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P2P: Person-to-Person Business

“The most exciting breakthrough of the 21st century will occur not because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.”– John Naisbitt, Megatrends Last winter, a friend’s son joined us in box seats at a Bruce Springsteen concert and remarked, “I’d much rather watch Springsteen on the gigantic digital television screen over there than look at him on the stage in front of us. He seems much more real on the screen.” Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed.

“The most exciting breakthrough of the 21st century will occur not because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.”– John Naisbitt, Megatrends

Last winter, a friend’s son joined us in box seats at a Bruce Springsteen concert and remarked, “I’d much rather watch Springsteen on the gigantic digital television screen over there than look at him on the stage in front of us. He seems much more real on the screen.” Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed.

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That perplexing comment stuck in my head and finally began to make sense at a recent performance of Beppie Blankert’s “Double Track” — a dance show that forces the audience to sit facing away from the performers. Onlookers stare at the dancers’ reflection in a wall of mirrors, where magical images appear through some clever technology. You aren’t supposed to watch the dancers directly — reality exists only in their reflections. Like on the Springsteen screen, I suppose, the audience connects with an image rather than a person.

Sadly, I recognize the modern tendency to substitute bytes for being. And I too feel the attraction, in a way. But I wonder how human relationships have really changed in the last 100 or 10,000 years. Or for that matter, how much modern-day commerce has really changed the role of personal relationships in a company’s success.

“The problem with communication is the illusion that is has occurred.” — George Bernard Shaw

As an undergraduate dean, I overheard many college students discuss the future ahead. They fixated on the uncertainties in life, but they all seemed to agree on one unifying principle: Never, ever work in business. A paraphrase: “Business is about numbers. It’s about using technology. I want to do something that affects people and spawns relationships.”

I have learned over the years that technology used properly can enhance relationships and personalize them to a degree never before possible. That is why I frequent the Ritz Carlton in the United States. The Ritz’s personnel use technology to track my unique preferences so I have the right pillows, tea instead of coffee, and, most importantly, a personal greeting when I arrive. Their use of technology gives me that Cheers feeling — like everyone knows my name. They make me feel special, important.

The Ritz is a prime example of how technology can be used to promote a sense of personal intimacy among people. It is a brand of intimacy that is good for people, good for business, and good for developing a powerful brand reputation.

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Brand Lifeline: Build Your Brand on Personalized Relationships

“We talk about the quality of product and service. What about the quality of our relationships and the quality of our communications and the quality of our promises to each other?” — Max de Pree

When he was CEO of the Chase Manhattan Bank, David Rockefeller flew to Saudi Arabia each month to visit a particular client. Sometimes the two would eat lunch together; other times they would just drink a cup of tea. Often his friend was busy, so they would simply exchange a few moments of conversation before Mr. Rockefeller’s return to New York.

Why not just make a phone call? Or at least plan a trip at a time when he could sit down for a few hours and talk? Mr. Rockefeller explained: “That client is an important one. I want him to know how important he is to our bank and to me personally. I will continue to visit him every month.” Mr. Rockefeller treated customers as people, not as wallets — or as email addresses.

Brand Lifeline Corollary: Build Your Brand by Reducing Loneliness

“Loneliness may be the real disease of the next century, as we live alone, work alone, and play alone, insulated by our modem, Walkman, and television.” — Charles Handy

A little more than a decade ago, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of European retail executives about my research on home television shopping. I had written the first business school cases on the industry and tested out my theories on American CEOs in executive-education classes.

I considered one finding particularly striking: Many consumers said they preferred shopping on television because it made them feel less lonely than they felt shopping at a mall or at a store. A testimonial:

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“Nobody talks to me in the stores. Certainly not as a person. They know nothing about me. But when I call up to order from the television, after my first few orders, they know my name, what I like, and sometimes our conversation gets carried on television. They even sent me a personalized birthday card last year.”

Upon hearing this finding, Anita Roddick, founding director of The Body Shop, couldn’t contain herself. “Our research in England has shown exactly the same thing: loneliness. Even among shoppers in our own stores. Same for much of our staff. The company — the brand — that reduces loneliness will dominate the market.”

“May we open to a deeper understanding and a genuine love and caring for the multitude of faces, who are none other than ourselves.” — Wendy Egyoku Nakao

Frank Sinatra was one of the most successful entertainers of all time. Listen to a Sinatra song on your MP3 player, your car stereo, or your computer. Isn’t there something about him, about his voice, that makes it sound like he is singing just to you? Can’t you tell he cares? And that he feels about life just as you do?

Business, like art, is about intimacy and creating a community of shared values. It’s about personal relationships — how you reach people and how you touch them. The technology should never be seen as a substitute for the message and the relationships you forge. After all is said and done, only you can build Brand You.

Think about it the next time you ask your assistant to call someone for you, or send an email rather than make a phone call, or pick up the phone rather than walk over to a colleague’s desk. Yes, it may be efficient. Yes, it may be expedient. But is it building your brand … one relationship at a time?

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“They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Carl Buehner

* The author apologizes to computer-philes, for this is not an article on peer-to-peer programming — a hot item in computer circles these days. As a 49-year-old, he can barely figure out how to work a toaster, never mind program a computer.

For more on personal communication in building a brand, see Chapter 8, “Seek Common Ground for Uncommon Results” of my New York Times best-selling book, Making a Life, Making a Living.

Copyright © 2000 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.

by Mark Albion

Read more columns by Mark Albion.

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