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The Key to This Business Is Personal Relationships



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I was skeptical from the start. Though the billboard ban in São Paulo was an interesting experiment, I still had my doubts whether I could find companies that the rest of the world could learn from.

A journalist contact insisted that I go to a suburb of São Paulo called Alphaville to visit a company there. It sounded like a name you would give a space colony on Mars. Perhaps it was fitting; after all, Brazil, unlike Europe, has almost no past, only future. That makes it impossible to look backwards to find solutions, which often are too outdated anyway for tomorrow’s challenges.

The positive side is that being cut off from the past can spark innovation.

Even the capital of Brazil is just fifty years old. It’s a city built from scratch. Brasilia is not only a planned city, it is a planned capital. In1960 Brasília replaced Rio de Janeiro as Brazil’s center of government. Just five years before, the area resembled a desert, with no people, scarce water, and few animals and plants.

By the close of the twentieth century, Brasília held the distinction of being the largest city in the world that had not existed at the beginning of the century.

Alphaville

I was headed for a similarly planned city, though much smaller than Brasilia. Alphaville was created by a construction company in the 1970s. The impetus was that the São Paulo megalopolis was beginning to show increasing crime rates, traffic jams, and other forms of urban problems, and consequently suburban developments gained popularity, both for modern industrial and commercial ventures and for the wealthy and upper-middle-class residents of the city.

Today, the original Alphaville site has thirty-three gated areas, with more than 20,000 residences. The business area is already a small city, with over two thousand businesses, including eleven schools and universities, with a daily movement of more than 150,000 people.

My first thoughts about Alphaville were of the film of the same name. Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution) is a 1965 black-and-white French science fiction film noir directed by Jean-Luc Godard I had seen a couple of years earlier. Combining the genres of dystopian science fiction and film noir, the film was shot in real locations in Paris, with the night time streets of the capital becoming the streets of Alphaville, while modernist glass and concrete buildings (that in 1965 were new and strange architectural designs) represented the city’s interiors.

The film is about a society where people who show signs of emotion are gathered up, interrogated, and executed. It evokes the corporate culture you find in many companies. It’s all about profits. When you speak to the people there – expecting to get service – it’s like talking to computers. The concept of the individual self, the personal relationship, has been crushed under the profit-optimized machine of a company.

Eloi and Flytour

The company I visited in the real Alphaville is called Flytour, which operates as a travel agency for both companies and individuals. Their 2,300 employees arrange business trips for big companies like IBM and Microsoft.

While Flytour is a corporation, the campus struck me as very uncorporate. I felt like I was in a theme park rather than an office complex. This place was really built for people by people. After having visited countless offices that at the best have been built by good architects but at the worst looked more like bland boxes, here I felt like I was at home.

I was offered a coffee in their canteen, where I was amazed to see a life-sized replica shark like the one in Jaws that looked as if it were crashing through the ceiling. Why? I asked the PR team that was accompanying me.

„It’s a metaphor for our competitors,“ they said. „We’re doing very well, and when we enjoy the good food in our canteen that’s beautifully decorated, it’s easy to forget that we are not swimming in the ocean of opportunities alone. There are competitors, and you have to be ready for them.“

What a great way to prevent complacency, I thought. You can either say it or show it. And I’m sure the shark is vividly remembered by everyone who enters the canteen.

The next thing that hit me was a pool with a fountain and a statue in Greek style surrounded by a beautiful green lawn.

They’ve even built their own lighthouse, which towers above two of the palm shaded buildings. Having been tipped off by the PR guys that this is no random choice, I reflected upon it as a symbol of a company that is standing up tall, guiding the way, making sure people stay clear of obstacles up ahead. There is no need to fear, it says. This is a company headquarters that keeps telling stories wherever I look.

I met Eloi, their marketing manager. He’s also the son of the founder, who has the same name, only pronounced slightly differently. Maybe Eloi’s father really wanted to see his progeny continue long after his earthly demise.

Eloi surprised me by starting our conversation by showing me a colorful cartoon drawing of their founder sitting in a small boat, fishing. His fishing line traced a sweeping S-curve in the bright blue sky, and formed a time line. The time line started in 1974 and extended to the last stop of „Futuro: 2014 a 2018.“

On the far left of the picture, a rocky outcropping was topped by the company lighthouse.

The scene represented the whole company. The placid ocean symbolized the opportunities. The man in the boat gives direction. You always have a point to go to, and a map. All employees aim for the same philosophy on the same boat. It works very well.

