there’s no substitute for the human connection

0415tiliasm

I’m a big fan of digital marketing and what it can mean to brands when it’s done right.  I’m fortunate that I get to work in this space, and it’s the reason that I enjoy coming to the office everyday. Whether it be from my firsthand experience, from what I’ve read or from what I’ve heard in conversations with colleagues, loads of companies are putting tremendous resources toward many things digital. This is taking the shape of improving online shopping, dialing up digital experiences aimed at smartphone users and pursuing different ways to interact with people that spend their time on social networks.  I think this is fantastic and where our attention should be.  But I also think that this work makes it easy to overshadow and forget about the potential impact of a having a face-to-face experience between a consumer and an employee.

Over the past few weeks, Leslie and I have been making the rounds in the Twin Cities at some of our favorite stores and restaurants.  During those excursions there were some nice reminders about the impact that people can bring to an experience even in the smallest of ways, and I’ve been thinking about how these small touches provide lessons for businesses of all sizes.

Tilia
Tilia is a restaurant that has the feel of a cozy cafe (the place only has 15 tables or so), it features great modern American food and is one of my favorite places to eat in Minnneapolis.  Plus it’s located in the mini-downtown area of my neighborhood, which I am utterly thrilled about.  We recently went there for an impromptu dinner on a Friday night, and because Tilia is walk-in only — in other words no reservations are accepted — we did have a 45 minute wait to be seated.  While waiting, we observed the owner/chef Steven Brown keeping tabs on all parts of the operation.

At first he was behind the bar, then he made his way to the kitchen, next he checked in with the dishwashers, then he stopped by a few tables to chat with some of the patrons and then he came up to us. He asked us how were were doing and even offered to get us a drink.  Because I remembered that he is a big music fan, we even spent a few minutes gabbing about this year’s Rock the Garden. Now Steven may have remembered us from previous visits to Tilia or maybe he didn’t, but the fact that he stopped to spend a few minutes welcoming us and engaging in conversation really made us feel at home.  By the time we finished our meal, we didn’t even mind that we had to wait nearly an hour before getting to our seats.  We felt that Steven had welcomed us into his place and made it feel like it belonged to the neighborhood as much as it belonged to him — and for that, we were willing to wait.

Fetus

The Electric Fetus
I’m well aware that less and less people are buying physical copies of new music. If you are looking to pick up a new release on CD or sift through sleeves of vinyl or looking for the closest experience to the movie “High Fidelity,” then there really is only one place to go in the Twin Cities: The Electric Fetus.  It is THE record store in town; it’s the Minneapolis equivalent to Waterloo Records or Amoeba Music or Grimey’s. While there recently, I was visiting with the Fetus’s manager Bob Fuchs, and he was talking about how one of his objectives for the store is to get every customer that is there for music engaged in a one-on-one conversation with one the store’s clerks.

He believes, and I agree with him on this, that even though there are no shortage of digital music services and recommendation engines, it’s hard to overcome a recommendation from a music enthusiast that really knows his or her stuff.  The store’s staff is filled with people that have deep and broad knowledge about music that crosses all genres and all generations. Are you into jazz? Old school country? Speed metal? Indie rock? House music? Americana? Name the genre or the artist, and the Fetus has someone there to have that conversation with you.  The day we were at the store Leslie was looking for some new music. Because she really adores the new Beach House album (which is really great by the way, you should seriously consider picking it up), the employee behind the counter talked to her for a while and suggested she check out the new Lower Dens album.  The employee talked about why this particular album was worth listening to and why it was a mainstay in his current rotation of albums. You’d be hard pressed to get that kind of insight from a recommendation engine.  After listening to the album it turned out we both really like it and we immediately bought it so we could listen to it in the car on the way home.

Settergren’s Hardware Store
I’m not a handyman – not even close.  Painting and very basic household maintenance is about as far as I can get.  But if there is ever a time where I need to go in and talk to someone about how to fix something around my house, then Settergren’s Hardware is the is only place I’ll go.

Whenever I walk into their store there is someone there to greet me and offer help right away. Whether I’m asking a simple question, like looking for trash bags, or need to get their opinion on something more complicated like the ice dams at my house, they are always friendly and courteous. Aside from the friendly attitude, the store itself doesn’t have the feel of a retail store. Fresh popped popcorn is always on hand for anyone who walks in the door. You may find one of their friendly dogs nuzzling up to you for a pat on the head. Or you may just see neighborhood regulars hanging out and talking to the staff.  It just seems to be par for the course to feel welcomed, never treated like I don’t know what I’m doing (even when that’s not the case) and never being up-sold on other products just to make a bit more money.

It’s always nice to find examples of in-person retail experiences done right, and it makes me feel even better when they are in my neighborhood.  These experiences breed loyalty, they generate word-of-mouth and they are hard to substitute with a standalone digital tactic.  There’s a time and place to really drive digital marketing and digital experiences, but it’s also important to be mindful of the importance of the offline experience that can foster a human connection.

(Photos courtesy of Shuttersmack Photography + Design.)

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