Even the smallest, scrappiest entrepreneurial businesses are sometimes tempted to put on airs of formality and rigidity when providing customer service. Picture Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul in the early days of his law practice, answering the phone in what he thinks is an aristocratic British accent so he can pompously screen his own calls before answering them. Or, I’ll fess up to this next pretense myself: When I was just starting out in business, I requested that the bank start my check sequence with check number 50,000—yes, with four zeroes–because I thought it made my startup seem more established.
But if you looking for a style of conducting business and providing customer service that will succeed in the long run, you should be going in the opposite direction. When you erase the personality of your brand (which, in the early days, is probably closely related to your personality) and replace it with scripted dialogue and a cookie-cutter approach, you’re making a poor commercial bet. With today’s customers, this may outright turn them off, and will certainly fail to insinuate your brand into your customers’ emotions in any lasting way.
What you should be trying to create instead is a customer experience that actually touches your customers, rather than sounding like it’s out of a corporate playbook or box of scripts. Engaging your customers in a way that leaves a lasting and emotional memory is one of the best brand-builders around.
A powerful way to create emotional engagement that will serve you well as your business grows is what is often called authenticity–local authenticity in particular. I think of local authenticity as “terroir,” and it’s a powerful way to make a connection with your customers. Terroir is the French term for everything (climate, soil, etc.) that goes into creating a wine or growing a piece of produce, but I extend the term to apply as well to anything that should be variable based on locale: language, form and design, furnishings, and, of course, food. Strive as a brand to be true to your local “terroir,” rather than conforming to a central and sterile corporate vision.
As you grow, you can find excellent models for this authentic, terroir-respecting approach, from some of today’s great brands. Take a look, for example, at Taj Hotels, a luxury hospitality brand whose properties include The Pierre in New York, St. James Hotel in London, and nearly a hundred other properties in Asia, Europe, and North America. Taj has committed to a model where, although all hotels exist on what could be called “a continuum of sensation” (such as similar employee uniforms, the Taj signature scent–which is a specific strain of jasmine–and the Taj-curated music that is played in their hotels as a soundtrack), no two properties will ever be exactly alike. The intention of this model is for guests to be aware beyond a doubt that they’re in Mumbai, or New York, or London, or San Francisco, because the details from furnishings to texture to layout are worked out with the intention of fitting into and paying tribute to local sensibilities.
Taj calls this approach “Tajness.” The Tajness program is expressed in part through an emphasis on unique foods (divided into the categories of “local foods,” “national foods,” and “comfort foods”) and furnishings: for example, within the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai there is a Ravi Shankar Suite where this most famous of Indian musicians composed two symphonies. For the enjoyment of today’s guests, the suite is adorned with the actual sitar used in composing the symphonies, as well as books on and by Shankar and unique photos of Shankar with George Harrison and others.
At the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, local curators have preserved the unique and expansive palace of the Maharaj–one of the six largest private residences in the world–for the enjoyment of today’s guests, respecting its unique historic architecture and modifying it with only very slight changes necessary to bring it up to 2016 standards.
Tajness is also expressed through timely events called “rituals,” which are customized for each locale, for example, the greeting ritual, when guests first arrive. At Taj Mahal Palace Hotel Mumbai this consists of the traditional “aarti” interaction, where the welcoming employee places a red dot on the guest’s head and presents the guest with a beaded garland intended to convey good fortune.
At Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, this is customized with local fresh flowers unique to the Jodhpur region and with local Jodhpur music, performed live and rather raucously, and–quite incredibly–an actual carriage ride up the hill in the style of the Maharajas who built this particular palace, to reach the palace where your greeting awaits you.
Or consider the sunset ritual, which in Mumbai consists of a wooden flute player playing a particular raga (musical modal scale) appropriate to the early evening, along with candle lighting and dancers in the twilight; in Jodhpur it consists of a small troupe of traditional Indian instruments – drum, melodeon, and flute–playing locally authentic music. (How Tajness will manifest itself in New York, San Francisco, London, or Cape Town, for example, has yet to be revealed, but you can be sure it will be different and individually distinct, locale by locale. Tajness hasn’t been rolled out in these locations, but when it is, it will be in pursuit of the same goal: to be locally authentic in each locale, at each property.)
I thought of ending this story here, but I don’t want to risk leaving you with the impression that authenticity is a patina you can add with the help of your creative department, rather than something deeper; as , GM of the Mumbai Taj Mahal Palace Hotel puts it, “authenticity will fail if it is just a brand strategy. It needs to become a way of life.”
Singh: “I don’t want to give you the impression that Tajness is only about ritual. It’s also about a deep commitment to our concept that ‘the guest is god,’ but providing that in ways that are locally relevant. So while a ritual is something that can, after a fashion, be uniformly provided to a wide array of guests, sometimes true Tajness comes out in providing service in a way that is specifically relevant only to a particular guest and their local attachment to our hotels.”
Or, sometimes, to someone who isn’t even (yet) a guest: Some months ago, a woman in England wrote to Singh’s concierge staff saying she was in need of assistance and didn’t know where else to turn. She was born in Mumbai in late 1945 and baptized in 1946, one week after her father, who was in the RAF, had been tragically killed in a plane crash. She didn’t know which church the baptism had taken place, but if (and only if) the church could be located, she intended to bring her family for a meaningful visit to India, including a visit to the church in question.
It took the concierge team months of legwork (there are hundreds of churches in Mumbai) before they were able to zero in on St. Thomas Cathedral as the likely location. Once they had determined this, they visited the church in person and met the Vicar, whom they assisted in going through the old baptismal records page by page until they found hers.
After the concierge gave their new British friend the good news, she made arrangements to visit Mumbai with family in tow (staying at the Taj hotel, naturally). I understand from Mr. Singh that her arrival in Mumbai was quite a celebrated occasion for her, for her family, and for all the staff who worked on the project.
Now that is about as locally authentic as customer service can ever get.
Regardless of your line of industry, if you can do away with the scripting, do away with a one-size-fits-all approach, and try to get down to the authentic heart of one-on-one service, you’ll be well served, whether you’re an accountant or a retailer, a banker or a pharmacist. You’ll find it pays you back in spades in customer engagement and, ultimately, customer loyalty.