He also showed me a graphic poster featuring the Brazilian flag and geometric shapes. The text below the graphic read: „This chart represents the history of our Group. The flag represents one hundred percent of our patriotism. The largest ellipse means the beginning of a dream, a solid company. The smaller ones mean the continuing evolution of this achievement. The fish represent our achievements. The birds show unity and the spirit of peace in our relationships.“

I asked Eloi if all of their 2,300 employees knew about this.

„All of them,“ replied Eloi. „Everybody attends immersion classes. We have five classrooms. Everything about our philosophy and our history is taught.

„It’s our DNA. We’re a corporation, but we don’t see it as a corporation. We work with the understanding that the main value of the company is our people, and they need to be engaged with the philosophy, the DNA, and the history of the company. That’s how we create our culture.“

I was impressed. I had never seen a company with such a strong storytelling. How often have business leaders stood up in front of their employees showing graphs, numbers, and endless PowerPoint slides? For long it has puzzled me how companies that from the outside seem to do all the right things, but only because they bought all the fancy programs and systems sold by consultants using a lot of buzzwords. It’s not a system that’s needed; it’s spirit!

I told Eloi that I noticed LEGO bricks symbolizing the year the company started.

„Yes,“ he replied. „I love LEGO too. I used to play with them when I was a kid. In our house we have big walls with large shelves for LEGO models.

„I like the history because LEGO is a family company. We’re also a family company. We’ve learned a lot from them.“

I recalled an article I had read a few months earlier about LEGO. Unlike public companies, they are not forced to look short-term to satisfy their shareholders. Family businesses can stick to their values. There is nothing wrong in earning money, but without a purpose and values, it makes it more difficult for people to dedicate themselves to creating something great.

Business Is Personal

„The key to this business is personal relationships,“ said Eloi. „Our customers trust us. Let’s say someone gets married, and they’re wondering where to go on their honeymoon. I’ll say, ‘Go to this hotel. Stay three days here, another four days there. Rent this car. Eat this food. Go to this restaurant.’ It’s people to people.

„Too much business and customer service is going online. But software cannot interact with you. When you have a problem – say, you cannot get a flight – whom do you call? You need real humans.

„I can tell you it works. Ninety-five percent of our clients are returning clients. The relationships are strong and they have confidence in us. We’re always adapting to the client and making sure that everybody is important. We won’t let anybody stay in the airport. If you have a problem, if you got in late, we’re going to find another flight for you. We have to make it work. We never know who missed the flight. Was it the CEO or the sales guy? We treat everyone equally.

„It’s not the brand that sells. It’s word of mouth. For example, if you’re a businessman, you’re looking for the same service – which is flying – and having all expenses covered by the company. Let’s say you do your travel planning with another company, and your friend says to you, ‘I prefer to go by Flytour.’ Really? Why? And that’s how the conversation starts. Most of our clients come from recommendations from their colleagues.“

I tried to push Eloi to see if that were really true. Was all of it repeat customers and word of mouth? Eloi told me they really didn’t do any marketing for their B2B segment, but for B2C segment they do use traditional advertising. One also has to understand, he said, that Brazil is a country where lots of people can’t even read.

„In this business,“ he said, „What wins is not the ad. It’s not the marketing brand. If you only look at the price and you look at an image like in an ad, it’s very hard to measure what you’re buying. It’s like if you go into a car dealer intending to buy the cheapest car. When you get there and you see the differences between the various models of cars, all at the same dealership. Then you say, I want this one. I don’t want that anymore. You see the difference.“

Don’t Sell on Price Alone

„I don’t believe in selling on the basis of price,“ continued Eloi. „If you only focus on the price you don’t create a relationship with the customer. You’ve sold yourself for short-term money.

„There might be competitors that are cheaper, but people also worry about the quality. Is this a good place to buy because it’s cheaper? Will I regret it if I buy it here? We have these kinds of thoughts about quality. You get what you pay for. Good quality and service have their price.“

It was like he was repeating a statistic published by the Rockefeller Institute / Tarp Studies about why customers leave a company in favor of another one. Surprisingly, for only nine percent it was because of the price. For sixty-eight percent it was the lack of dialogue and communication.

„We made an interesting video two years back,“ said Eloi. „Before I came here, my brother was responsible for marketing. What are the challenges when a person has a life of travel? When you’re at home, life has a regular rhythm; but then you have to travel for business. It’s hard. You have to leave the small kids at home. You have to catch a flight. You have to worry about whether the meeting is going to go well. The video shows how well you are treated while traveling, so that you don’t have to worry about that. At least you can focus on what is really important to you, which is family and creating a good business. Flytour takes good care of you when you are travelling so you can take care of what is important for you. It’s a strong emotion, and that is very valid in the business world.

