There is a food store in the U.S. that is so popular the checkout lines often wrap around the store, spilling onto the street. The company doesn’t do much marketing, nor do they allow third-party delivery services in their stores. Their biggest marketing expense is the sampling station inside the store. And yet, people are begging for one to open in their neighborhoods. Any ideas?
If you guessed Trader Joe’s, we can be friends.
With $13 Billion in sales revenue and close to 500 stores nationwide, Trader Joe’s could have easily become just another supermarket. It gives you food, what more can it provide?
So much more. The company built meaningful, human-centered connection into their brand ethos. Trader Joe’s recognizes that meaningful connection with their customers and employees is the secret sauce that will move product off the shelves.
So what is a meaningful, human-centered connection, why does it matter, and how the heck do you create a human-centered business in 2020?
WHAT are meaningful, human-centered connections
If you ever had a fun, engaging conversation, in which you didn’t know how the time passed by so quickly, you’ve connected to someone in a meaningful way.
Connection on a human-level is the experience of “oneness,” where ideas, values, and shared experiences are so tightly aligned that you’re able to trust something or someone in an implicit way. This feeling rests on empathy and compassion, resulting in a lot of co-created goodwill.
WHY do meaningful, human-centered connections matter
Humans, because of necessity, evolved into social beings. According to self-determination theory, we have three basic needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Studies have shown that relatedness especially – or the ability to feel connected – is vital. Plus, you’ve probably heard that cultures that are more communal are more mentally healthy. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how technologically sophisticated we are; creating & sustaining meaningful connections is at the core of who we are.
This isn’t only referring to human-human connections. Businesses who are able to internalize and live out human-centered principles to create meaningful connections, both with customers and employees, are nurturing a very special type of brand loyalty and long-term value. The Danish toy company, Lego, is a great example.
In the early 2000s, Lego was facing a financial crisis. Its product lines were over-extended as a result of jumping on trends too quickly, leading to brand dilution. A change in management led the company to an innovative solution of co-creation, which is literally designing a product with the people it was meant for. Lego realized creating a direct link to its very loyal fan base of not only kids, but adults nostalgic for the toys of their youth, would lead to a meaningful connection that will result in higher sales.
This is easy to write, but much harder to do.
Creating meaningful connections in our everyday lives, whether it’s human-human or business-to-human, is a bit like brushing your teeth. You have to practice every day for the habit to really take root.
HOW do you do it?
In our business, we often talk about the process of Human-Centered Design (HCD). The official definition is a problem-solving approach where solutions are developed by involving people affected by the problem in all steps of the process.
When businesses involve the people affected by the problem (usually customers or employees) meaningful human connections are formed. When a business makes the effort to find out the why behind a problem AND takes action to remedy it, affected people feel like they’re being heard. Oftentimes, that alone is enough to foster meaningful connection, resulting in long-lasting brand loyalty.
However, it’s important to understand that this isn’t a one-time, done-and-forgotten type of deal. The key to success with Human-Centered Design is to foster a continuous cycle of meaningful connections. The business has to form a habit…and that takes time.
It may seem daunting, but you have to start somewhere. So here are a few ways to practice creating meaningful connections:
1. Teach your employees to listen, not talk
If asked, most people would say they’re great listeners. Yet, very often when others are talking, we’re getting ready to speak, instead of actually listening. But, great listeners are active listeners. They concentrate on the implications of what someone is saying without inserting their experiences into the conversation or solving their conversation partners’ problems. One of the best techniques to practice active listening is by asking open-ended questions. When people – whether your customers or employees – feel listened to, your business will forge meaningful connections.
2. Encourage empathy
Contrary to popular belief, empathy – or the ability to feel and understand what the other person is going through without judgement – is a learned skill. It’s a mental muscle that needs practice to be effective. A few ways to practice empathy with your customers or employees is to look for what they’re not saying, which involves either observing them at their task or noticing their tone and facial expressions in conversation.
3. Create a systemic feedback loop
This is easier said than done, and often requires human-centered expert guides to put into place. The key idea here is that customer (or employee) feedback data is not a gather-and-done effort. It’s a loop, always on replay, continued throughout the life of the company. Not only will this ensure that complacency is kept at bay, but will give you valuable data to make strategic decisions.
4. Promote leaders who can follow
Following gets a bad rep. The image of a donkey meekly following without question is simply wrong. The most effective leaders smoothly move between leading and following when the situation calls for it. Putting that ego aside, listening to the ideas of less experienced employees, that’s tough. Yet, effective leadership is needed to create meaningful connections.
What can go wrong?
A lot. On paper, it all sounds easy, but fostering meaningful connections with your customers, employees, or the community at large takes time. So what stands in the way?
- Egos – businesses are made up of people, and people are not always easy to convince something is worth exploring, no matter how sound it is. Internal stakeholders steeped in company myth have crystalized ideas as to how normal operations “should be.”
- Budgets – as always change can be costly. Our recommendation is to start slow; show not tell.
- Rigid Systems – long-time operational companies deserve a lot of respect for surviving & thriving, and yet change can be slow because, up to now, things have worked out sort of OK. But, is “sort of ok,” good enough going forward?
When there is a will, there is a way…
As the visionary, you have a choice. Implementing human-centered operational changes to answer the needs of your customers or employees, or coast on past “sort of ok” growth.
Egos, budgets, and rigid systems are ever-present. The easiest place to start overcoming these challenges is with yourself and your immediate team. Creating a personal daily practice of connecting with customers and employees goes a long way in internalizing the human-centered perspective. Lead by example.
Likewise, small changes on the corporate level don’t raise as many objections. Another great place to start is to identify customer or employee -centric touchpoints in your business, and figure out ways to gather how people think and react towards your company.
Create a human-centered business in 2020
Dale Carnegie once said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Reimagine this for businesses. You can create more company value in two months by becoming interested in customers & employees than you can in two years by trying to get them interested in you.
Employees are empowered to stretch beyond the limits of their jobs with Google’s 20% process. Trader Joe’s chatty, relatable workforce and intense focus on customer feedback recreate meaningful human connection daily. 3M’s lead user co-creation process has produced a lot of innovative, highly profitable products. Why can’t you?
Creating meaningful connections between people, business, and ultimately community – strengthens the fabric of life. In 2020, create a human-centered business by identifying areas where your business can create meaningful, human-centered connections, and if you hit roadblocks, reach out to us.