“I don’t like the word ‘disruption,’” Rik Vera said in a recent interview at PCMA’s headquarters office in Chicago. “It can be a terrifying word.”
We were discussing Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and a number of other companies associated with flipping the traditional business model on its head, and his aversion to the term came as a surprise. Vera, the chairman of Nexxworks and the opening keynote at PCMA’s European Influencers Summit, taking place in Barcelona this September, has delivered inspiring addresses to such major companies as IBM, Microsoft, and Deloitte, and he spends many weeks each year in Silicon Valley, China, Berlin, and Tel Aviv, where he studies digital innovation. Those are companies and places where the word “disruption” is constantly volleyed around boardrooms and internal memos. Vera, however, believes a softer vocabulary is crucial for connecting with companies that are trying to evolve and keep up with the constantly accelerating pace of change.
“You can’t tell companies, ‘disrupt yourself,’” Vera said. “Instead, it’s ‘rethink yourself.’”
Rethinking Means Thinking About the Customer
The process of rethinking relies on what Vera calls an “outside-in” mindset that places the customer at the center of every decision. “As a company, you have to think about what you want your customers to feel,” Vera said. “What do you want them to say about you? Not enough companies think about that. They still think in terms of products and services. Success is not about what you sell them. It’s about how you make them feel.”
The founders of Netherlands-based boutique hotel chain citizenM used those customer feelings to design their entire business model. Vera said the company built itself on a foundation of turning the typical frustrations of frequent travelers into delights. And unlike a traditional hotel that involves a developer and a search for a chain to handle management and operations duties, Vera said that citizenM builds, owns, and operates all of its properties. “They have questioned all the typical rules of hotel development,” he said.
They have also questioned the rules and responsibilities of employees. “People are not trained in processes and procedures,” Vera said. “They are trained in understanding the values of the company.”
The training makes sense because those people are not involved in procedures. The company uses automation for a variety of traditional hotel tasks, including check-in and check-out processes that take one minute, so Vera said that “people who work at citizenM don’t have to do standard hotel business.” Instead, they are there for more meaningful interactions with guests. For example, in Amsterdam, the property hires actors who perform for guests in the evening. “A traditional hotel chain has real estate, and they look for customers,” Vera said. “citizenM has a customer experience, and they design their properties to deliver it.”
Creating a Trustworthy, Human Experience
You may have never stayed in one of citizenM’s 20 properties, but it’s likely that you are thoroughly familiar with Facebook. Vera said that the social media giant’s recent struggles — which include losing more than 15 million users in the past two years and being scrutinized for its role in spreading fake news to voters — underscore the most important rule in today’s data-driven world. “Whether companies do the right thing with my data is the ultimate judge,” he said.
Vera said Facebook’s privacy missteps are one of the primary reasons that people are turning away from their news feeds. “We don’t trust it,” Vera said. “Facebook has to rethink and rewire because of its customers.”
In addition to a lack of trust, Vera pointed out another reason why customers are logging off the social network. “Facebook does exactly what it thinks we want it to,” he said. “It’s never exciting. It never gives us the unexpected anymore.”
“Think of it like an engagement to be married,” he added. “If you always do what the other expects you to do, it gets boring.”
Framing the customer in the context of a human relationship instead of a business transaction is important for all companies, not just Facebook. And while the focus should be on pleasing the other person in that relationship, you matter, too. “The customer is king, but you as a company are also important,” Vera said. “You have to know your values and be able to articulate why you’re in this world.”
As companies strive to create new levels of engagement with their audiences, Vera suggested answering one key question that addresses the “in” of outside-in. “If the company was a person,” he asked, “what would its personality be?”
Rik Vera, author of Managers the Day After Tomorrow, will be a keynote speaker at PCMA’s European Influencers Summit, Sept. 22-24 in Barcelona.