„We also have a software app providing you with maps and information about your destination. If you’re going to a destination like the Hotel Meliá, for example, and you enter ‘destination,’ it shows which direction the hotel is. It’s a great service. It’s all about coming up with new and smarter ways to service your customers and make their lives better.

„If I provide great service, people will talk about it. I don’t have to do advertising in media. They will sell it for me. The customer will say, ‘Oh, you see I bought the product here and I received great service,’ and then you’ll check it out yourself because the people that you trust are giving you the advice.

„It’s the best marketing in businesses that exists. It’s about relations. I will say the future is about relations. With a good relationship it’s also a lot easier to cross-sell, up-sell, and after-sell. But the cross-sell, up-sell, and after-sell must be seen as a service.“

I love when companies can redefine their sales and marketing. Why not make your service your marketing. „We ask, ‘How was your flight? Was everything okay? How was your vacation? Next year, where would you like to go?’

„We give advice. Our people work after the sale. It’s really what happens after the sale that’s important, not the first sale you did. But for a lot of companies will sell something to you, and then suddenly they don’t care about you anymore. ‘I already sold that stuff to you,’ they’ll say. ‘I don’t need to take care of you. You already bought it.’“

I remarked that this attitude often comes from ineffective incentive programs inside the company. If your sales people get a bonus each time they get a new customer, that’s where the focus will be. And they won’t care about your old customers. We need to see our business as relationship-based and not transaction-based. After the acquisition cost of getting a new customer, you often need the customer for two or three years before they’re profitable.

„Don’t sell people a product,“ continued Eloi. „Serve them. Start listening to them. You have to sit and talk to them and see what they’re really looking at. Then you can help them in the best way. But for that you need educated employees. What if I had an employee who never caught a plane? How can they sell or serve a customer who is going to fly? Your employees don’t know what you’re talking about but they have to sell it. How can you do that? How can they talk about a product if they haven’t had it?

„We understand that when you teach an employee to talk about a product or a country or a destination, they get really happy.

„Most of our knowledge about tourism is in the university. We have four to five years of courses. All new employees have to go for a one-month introduction, and then you have to go to specialized training in our business in some area. In our company, you can end up having a bachelor’s degree, and it’s a very respectable degree.“

Investing In Employees

I suggested that for Flytour to offer employees a business degree or a degree at university was a cutting edge idea. For most, being a company representative on the phone is a position of low status. Top management may even see such employees as an expense rather than an investment in customer care and relationship building. As we walked around we passed by a football that had been placed on the floor in the middle of the office. It rested on a green mat that looked like a miniature pitch.

On the football, employees had written their goals for the year. Like football players need to score goals, the employees have goals too. What a perfect metaphor for a country of football fanatics!

You might assume this feel-good company is all about soft values, but it’s also a very data-driven company. Setting goals is integrated in the company culture too. Our goals are all ‘live’ for everyone to see. We’re transparent for all our employees. We then moved on to a big TV screen showing a dashboard.

„I want to show you something very interesting,“ said Eloi. „Here we show all our daily numbers, our goals and results.

I was now introduced to Eloi’s brother Chris. He’s the business director for the business travel division. „It’s in our balanced scorecard (BSC),“ said Chris after I asked him how they measure their customer satisfaction. „Our goal is ninety-two percent happy clients. We have several tools that measure that on daily basis, like the call experience. That has a value on the balanced scorecard, so twenty points of the balanced scorecard is related to client satisfaction.

„That represents twenty percent of the salary also, so we use the BSC to pay two extra salaries a year for all the employees. Also it’s sales, revenue, training, client satisfaction, and growth of productivity. The goal for productivity is forty percent of the total value, and then ten percent growth of sales and revenue, then twenty. The total is one hundred percent, so every six months we shut down the balanced scorecard and see all the measurements and what were the achievements, and they get an extra salary paid.“

It was time to leave, and before I said goodbye he handed me a copy of their company brochure. The first two pages had nothing to do about their services. Instead it showed pictures of their employees, and also a woman with the title, ‘cleaner.’ This was really a peoples’ company.

The taxi drove me out of Alphaville. Going back to the city center felt like being in a time machine traveling from the future back to the present. If more companies were managed in the same way, I’m sure we would have many more happy employees. And that is really the key for a great company. It’s difficult to create happy customers and give them great experiences when they are being served by unhappy employees.

The company really showed that something as old-fash- ioned as personal relations and great customer service really counts. Companies that will not evolve and put people first will die because the best people don’t want to work there.

It’s also an example of a company that is investing in its people. In order to give the best possible customer experience, their employees need to be educated.

Luckily they are not alone. As I return to the city center I see bikes. But they are not like any other bike, they are part of a movement and one daring company has redefined marketing – forever.