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The Deconstruction of a Salesman

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March 26, 2018
Michael Schubach - michaelschubach@me.com

©2018 Hospitality Upgrade
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There’s a famous adage that every aspiring entrepreneur knows by heart: Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. 
The message is simple and clear. A good, well-executed idea – no matter how humble the endeavor – will make you successful.  
But as humankind is wont to do, we take that simple plan and complicate it. Experts assure us that good ideas are a common commodity, that decent execution can always be improved upon by consultants and focus groups; and that our humble endeavors can always be super-sized or up-scaled to the deluxe version. 
Today’s adage goes more like this: The world might beat a path to your door, provided you have a catchy jingle, a sticky catchphrase, a well-focused message and a multimillion dollar advertising campaign. 
Getting the Word Out 
Commercial advertising seems to be mankind’s second oldest profession. If you’ve been to the ruins of Pompeii and Ephesus, you know marketing had its place in the ancient world, too. Houses of ill repute there bear easily recognizable and enduring symbols scratched into their stones – or frescoed onto the walls. It was an easy way to bring patrons to their doorsteps. 
Print ads cropped up shortly after Gutenberg finished his printing press. Over the centuries, media like newspapers pushed neighborhood boundaries and grew to serve not only large cities, but counties, provinces or states. Later, roadside advertising spoke to a newly mobile traveling public. It came to serve a regional market as automobile travel evolved from novelty to mainstay. Then came radio, and with it a national audience of eager consumers.  
When television appeared, it, too, captured the national audience. It also strengthened the power of the message. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then one minute of a live action demo or a celebrity smoking a Lucky Strike was worth a million words – and nearly as many dollars. This power and money gave rise to an army of professional influence peddlers who tell us what to want, who to admire and, most important, what to buy. It’s an awesome power, and not one to trifle with.
Almost forgotten in that stampede is another longtime advertising amigo, the irrepressible word of mouth. It’s a special case. It had the punch of personalized influence but it couldn’t quite keep current with the rest of the pack. Word of mouth used to be reserved for nearby friends and family. The message was powerful but the universe was small.    
That was before the digital age and the wealth of personal gadgets each of us possesses. The democratization of access, coupled with the deployment of Next-gen intelligent robotics, is transforming the world. We’re learning an old lesson in a new format: Transformations aren’t easy. Jobs disappear, populations are displaced and people become unsure of their brave new world. Conventional wisdom no longer applies.
The Uber Effect
And so it goes with our newest victim: advertising. To make a proper noun into a multi-use verb, advertising has been Uberized. A perfectly respectable, highly organized, well-understood worldwide enterprise has been upended by technology in the hands of the masses.  
Only eight years ago, the most predictable thing about a taxicab was the likelihood that it would be yellow. You could call for one, but you were never sure it would show up. If not, you had to dance on the sidewalk to catch a driver’s eye. Once you got in, you had no idea how much the ride would cost, how you’d be allowed to pay, or if your driver would be Mr. Magoo or Jack the Ripper. Despite obvious drawbacks, the business paradigm was a worldwide standard that had no intention of evolving. An army of licensed, professional drivers was deployed for the foreseeable future.  
And then along came Uber, which launched the commercial equivalent of the Revolutionary War. A rag-tag band of nonprofessional short timers, armed only with a fleet of personal vehicles, smartphones and a better mousetrap, confounded and harassed a standing army of complacent professionals. 
Would-be passengers no longer had to wave their hands wildly in the air in hopes of getting a driver’s attention. They could dictate where and when they wanted to be picked up. A glance at their phone told them the driver’s name, the type of car, estimated arrival time and trip cost. Payment methods predetermined; a rider didn’t need cash on hand or card in wallet.  
Uber knew who was driving, who was riding and which path you were taking to get to your destination. If there were a problem, Uber could react immediately. At the trip’s end, driver and passenger rate each other, a system that rewards the talented, eliminates the problematic and thereby improves the experience for all. Uber may not be the perfect company – and it certainly has had its share of challenges – but in eight years it reimagined a stubborn, century-old, poorly supervised industry that will never again go back to its previous form. Uber Uberized public transportation and continues to do so today.
