Dance like nobody is watching

I know, I know. It’s been over a year since the last one. I make no apologies. We’ve been busy. Very busy.

There has been a glut of new eateries opening in Cheltenham town centre this past year or so. For those that don’t know, Cheltenham is the home of Square Banana and serves us well for lunchtimes and evenings. Notwithstanding the fact that there appear to be more restaurants, bars and other such establishments than the population of Cheltenham can support, it is also interesting to note the ‘normalisation’ curve of each and every one. By that I mean that with every new opening comes a flurry of PR activity, a few months of exemplary quality and customer service, followed by a normalisation of service – a flattening of the eagerness curve if you will. The point at which any extra effort that may have gone into impressing the new customer base is removed, leaving behind the normal level of effort from each establishment…. which obviously varies.

I was also prompted to write this following an insignificant trip to a local motorway services. I was on my way to a meeting and running ahead of schedule. I decided – rather than get to my destination and wait around for 45 minutes – that I would pull in to a new-ish, ‘breaking the mould’ motorway services which makes much of its farmhouse roots, local trade, earthy connections and creative differences to all those other ‘dull and soulless’ services peppered across our motorway network. It is quite special. It nestles in the landscape like something from the Teletubbies and you enter an aircraft hangar like atrium with all the lovely foodie cues you would expect of a scaled-up bakery and coffee house. All good. I’ve been a few times since it opened and it is as pleasant a place as a motorway services can probably be. It’s worth a visit.

However, this most recent visit left me feeling underwhelmed in a land of overpromise. I decided to grab some hot breakfast and a coffee whilst answering a few emails. The bacon and egg bap was decent enough but nothing more than you’d find at a local café or stall on bonfire night. The coffee was too hot, burnt and resembled an over milky cup of tea, rather than the flat white I’d ordered. The free Wi-Fi was a farce. By my reckoning, I spent 35 minutes of my 45 min stop, attempting to sign up to the free Wi-Fi, preventing it from automatically accessing my twitter and Facebook accounts, it telling me I’d already signed up and then attempting to second guess the hasty password I’d obviously thrown together last time. Not to mention that once I’d given up it decided to send me a reminder of my password to my email account, which I couldn’t access because I had no bloody Wi-Fi and I’m in the back of beyond with a struggling GPRS signal.

I don’t mean to overlabour the point (you should be used to that by now anyway!), but you get the picture. What should have been a relaxing, restorative and productive 45 minutes in my business travels, turned into a swear-fest with me feeling short-changed for being charged nearly £8 for a below par coffee replicant and a tepid bacon buttie. What no doubt started out in the minds of those who devised these services, as an oasis of calm has ‘normalised’ into the same as we have come to expect from any other services. Yes, the décor is still lovely, but the tables are still filthy and I’m leaving in a worse mood than when I arrived. Epic fail.

It is something everyone in the service industries suffers from. Ambition and the vigour from the starting blocks may be enormous but the realities of day to day delivery of the service gradually erodes that passion and ambitious enthusiasm little bit by little bit. The ‘normal’ level of delivery soon emerges, despite best efforts to the contrary.

I suppose what separates the good from the great is their ability to resist that erosion. To approach each project, problem, brief and conundrum with at least the same eagerness to do their best. To actively overdeliver. When baseline ‘normal’ is certainly not average.

But how do you resist the curse of normalisation?

We are fortunate in this industry to be afforded something that many in other industries do not…variety. Variety is one of the main reason I love what I do. It keeps the brain juices flowing and the mind alive. By constantly having to switch mental highways and absorb huge amounts of new information, it makes it easier to stay energised about what you do and to maintain positive focus. Variety certainly helps to stem the risk and rot of humdrum. It reignites interest. Hopping from medical to confectionery to frontend consumer tech to heavy duty industrial certainly keeps the ‘normal’ wolf from the door.

Having said that, it is all too easy to deliver fantastic work for a new client, establish a robust and trusting relationship and then turn down the gas, unknowingly. We’ve all done it – anyone that claims to the contrary is lying. We’ve entered into a commercial marriage and started trusting one another a little too much. We expect the client to like the work. We assume the next project will come our way. The client has justified their choice of agency to their superiors. We’ve delivered that killer idea. We’re doing great work. Every idea henceforth is just as good isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

No design business, regardless of size, can ever assume they should get the work. On the one hand, it is incredibly self-affirming when a client defaults to your services, but you should never assume this ought to be the case. The escalator is always moving…the stairs ever disappearing into the void below. You can run up the escalator and take a breath but eventually you must pick up the pace again and get ahead.

I’ve often described the lot of a small design business owner being akin to Thelma and Louise sitting in that car at the end of the movie, hurtling headlong towards the edge of the cliff (apologies to all those Millennials who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about…. go and Google it kids!). On a good month, the edge of the cliff is a fair distance away and you can confidently enjoy a bit of the scenery. On a bad month, you are precariously close to and focussed entirely on the edge. Whilst not always the case, your abilities to avoid that constant erosion mentioned earlier and maintain a pro-active, energised and positive approach to your client base helps to keep you away from the edge.

But it’s healthy to keep yourself on your proverbial toes. We hear about failing marriages where couples take each other for granted. They start to assume everything is OK with the other. They start to get on with their own agendas and slowly fall out of interest with each other, despite still declaring a love for each other. They’ve lost the spark. The engine is idling. Invariably, the advice is to ‘make an effort for each other’ for things to improve*.

The danger of normalisation is that it is often in stark contrast to the delight of the initial impression when things were artificially amplified and exciting. As an example, we are undergoing a kitchen renovation at home, so we decided – in an attempt to eat at least one healthy-ish, home cooked meal a week – that we would go out for Sunday lunch every weekend and try a different pub each time. We tried one a couple of miles from us a few months ago and were greatly impressed. It had not long opened, the roast dinner was spectacular, the furniture suitably quirky, the staff appropriately attentive and charming and the ambiance warm and accommodating. We left contented and determined to come back soon. We did so a few weeks ago and it couldn’t have been more different. We were crammed on a table that was unsuitable for us, the service was slow and the meal was average to say the least and was just about warm. We left vowing never to return.

I fully appreciate that you cannot maintain artificially high levels of service from all involved, 100% of the time, but it is important to ensure that the difference between the highs and the ‘normal’ are not so noticeable as to prevent a return or leave a sour taste. Beware the expectation gap.

Like those horrid self-motivational statements peppered throughout our various social media feeds often tell us…. dance like nobody is watching.

*Please don’t assume I know anything about marriage guidance or counselling!

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