Where would motivational speakers be without our capacity to fool ourselves? We listen to their inspirational observations, amazing success stories and sound advice and believe (for at least as long as it takes to fill out speaker evaluation forms) that we'll return to our desks with renewed energy and sense of purpose and an ability to apply the speakers' creative intelligence to our own businesses.
But even if we had heard Dale Carnegie himself speak the previous weekend, come Monday morning we would find our inboxes filled with client requests and concerns, phone messages that have to be returned and employees with legitimate demands on our time. Not a whole lot of the day will be left over to win friends, influence people or think outside the box.
Even when advice is highly specific, it's unlikely to get much traction with an audience. In 2002, speaking at a Travel Weekly conference, industry consultant Robert Joselyn shared some insights I thought were so profound that they could fundamentally change the way travel agencies operate. Jocelyn, incidentally, has a good track record when it comes to profound insight; he had been preaching that travel agents should charge fees long before that practice became the norm.
In 2002, Jocelyn suggested that travel agents viewed their jobs too narrowly and could profit from looking at all the implications a trip has for travelers. While many agents take the time to arrange custom services to make a trip special while their clients are traveling, Jocelyn advocated that this also be done in the agency's hometown, before and after a trip.
He gave a few examples: Offer to bring clients' pets to and from the kennel. Stop the newspaper and mail for them. Stock their refrigerator with perishables the day before they return.
The advice seemed filled with upside. It could provide a point of differentiation from other agencies, a way to deepen client relationships and, significantly, an agent could charge fees for doing these services.
Perhaps a few agents did follow Jocelyn's advice, but in-town concierge services have not yet become a significant travel agency trend.
I recently heard Richard Teerlink, the former CEO of Harley-Davidson, speak to a group of general managers of Carlson Cos. hotel brands. He told great stories about how he and his team had turned around Harley-Davidson's corporate fortunes. I was so impressed with the substance of the presentation that I subsequently invited him to speak at an upcoming Travel Weekly event.
But perhaps more effective than his speech was what came after. As soon as he left the stage, Yvonne La Penotiere, Carlson's chief branding officer, told a story about her brother and his devotion to Harley-Davidson. From a young age, her brother had been obsessed with Harleys, sticking with the brand through good times and bad. He recently ordered a customized bike, but soon discovered it had a particularly bad recurring problem: The engine would die while the bike was moving.
He patiently tried to get it fixed, and he even rode the troubled bike to a rally in Florida. While there, he brought it to a Harley dealer. The dealer said he'd look at the problem, but three days later, he still hadn't inspected it, despite promises to personally come in early to check it out. Her brother ended up bringing the bike to another dealer, where he traded it in for a Honda. Forty years of brand loyalty disappeared with the dealer's repeated broken promises to look at the bike.
I thought it a very nervy move to follow a guest speaker's success story with a pointed counterexample about that same company's failure, but La Penotiere was rightfully more interested in emphasizing a corporate concern than counting on Teerlink's message to inspire.
If she were a professional corporate or motivational speaker, it's doubtful she would have ended on a cautionary note. While there was substance in both speeches, La Penotiere's message -- that the best laid strategies of big corporations can be rendered meaningless if there isn't appropriate follow-through at the local level -- gained power because it followed Teerlink's upbeat story. Her story was also memorable, in part, because it defied the audience expectation of a happy ending.
I'm not sure that the world is ready for motivational speakers who end with a dose of vinegar. But I think she and Teerlink made a great combination. Audience members might not apply the lessons they learned on their first morning back in the office, but the speakers' points will inform decisions listeners make about branding and customer service for the rest of their careers.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].