In case you didn’t notice, there has been a power outage in DC, especially its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, since Friday. It happened right in the middle of a news program I was watching on television while at the same time answering e-mails and writing an article. Boom! First the TV started flickering off and on and then the whole universe went dark and silent.
My first reaction was unbelief and irritability. How dare they? I had a deadline on this article. Then it was tapping my foot on the floor and looking at my watch impatiently. Okay, I get the joke. Ha ha! Now switch back to my usual world that is crammed with “to do” lists, longer than the hours allotted to each day. Soon it became more serious. No lights! No phones! No Internet! No air conditioning in temperatures that soared above 100°. Unbelievable! I went to bed in disgust expecting the power to come back on in the middle of the night. But when I got up the next morning, the unthinkable had happened. Still no power! My Internet addiction was in full swing, driving my husband and me out of the house and in search of a Panera or Starbucks. No luck! Everything was dark and closed in my neighborhood. I didn’t even know that Starbucks could be affected by force of nature. My heroes and go-to resources started peeling off one by one.
Our quest for those elusive places with free Wi-Fi continued in all directions, across all kinds of shopping malls and neighborhoods. And then we saw them. Strangers coming together to sit at the outdoor tables of closed restaurants and cafes! At first we felt a renewed surge of hope thinking that these places were open only to discover, when we approached, that they were indeed closed. Yet families, friends and strangers happily sat at the tables, some with takeout food or drinks they had purchased elsewhere or brought from home. At shopping center after shopping center there was at least one restaurant that looked lively and open, with tables filled with people smiling and talking to each other across tables in animated conversation, in spite of the stifling heat and humility. Who were these people? Were they members of a secret cult? They turned out to be the single ray of hope in a dreadful week-end; people who, when confronted with a crisis, immediately sought community as a relief. Create any outdoor space for people to sit and talk and, even if you take away the institution running it, the food, electricity, water and any other accoutrements, people will still come to sit and talk!
So then what is new about social media or other communities? Why question whether or not to develop online platforms or new membership models or categories that are based on people coming together to interact, learn, collaborate, solve problems and just talk? Somehow, somewhere associations and other service and business organizations forgot that they served people, as Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter show in their book Humanize, and became machine-like.
Here is a simple step toward reconnecting with your customers on an authentic level. Instead of an organization’s board or staff trying to figure out answers and ideas for new products all by themselves and in the absence of members and markets, why not just observe their customers; ask the kind of questions that will give you entry into the world they inhabit? Clearly human beings value community, not because it is a fad or technology has enabled it, but because relationships are ingrained in the human DNA. Organizations that truly resonate with customers; motivate staff and, as a result, increase market value and sustainability are not about just creating products, policies and processes. Enabling and leveraging relationships among staff and customers and between them is key among their core competencies, strategies and sources of value.