What do you think would happen if one of the world's greatest violinists were to perform anonymously in a busy Metro station to over one thousand passers by during the rush hour immediately preceding the start of the working day? Do you think that in an incongruous setting at an inconvenient time, sheer talent and quality would prevail? Would a crowd of appreciative music lovers gather even for a moment to enjoy the once in a lifetime spectacle? How much do you think they could earn in an hour of busking in such a busy place ? £200? £500 £1000?. These questions were initially posed to me hypothetically and my feeling was that whilst the majority of people would be too busy at such a time to stop for any length of time, the majority would recognise that something special was happening, a sizeable minority would linger for a while and that the virtuoso performance would be rewarded generously by an appreciative few.
Well, this was not a hypothetical question but rather an experiment that was conducted a few years ago by the Washington Post newspaper, so we do not have to simply guess the outcome. The whole experience was filmed and can be seen in the short summary video I've embedded below. The article that accompanies the video makes fascinating reading. Indeed, the author, Gene Weingarten, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for it. For those of you who do not have time to read it in it's entirety, here are the salient facts as they relate to the points I want to illustrate today.
So, what do you think happened? Did genius prevail? Was Joshua Bell's virtuoso busking performance met with public acclaim and a violin case full of crumpled bank notes?
As you can see from the video, genius did not prevail. Instead, it was largely ignored and unappreciated. In the forty three minutes that he played, seven people stopped to listen at least for a moment. Twenty seven gave money, most of them on the run for a total of $32.17 (approximately £20), which leaves 1070 people who hurried by, oblivious to what was happening. Most in this group didn't even turn their heads to look. In the article, Joshua Bell joked to the author that "that's not so bad, considering...I could make an OK living doing this and wouldn't even have to pay an agent". He hasn't took up busking full time since however, so one can only assume that he wasn't seriously proposing a new, more direct way to monetise his musical talents.
An interesting story, but what, you might ask, has that got to do with my small business? You're here because you want to start, grow and sell a valuable small business and retire in the sun. What have those goals got to do with an experiment about a solo violinist playing to busy rush hour commuters? Quite a lot, actually. Allow me to explain.
I often speak to small business owners and they have no concept of how the way they "frame" their products or service impacts the way that their value is perceived. When we discuss the importance of their sales and marketing strategy, processes, collateral and the quality of the customer experience throughout every touch point between the customer and their business, I am typically met with a bemused smile and am confidently told that whilst all those things might be important for other businesses, they focus on the quality of their product and service and as long as enough people are exposed to it, they will be fine. It's a polite way of telling me to stop trying to waste their money on trivial things.
I hear this philosophy of business all of the time and the results of it are writ large in the video. One of the worlds greatest musicians is playing one of the best instruments ever made. The quality of the music could hardly have been better. It was being played to large numbers of people. However, because the "framing" was wrong, a musician who can earn £1000 per minute at his sold out performances to a rapturous reception earned about £25 in an hour to the sound of public indifference. This wasn't because the quality of the music was diminished or because it was exposed to fewer people. As many people heard Joshua Bell in the Metro Station that morning as would normally hear him at one of his performances. However, as Joshua Bell found out on that cold January morning in Washington DC, the context in which we experience something, however wonderful it is, really does matter.
Now, obviously The Washington Post was not suggesting that Joshua Bell try out busking as a career move, nor was this social experiment designed with business lessons in mind, but I believe that we can learn some important lessons from this story if we look at it through the eyes of a small business owner. Here's just three:
I have come across small business owners that are happy eking out a living from their businesses as "buskers", exposing their products and services to a mass market. often at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways. They don't do "so bad, considering" from their businesses, but have no concept that there are segments of their market that appreciate and value what they do far more than they are currently being asked to pay. Due to this weak understanding of the market place and poor pricing strategy, they are leaving huge sums of money on the table. £25 an hour might be "not so bad, considering" for a street performer but Joshua Bell had an opportunity to earn £1000 per minute by taking a different approach. For those of you that have always employed an undifferentiated marketing strategy, are there these kinds of opportunities currently going begging in your business?
However wonderful our products or services may actually be, if they are presented in an unprofessional manner, they will be perceived to be of a lesser quality. If Joshua Bell had been dressed in his normal black tuxedo suit and black dress shirt, standing on an improvised stage in that Metro station with seats laid out for people to enjoy the experience, how many more do you think would have stopped? How much more money would have ended up in the violin case? As a former airline chairman once noted, "Coffee stains on our flip down trays mean to our passengers that we do our engine maintenance wrong". As unfair as this may seem, this is the reality we face as small business owners and we need to take care to manage the way that our business is presented. A common problem for small businesses is that their website and marketing collateral looks cheap and cobbled together with little thought for the unified impression that it will leave with the customer. Is it any wonder we attract price conscious customers if we look cheap? If we were dealing with rational consumers, some of these things might matter less. Purchasing decisions, however, are often made on emotional grounds and then subsequently rationalised. We simply cannot afford to ignore the impact the way we "frame" our products and services has on customer perceptions and simply cling to the hope that if we throw enough mud at the wall some of it will stick.
Obviously, rush hour on a cold January morning is not the ideal time to approach potential customers trying to persuade them of anything. Whether or not modern life is too busy, leading us to miss out on all kinds of things that could enrich our lives, is a debate for another forum. That seemed to be the conclusion of The Washington Post. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient simply to note and accept that our clients are increasingly time poor and that the windows of opportunity to reach them in any meaningful way are becoming narrower and fewer. I believe that those businesses that can be sensitive to this and adopt a sales and marketing approach in tune with the ebb and flow of their customers lives are those that will be valued. At the right time, music lovers would be delighted to part with $100 to listen to Joshua Bell for an hour whereas at 8:00AM in a metro subway, the most any one passer by was prepared to part with was $5. For each of our small businesses there will be an optimal time to engage with our prospective customers and whether or not we get that right will have great bearing on the perceived value of our products and services.
Next time we find ourselves thinking that if we could just get our great product in front of enough people all will be well for our small business, then we would be do well to remember Joshua Bell's experience in a Washington DC subway. If you feel out of your depth in your attempts to frame your business more appropriately, feel free to contact us here at Continuous Business Planning. We'll be happy to help you make the transition from "busking" to playing to a rapturous customer reception.