Everyone is the hero in their own story. Everyone else is just a character we use to further our story.
Sometimes these characters are incredibly evil. Sometimes they are really amazing.
A few months ago, my friend Shira told me a story about what transpired on her recent trip with her sons to Toronto. Her flight was delayed and landed after midnight in Buffalo, and she was supposed to rent a car and drive over the border. The villain in her story was the car rental company who didn’t stay open for all of the people on her flight with car reservations and doubled down by lying to her on the phone, and then not ever remedying the situation.
She made an ally that night, who was going through the same situation as she was. She spotted a potential savior at a different car rental company, who stayed open and working, even though it was after midnight and their computers were down. Unfortunately, he was just a plot twist, and was unable to help her.
Her fairytale vacation in Canada turned into a tragedy. She felt like a Disney princess, being forced to stay at home in her evil stepmother’s house, unable to go to the ball, wine tasting, sightseeing or any national parks, because she didn’t have a car for most of the trip. It was a story with no happy ending.
When hearing customer stories, which character is your company?
Spoiler alert: you are not the hero.
The stories we tell tend to go one way or the other. They are either, “I had the most amazing dinner because the hot waiter flirted with me the entire time.” or “The flight was delayed three hours, they didn’t have my gluten-free meal on the 15 hour flight, and I sat next to a baby crying the entire time.”
People don’t tell uneventful stories.
I’ve heard that cleaners on Yelp have this problem. People tend to rate them when something bad happens, but not when they did exactly like they promised to do. The result is that they have a glut of bad reviews, even though it may only represent .1% of all their customers. Behaviorists call this phenomenon the “recall bias”, we only recall either the extreme positive or extreme negative aspects of a situation.
As business owners, we have to stop thinking of our company’s story, but rather of how we can be an ally or a savior in our customer’s story. We have to begin to understand their stories, and figure out where exactly we fit in.
Chances are, we are going to be a character, we just don’t want to be cast as the evil witch.
This means that we have to put ourselves in their shoes and wonder how they will interact with our offering.
Is our brilliant idea ultimately a help or a hinderance to them?
I was recently chatting with Shira about her newly adopted rescue puppy, Layla, she mentioned an interaction she had with her dog insurance company. They offered free tags, along with her $100 monthly payment. When she tried ordering the tags, she found out that the company chose not to include her dog’s name nor her contact information on the tags, as she had done in the past, but rather they wanted whoever would find the missing puppy to call a toll-free number and talk with an operator who would ultimately reunite Shira and Layla.
The company was so focused on trying to be the hero of the story, that they did not take into consideration that things happen: there could be a virus on their system, a local power outage, or some other unimaginable event that would prevent from this convoluted process from happening, like them going bankrupt.
In the story of a lost dog, the savior is actually the Good Samaritan who found Layla wandering around and took the time to find the owners. Not the insurance company who insinuated themselves into the middle of a process.
The purpose of an insurance company is to play a positive role on the worst possible day of our dog’s life, one that we hope will never happen. In an article about dog insurance for Vox this past summer, Sarah Kliff quoted a Harvard economist in saying that he’d be ”blissfully happy if I never used my homeowners insurance.” We pay because we don’t want something to happen, not because we want a close intense relationship with our insurer. We want our insurer to take care of us and our dog, if need be. That’s it.
Joseph Campbell, the creator of the monomyth or the Hero’s Journey, writes about all the different archetypical characters that are associated with the Hero. There are, of course, the Shadows, who are the villains and the enemies in the stories we tell. The evil corporations who were inflexible and only cared about the bottom line and not our happiness. The banks who charge insane fees because they know we don’t have another option.
There are the mentors, like Yoda, Merlin, Wikipedia or Siri. And then there are the allies. The friends who accompany us along the way. The people who help us and provide the color in our lives. The bartender who listens to our story or the uber driver who has the most epic playlist.
To become the hero in someone’s story, means that someone else is telling your company’s story. For example, I decided to make Shira the heroine of the anecdotes in this post. “Shira the mother, who travelled across the country alone with her two boys.” “Shira the kindhearted person, who adopted a rescue puppy.” The only time someone will write such a writeup about your company is if it is for a magazine spread or a newspaper exposé.
Customers don’t write stories like that about you.
But you can try to always be a friend. You can try to make every customer service call a positive experience. Your customers may retell the story, and you could either be cast as an ally or a villain. You may be party to the worst day of their life, or one of the best.
The first thing we must do is understand what our customer’s story is. Are we helping them on a daily basis, a weekly basis, a monthly basis or is our service the sort of thing they hope never to utilize? Is our job to educate them and inform them, like a mentor, or to provide a flawless service every time?
When you take a step back and realize that you are not the hero, it enables you to become a better mentor or ally to your customers. You can’t plan that you will be there as a hero for the worst day of their life, because you never want your customers to experience such a horrible day. But you can be there to answer questions when they need. You can be there to lend a helping hand before something becomes a nightmare.
The first step is understanding their story and their lifestyle. Put yourself in their shoes and write a narrative about how they spend their days or live their lives. Identify five or ten fictitious archetypical customers and write the narrative for them. You should figure out what their daily pain points are and learn to empathize with them.
You will always be a character in your customer’s stories, but it is your choice to decide which role you will be playing.
We already know that you are not the hero.
Don’t be the villain, aim to be an ally.