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John Addis

SmartCompany /

Big business has lost the human touch, and this is where we can coerce the bottom line up. By John Addis

Ol’ blue eyes

It’s unmanly to talk about another man’s eyes, unless of course they are bloodshot trophies of a late-night bender. But David Bragg’s* eyes cannot pass without mention. They’re film-star blue, crisp and penetrating.

I first met David, an organic farmer from Mullumbimby in northern NSW, late in 2005 when I bought the family Christmas tree. A year on, in search of another, I took the kids and I trundled out to his farm to see how his small plantation had endured the heat and dry weather.

David grabbed his chainsaw, hopped into the passenger seat of the family Tarago and directed us along a dusty track to one of his paddocks. After helping us through the fence we pointed out the tree we wanted. David felled it skilfully and then helped me squeeze it into the back of the van, the tree’s limbs competing for space with the children’s.

“How much?” I asked.

“Fifteen bucks, thanks.”

“Sorry, mate. Can’t do that. The tree’s about twice the size of last year and you haven’t put your prices up at all. Here’s $20.”

David then told me that every person who’d come to buy a tree from him had, like me, been quoted $15. But most had given him $20 or $25. He estimated that only one person in 20 gave him his requested price — all the rest had given more.

There’s more than a drop of festive spirit going on here, so what caused David’s customers to pay at least a third more than they were asked? Economic theory certainly can’t explain it. It suggests customers never volunteer to pay more than they have to, unless they’re trying to buy a few favours. And frankly, David’s not that sort of bloke.

Here’s another explanation. I suspect that in the thousands of transactions we make every year we develop an intuitive sense of what something is worth, we have an intrinsic sense of value. But we also have an acute sense of fairness, too.

Generally, we don’t want to rip people off, nor do we want people to undersell themselves. It’s a subliminal way of greasing the wheels in society, of making our personal relations that much more pleasant. The payoff isn’t immediate, but over the long term it helps us get along.

And this, laboriously and circuitously, brings me to my point. Price probably isn’t what you think it is. Would I have paid $20 had David’s glorious tree been sold in a shop with a surly assistant? Probably not. It was my personal acquaintance with him that made the difference. That’s what caused me to act on my sense of fairness.

Big businesses spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to create the sort of affinity I felt with David. Marketers call it a brand, but it’s a poor substitute for the real thing, a genuine human connection.

Small businesses don’t have buckets of cash to throw at TV ads and supermodels willing to adorn their limbs with expensive watches. But, if the employees have the latitude to behave as humans rather than robots, small businesses don’t need big budgets. It’s the great advantage we have over monolithic, faceless corporations: the human touch.

So, if you have an automated phone system instead of a real receptionist, get rid of it. If you send emails to customers when you could write or call, consider stopping.

Remember that if it can be done by computer, anyone can do it. Start doing things for your customers that only people can do. Surprise them. Admit to your mistakes; you’ll be amazed at how humanising, and incredibly rare, this is for customers to witness. They’ll love you for it.

Be professional, whatever that means, but don’t let professionalism strip you of your humanity. Then review your pricing structure. You’ll probably find you have more room to move than you think. And maybe, just maybe, your customers will tell you as much.

As for David, despite the frustrations, flies and hard work, he seemed happy enough. Actually, he seemed better than that. There was a sense of purpose to his work that he clearly relished.

Yes, it’s a clichéd, romantic image of one man at home on his land but he exuded an unusual tranquillity. I suspect he wouldn’t feel like that if he worked for someone else, no matter how much he was earning. You could see it in his eyes.

* David’s name has been changed to prevent Hollywood agents.

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