Monday, 16 December 2013

A gesture is enough for the smart

There are medical conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome where sufferers are unable to pick up on social cues; but they are not the people covered in this post. This post is about those who due to carelessness, absent-mindedness or pure lack of perception fail to catch the subtle (and sometimes the not-so-subtle) messages of others.

Take for instance last year, I was at a party where guests far outnumbered the portions provided by the caterer. It got to a stage that things descended into a free-for-all, as men and women (old enough to be parents and grandparents) were fighting for food, as though we were in a concentration camp. The situation was pitiful, to say the least. In fact where I was sitting, this man had succeeded in landing a large plate of chicken wings and without waiting or having any concern for the other occupants at the table, he began to hungrily devour the meal. I was only relieved that the chicken was dead and could not witness the bone-crushing, flesh-stripping brutality that the man inflicted on it.

Then, out of nowhere, an old friend of mine appeared. She asked if I had eaten and when I replied in the negative, she asked me to follow her and get some food for myself. I looked up, and saw the friend who invited me to the party sitting across the hall. I could see both hunger and frustration written all over his face and I beckoned to him to follow me. He waved back. I beckoned again and this time around, I got a wave and a smile. After this was repeated twice more, I gave up and followed my old friend.  She took me into the kitchen, asked the servers to give me all I needed and left. I was ushered to a seat behind a large table and in a flash, a plate and cutlery was neatly set before me. All kinds of steaming dishes followed and a few chilled drinks to wash it all down. I took two handsome helpings.

After the meal, I rolled myself back to the hall and found my hungry friend still waiting for me. “Where have you been?” he irritably asked. “Nowhere” I answered; concerned that any knowledge of the feast would further infuriate him. On our way home, I asked why he didn't follow me when I beckoned. “Follow?” he queried, “Weren't you waving at me?” I didn’t answer him. If he could not interpret a simple ‘Come over’ sign, I guess he deserved to go hungry.

Some of us are just poor in catching cues. Not until some girls carry a neon sign saying ‘Ask me out’, some boys will never decode their body language. Not until some parents spell out in black and white the things that they want done, some kids will never understand chores to be done. Reminds me of a friend who badly wanted to attend his brother’s out-of-state school but just couldn't convince his dad. Each time the issue came up and his dad said, "No" because he wasn't responsible, it sounded like alien language to him. He pleaded and promised to change but his dad wouldn't budge. One day, as he was walking past his parents’ bedroom, he heard his elder brother appealing to his dad, on his behalf. The dad responded that he would agree only if my friend made his bed the following day without the daily reminder from him. As you’d expect, my friend was up before everyone the next morning; he arranged his room, bathroom and passageway and had begun with the sitting room when his father came to check who was making such noise in the house that early in the morning. Sure enough, my friend got to attend his brother’s school, thanks to his eavesdropping skills.

If we cannot read the customer’s needs and cannot catch their cues, better cue readers and need detectors will come in and snatch them away. Walmart arrived in the days before the personal computer; it flourished as businesses leveraged on computerization to automate their operations and they made a kill. As the internet became more accessible with the proliferation of notebooks, smartphones and other connecting gadgets, other businesses read the customers’ 'cues' and provided them with the convenience of online shopping. Amazon and the other online shops have made Walmart the most innovative retailer of the past because they smartly read that in addition to the ‘lowest prices’ Walmart provided, customers also wanted the ‘least inconvenience’ to get their shopping needs.

I understand the pressure that entrepreneurs face in business. Trying to juggle personnel issues, balance the books, make strategic plans, meeting regulatory obligations etc. can be so daunting and often drowns them as they go through the motions. But, there’s need to come up for air every once in a while and connect with the customers for which they began the business in the first place. There’s no shame in admitting that you can’t read trends or catch customers’ signals; but when you connect with the customer you can at least feel their pulse and know the kind of pioneering services and products that they expect. You can also get to know what is obtainable out there by keeping abreast of happenings in your sector through journal subscriptions, attending fairs, symposia and seminars. Many undiscerning entrepreneurs are like my friend; they failed to catch the signals that would have led them to the ‘frontiers of unimaginable abundance’ and today are hungry. I hope you won’t be one of them.

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