As the hospitality industry is painfully aware, AirBnB is knee-deep into the Uberization of hotels. Again, it represents a challenge that wasn’t supposed to happen. An uninspected, non-standard apartment-for-hire shouldn’t pose a serious challenge to the well-regarded, internationally established hotel brands,  and yet, here we go again.    
The Return of Word of Mouth
What does all this have to do with advertising? How did a rag-tag band of nonprofessionals drive mass consumption? By word of mouth. Personal, relatable and highly trusted, word of mouth never had a platform that rivaled the modern giants of mass communication. But now our personal world is no longer local. Through the magic of social media, we’re members of tribes, affinity groups, friendship circles and multi-level relationships. 
Millennials come in record-shattering numbers and they possess overwhelming purchasing power. They’ve made it quite clear that traditional advertising isn’t as compelling to them as a personal recommendation from within their circle. The premise of that statement is simple and clear – it’s the radius of the circle that is astounding.  
Let me cite one personal example: I am a Facebook friend of a woman who headlines at my favorite piano bar in New York City. It’s just her and me and several hundred Broadway aficionados. Her mother’s health recently took a turn for the worse, and she asked her Facebook friends for trusted adult care facilities and medical assistance in the Boston area. In a matter of hours, she had scores of recommendations, personal contacts to call, specialists listed and a thousand good wishes for her mother’s speedy recovery.
In short, she was able to circumvent both the traditional pamphleteering and Google’s endless compendium of websites and listings. Instead, she went straight to friends and friends of friends with proven credibility to get an immediate solution to her problem. It’s Angie’s List without the strangers. 
Stop Negative Tweets Before They’re Tweeted
The impact on our industry is that our attention – and therefore our money – will rapidly ebb away from traditional advertising outlets and move toward popular social platforms. A hotel’s reputation – how well or poorly service is delivered – will be determined based on each individual transaction, as reported on a massive scale in social media outlets. Fairly or not, hotels and restaurants will live or die in TripAdvisor and Facebook. 
Likewise, LinkedIn and Glassdoor will determine whether potential employees seek you out or avoid you like the plague. Reputation management is the popular term for the class of applications that help you find and respond to negative postings. But the key to managing your hotel’s reputation isn’t how you reply. It’s what you do to prevent bad experiences in the first place. Making public concessions to wronged guests in order to stem the damage from a bad review comes off as a begrudging offer of too little too late. Better to fix what you can before a situation goes public. Best not to not have the situation in the first place. Service recovery should be a primer based on lessons learned, not a directory of acceptable apologies and restitutions to be offered if/when you get caught in the act. 
Reminding ourselves of these service basics is a part of our troubling transition into a new post-modern world. We live in an era of “fake” news, which is to say that we struggle to find trusted sources of information. This is the not-so-surprising side effect of democratizing access. Any idiot with an agenda can say almost anything, and that content will find an audience willing to repeat it. 
In a larger sense, credibility problems in advertising are nothing new. The early-20th-century Americanism, snake oil -- meaning hokum proffered by disreputable vendors, may be a relatively new addition to the language. But the idea of exaggerated claims in advertising dates back at least as far as oversized body parts on the walls of Pompeii. 
Remaining relevant means being able to change willingly and rapidly. The industry must fearlessly embrace new ideas and new technologies lest it be Uberized into history. Do the right thing the first time, and do it again if your first attempt misses its mark. Remember: There are no secrets in the Digital Age. There’s a camera to catch every transaction and a Tweeter to pass it along.  
Think of your guest not as a single individual but as an army of well-connected friends just waiting to hear how well you did your job. Forget the pitch and refine the mousetrap: Electronic word of mouth will help patrons beat a path to your door.

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