Now, More Than Ever, It’s Personal

I’ve always been an avid reader of thrillers, and find that the themes populating the best seller list frequently reflect people’s perceptions of the world at large. For instance, the fear of extraterrestrial life in the ’70s spanned a whole new world of science fiction classics; and when a spate of serial killers became national news in the ’90s, fiction quickly followed suit, with books like Silence of the Lambs.

After the events of 9/11, terrorists became the new fictional villains.

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that the “villains” in today’s hottest thriller novels are increasingly not a “who” but a “what.” Indeed, best sellers like Evil, Inc. and Power Play, which feature companies as the new bad guys, say a great deal about how people perceive business. These fictional companies pay for their top executives’ personal vacations by embezzling employees’ hard-earned pension funds, commit mass layoffs so they can move jobs to overseas sweat shops, knowingly use dangerous, toxic or defective materials to cut costs and even blow up plants full of employees to solve financial issues and garner public sympathy.

And while these books are only fiction, the message – that big business is not to be trusted – is clearly one that resonates with John and Jane Q. Public.

It’s tough enough to do business in a tight economy, where consumers are scaling back on purchases and forgoing dreams in light of economic realities (Consumer Buying Trend). But businesses may find an even greater challenge in the increasing hostility that consumers feel toward companies that continue to make headlines for everything from layoffs to bankruptcy.

Simply put, consumers are angry. They are angry at what they perceive as greedy businesses that send executives on vacation via private jets while laying off thousands. They’re angry about government bail outs, which will ultimately be paid by their tax dollars, or their children’s and grandchildren’s tax dollars. They are angry about living in an increasingly insecure world where “the enemy” has morphed from some fantasy monster, serial killer or foreign terrorist into something much closer to home – the stock market, their personal bank or even their place of employment.

So, what does this mean to the kitchen and bath professional? Simply put, it means, no matter what products you carry in your showroom, trust is the hottest commodity you can sell right now.

Bewildered, scared and angry, consumers need a personal connection if you’re going to win their business today. There’s a whole psychological component to the consumer spending mindset that goes far beyond disposable income; too many people have started to see the world in terms of “them” and “us,” and they need to be convinced you’re “one of us” before opening their wallet.

They want to do business with people, rather than big companies, and they want a relationship in place in order to feel safe sealing the deal. They want to buy products that are personally recommended by someone who will take responsibility for the end result. And on some level, they want to give their money to “regular people,” not nameless, faceless corporations.

Fortunately, this is what most kitchen and bath firms excel at. Dealers and designers have long staked their reputations on offering the kind of creativity and personalized service big-box stores can rarely, if ever, duplicate.

For instance, in this month’s issue, Ellen Cheever talks about creative ideas for integrating appliances into cabinetry (see Appliance Interface). But it’s not just about creating beautiful or even functional design solutions. It’s about getting personal with clients. It’s about relating to them as human beings, understanding their specific needs, making them feel like they are people who matter, not just walking wallets. While this is always important, it’s now more important than ever.