Sometimes It’s the Little Things…

My wife and I were on holiday in San Francisco. It was a Saturday night and we decided upon dinner in the world famous Chinatown district. Whilst in the bar, waiting for our table, I caught sight of something moving on a beam in the ceiling. It was just a shadow at first, but soon, the “thing” revealed itself to be a rat. We left quickly, along with about a dozen other would-be diners, most of whom spoke no English but got the message from my hand gestures and my wife’s look of surprised disgust. Let’s just say it wasn’t one of those almost-cute rats they sell at Pets-R-Us.

When you’re about to eat in an unknown city in a district known not to have the world’s highest hygiene standards, you do have to give careful thought about whether to eat at the restaurant where you can see the rat in the bar, or the restaurant where the rat is unseen. Nevertheless, on the whole, we felt it better to go for the latter and take our chances. As you see, we lived to tell the tale.

Seth Godin, whose blog I follow daily, wrote a very successful management book called ‘Purple Cow’, all about the power of the huge marketing idea. He’s clearly right and after all, who am I to detract from that. However, in these days of 24/7 mobile connectivity, the little things can be just as important. And even when they are not communicated on a global, national or even regional scale, they can still lose you custom immediately.

After 4 years at law firm BHP, my colleague Deb McGargle and I decided to strike out on our own, launching a digital business ( and a low-overheads law firm. These businesses required bank accounts, of course, and after false starts with Yorkshire Bank (who, frankly, could scarcely have sounded less enthusiastic) and then Handelsbanken (whose famous ‘church spire’ policy was revealed to be targeted only at businesses with turnovers above £5 million), we turned to Barclays, where we were greeted energetically. It was at this time that I noticed that every person I met from Barclays wrote their email address (and occasionally their mobile phone number too) on the back of their business card before handing it over. I have quite a collection. Now, were I a little less sophisticated in the black arts of marketing, I might not realise that this is in fact a deliberate ploy to create a personal bond via the biro and instead suspect that the business card itself, which provided no useful information other than the name of the individual and the branch at which they are based, is intended to limit the personal contact between executive and customer and to channel those communications to call centres where the relationship can be homogenised and economised. Or… perhaps not.

And then I noticed that the address on the card of our account executive (whom we love dearly, naturally) was the subject of a typo: “120 Grainers Street” as opposed to the actual 120 Grainger Street. It turns out that according to Mr Google, there’s no Grainers Street in the country, which was a bit of a surprise to me. So really, his card was entirely useless save as a reminder as to the name of the individual we just met.

Now, when I’m choosing a bank, pardon me for saying that I think the occasional typographical slip, perhaps less important in other professions, might have drastic consequences for our businesses. Still, time was running out and we decided to risk it. I haven’t told him yet. I’m sure he’ll be mortified when he notices.

It’s not just banks that do it, obviously. I wasted hours in marketing meetings at BHP during which all but nothing was decided. I remember one meeting where we spent half an hour debating whether the decrepit flagpole on the front of the Newcastle office should be replaced or simply removed. In the end, the decision was taken to invest in a new flagpole standing out from the first storey of the building at a fine 30 degree angle and with it, a new flag bearing the new brand identity, the first raising of which would have been quite a moving occasion, I would imagine. But I was walking along the Quayside a couple of weeks ago and noticed that the flag was flying upside down. It left me wondering what business owner would choose to trust his enterprise to a law firm that was so slapdash it couldn’t fly its own flag the right way up.

Of course, I don’t mean that BHP is slapdash.  Far from it.  Some of the most able lawyers that I have ever worked with are there.  But that’s the impression that the firm was giving.

Look around you. There are so many things that you barely notice but which influence your buying decisions almost sub-consciously, especially when those purchases are at premium prices or where they are really important. One of the things I like about staying at Claridges (which I do all too rarely) is not so much the glorious art deco design or the depth of the carpet weave, but the discreet but instant sensitive service that is always on hand. Just little tiny things. Nothing is too much trouble. You never need to look for somebody to help. There is always someone at hand. It’s not something you can put in a strategy document. It’s an approach that is honed over decades of service and adherence to brand values that permeate everything at the hotel from the training of staff to the serving of afternoon tea. I have decided that when we are internet millionaires, Claridges will be our pied-a-terre in town.

The big marketing ideas can help you win big. But it’s the little touches that will make or break you in the long term, especially if you are a service business. You must operate on the basis that everything you do is always on show. Only then can you achieve an aspirational status.

3 thoughts on “Sometimes It’s the Little Things…

  1. Too true! We stayed in gorgeous hotel in Trieste with same philosophy – even with some language barrier nothing was too much trouble. Wish we saw more of this sort of commitment. Not feeling the Barclays love though – I’ve just moved a business bank account for lack of customer service.

  2. It was pointed out to me that my post could be read as indicating that BHP is slapdash, so I have amended it. The point I’m making is that being unable to fly your own flag the right way up will make it look to the careful customer as though you’re not bothered by the minutae. It’s the minutae that makes all the difference.

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