beside me, and I kept a close eye on progress. One day our client called, quite frustrated, noting, “Eric, you don’t care about me any longer. You pass my calls along to the new guy, and don’t even want to talk. What’s going on?” In the scramble to keep the job on-track, I hadn’t communicated that we were still taking care of him.

I could have made a friendly phone call, introduced the new designer and talked about how the project would proceed. Or, I could have explained that I was directing the project, keeping a close watch, and available anytime to chat. It would have only taken a moment to reassure him of our dedication, and the talent of the designer working on his project. Instead of doing so, I only concentrated on getting the job done… and almost lost our client in the process.

Flirting shouldn’t end just because you’re in a relationship.

Donuts don’t always work

Some of these ideas might not work for you. Although the Master of Flirting did well with donuts, such a thing can become transparent quickly. Like everything else in this book, I can only make general suggestions that you’ll need to evaluate and act upon as you see fit. There’s no “right way” and even things that work today may prove to be less effective at other times.

Try to remember that flirting is all about small gestures. This makes it easy to try different things and see what works with your customers. Seek out small things that delight them. These need not be elaborate or complex, but it helps if they’re closely connected to your identity and relationship with them. Maybe it’s just a matter of making a quick call to ask how they’re feeling and remind them that you really want to keep them happy.

In a way, I’m unsure of this word “flirting.” It feels too fluffy and perhaps overly cavalier. Some might take it to represent niceties with little actual substance. The tough part is that I can’t think of a better word to describe this sort of interaction. For the sake of this discussion, let’s work under the auspice that such flirting should only be genuine in nature, with the intention of growing something more substantial in time.


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