When travelling, the hotels that I stay at are generally unremarkable places–all due respect. This is not to say that they’re not generally clean or that the people aren’t generally friendly. They are, generally. But after enough time things start to look and feel the same and the differences are defined in increments (waffles or biscuits and gravy? chocolate bar or chocolate chip cookie?) Eventually, you notice the people’s accents and weather far more than anything else.
And the weather in the mid-west is wicked. The winter is a dry, lacerating cold that cuts through layers. The wind is rapier sharp. The sky is gun metal grey, mottled with straggling birds. It’s harsh. I felt these extremes last week while staying in Indiana, working for an exceptional new client. I stepped outside of my hotel to examine the morning and wait for my ride to their headquarters. The mid-western gale and snowfall was there and growing stronger by the minute. Ducking behind a corner to find a small bit of solace and snap a quick photo I saw the gentleman in the photograph. He was jacketed and was carefully brushing and scraping snow off of each car in the parking lot–beginning with those that were most covered in ice, frost, and an increasing amount of snow. He was expedient yet not at the expense of detail–each window was first brushed, then scraped, then scraped again after additional inspection. There were, at rough count, 40 or 50 cars in the lot. It was 5 degrees outside. Yet he kept sweeping until every car in the lot, excluding employee vehicles, was cleaned to his satisfaction. When I asked him what he was doing he turned, smiled, and said “Cleaning the windows of the guests cars” as if it were a matter-of-fact occurrence in such red weather. Later that morning I heard other people commenting about the gentleman’s kind act and remarkable behavior. Was it training? Was it company policy? Or was it a plain act of generous decency? Fact is, it didn’t matter–people took note and were talking about how impressed they were.
When I checked out of the hotel I asked the young man why he decided to act in such a manner. I asked him if his boss had instructed him to clean snowy cars. He said no. He simply said: “It’s better that I get my suit dirty than you get yours dirty.” And then I took his picture. It was remarkable.
It’s an obvious lesson, but one that most of us overlook too frequently. Most businesses suffer from some level of parity. Most products do too. It’s one of the basic challenges we all face. Yet there are countless opportunities to stand out and become less of a commodity–most of which exist on an emotional level. The one thing that most businesses can create is a culture based on incremental differentiation. Without overturning the apple car in its entirety, without going through wholesale disruption, they can examine each of the small touch points between the business and customer while asking a simple question: “What is ONE thing I can do to elevate the customer’s emotional connection to what we’re doing?” In the process of asking that simple question a myriad of latent opportunities will be exposed. Opportunities to capture their heart through simple acts of service, basic acts of gratitude and reciprocity, and simple acts that to elevate the emotional discourse between product and the market, business and the consumer. Best of all, these seemingly small acts amplify an already-strong message in to something that not only galvanizes the consumer relationship and loyalty but virtually compels people to share this type of experience.
The preeminent small business challenge these days has to do with differentiation, retailing a consumer experience, and creating a unique value proposition that sustains lasting loyalty. And one young man with a snow scraper captures all of these things with a a self-less act on a cold Indiana morning. Your turn.