Sep 20, 2010

People Take Pleasure in Rituals

Today I fled the house while my wife, Luda, was getting ready to go to the City. I figured a quick trip to Starbucks for some coffee would be just the ticket—and it was. I must have been unusually observant this morning because for the first time I noticed stenciled on the door to the coffee shop this “saying”:

Take Pleasure in Rituals

All morning, I’ve been thinking about this gentle command.

It’s not just because it’s smart marketing (make Starbucks your ritual daily stop and they sell not one espresso, but 300 this year!), but because it defines a lot of what I am seeing in today’s small business market. There is inertia out there that I have been tempted to blame on the economy but which is more likely a manifestation of one of our core behaviors: we take pleasure in doing things we can do on “automatic.” Such rituals offer comfort. And we change them only with great difficultly.

Luda and I talked about these matters in the car. When a person buys office supplies, for example, it‘s easier to call Joe at the office supply store and have him deliver XYZ than it is to get on the Internet and start price shopping for a supplier. Of course, as Luda pointed out, at least for professional services – legal, medical, dental, etc.—trust in the provider a person knows is probably more important than simply performing a ritual. As usual, Luda’s point is valid—BUT it seems to me that complementing that trust factor in returning us to vendors we know is our expectation of transacting our business smoothly, with no hassles, no surprises, no new formats, codes, procedures, etc. to master.

But what about visits to a health club? Let’s say that you’re a member of Fitness USA, and a new club opens up. The cost is about the same, but the facility is beautiful and has lots of shiny new equipment. Why doesn’t it get all the business? Perhaps because of the power and the appeal of ritual. Customers are used to the other place, and without feeling any strong dissatisfaction, they don’t have sufficient reason to forgo the familiar for what’s new.

It also helps to explain the mental dislocation associated with job loss. People who become separated from their daily occupations also lose connection with the places, people, and activities loosely associated with their particular physical location or work environment. It’s hard not to be getting that regular paycheck—but it’s also hard to be forced to give up the “rituals” that went along with it.

Luda shared another perspective. As an immigrant from Russia (she moved to the USA over 30 years ago), she and other immigrants had to deal every day with the loss of rituals – activities performed and items employed almost automatically. Nothing was done the same here as it had been done in Russia. “My head hurt, trying to think through every single life action,” she recalled.

How can this tendency help service businesses?

Is there a way you can position or deliver your service that would help your customer participate in a new “ritual” that is closely associated with your business? Like Starbucks’ encouraging customers entering its stores make frequent and regular visits, can you create a ritual opportunity for your customer? Maybe a regular newsletter, a weekly check-in call, a complementary newspaper subscription, or delivery of a monthly business book of your selection (with a note). Perhaps there’s a way to combine a customer-pleasing ritual with the routine delivery of your service. Instead of working against human nature, trying leveraging this tendency. You will keep your customers longer, they will be happier and, maybe, be more willing to tell others what a great job you are doing for them.

Are you already using rituals that strengthen your relationships with customers? I would be interested in learning how you use our natural preference for ritual in your service business efforts. Please share interesting stories with me. I will write in a future blog post about the most interesting examples I receive.