Your company's brand is a story told to the marketplace. It may be a positive tale - made up of thousands of small stories - like those spun about the few who have become service 'legends': First Direct, Nordstrom, Disney or Virgin Atlantic. More likely, it's a mundane and unmemorable story. And if what you do for your customers is unremarkable and undifferentiated, it's no story at all.

wordle image for Why Stories Beat Visions Creative Storytelling and the Customer"We want to differentiate on service, not on price" is the battle cry of many seeking to create a memorable service story that stands out from the crowd. One that will keep customers loyal and gain a greater share of their wallet, and also turn them into passionate advocates of your product or service.

But in order to differentiate, it's often forgotten that you need to be truly different. This isn't just a small tweak you can add to your basic service offering. It's a bone-deep commitment to creating your own authentic and original service experience.

SouthWest Airlines is one such company. Any organisation that receives five times as many praise notes as complaints in a highly competitive, price-sensitive and look-alike sector is already a story in itself. Take, for example, their creative response to a competitor's claims to be Number One in customer satisfaction. They placed the following advertisement appeared in American newspapers:

After lengthy deliberation at the highest executive level and extensive consultation with our legal department, we have arrived at an official response to Northwest Airlines' claim to be the number one in customer satisfaction:
'Liar, liar - pants on fire!'

Naturally, this is the tip of the iceberg. There has to be an underlying reality to the story (there is!), but it's clear that such a way of handling the situation would not have occurred to SouthWest's competitors. Many companies have a good story but are not creative enough to sell it well. This article focuses on how to create a better future for your organisation's customers, and how the first step is to write the story and to live and communicate it inside the business. The customers will feel the difference...

Why Stories Beat Visions

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with visions. Not, at least, when they are truly inspiring, emotionally loaded, and have a passionate champion to bring them to life.

Steve Jobs' early dream of Apple creating computers which were 'a bicycle for the mind' is one such special image. However, like many widely disseminated management practices, the production of visions has become an over-rational and decidedly 'same-y' approach to envisioning the future. It doesn't make the earth move for most employees to hear that their aim in life is to be 'The Best', 'Number One', or 'To Become The Supplier Of Choice'.

One other problem with a vision statement is that it implies working sequentially from today towards a distant future. Frequently, this means creativity is constrained from taking off by the intense gravitational pull of today's operating realities. A more creative approach is to start with a story form version of the future that you want your customers to experience, and then to work backwards. In this sense you can truly 'learn from the future' by seeing this future possibility in a more right-side of the brain, visceral, and a live story format.

Let me give you a real example. I have successfully used creative storytelling in industries as diverse as financial services, oil, and media, but feel it is more challenging to describe a story that has worked in an industry in crisis. Like UK train services.

Here is an extract form a story created by a senior team of managers in Midland Mainline - a subsidiary of National Express - when they went on a retreat in January 2000:

It's 6.30 on a cold wet morning. I'm joining the train from Sheffield to St Pancreas for that important meeting first thing.

As I approach the train I notice Midland Mainline people out on the platform. Not standing adjacent to doors, but moving up and down the platform in an attempt to identify people who need their help. They all carry brollies as it is raining heavily.

As I am caught without mine, a young lady approaches me and asks if I am travelling on this train. I say, yes, travelling First Class. She offers to walk me to the actual carriage and puts the brolly over my head. As I enter the train, the smell of fresh-brewing coffee hits me. This is the same aroma I experienced in the station.

Notice that the story is tailored to a specific class of customers and is not pure fantasy. It was intended to be a reality around one year from the date it was written. Now read on ...

As I glance around I notice how clean the train is from the old BR image. The vestibules are clean, tidy, welcoming, and there appears to be some heat and warmth in the environment.

In the carriage there is another member of staff preparing the first service of complimentary tea and coffee. He is dressed in the distinctive Midland Mainline uniform. Not the starched military uniform of past rail companies but a more relaxed, informal and stylish outfit.

He immediately looks up, makes eye contact with myself "Hello, Brian, how are you?" I'm surprised he has recognised me from previous trips.

The story then goes on to describe extra services, such as onward travel advice, tremendous choice of fresh food, newspapers, and so on.

How did Midland Mainline learn from this picture of the future they painted? The answer is - with great creative relish. In the nine months following the story-writing the company changed its food offerings, changed the uniforms of the staff, and even made some platform concourses more customer-friendly in their layout. The story had given them a very precise picture of the changes they wanted to create, which were clearly actionable and within the powers of the storytellers to turn into reality.

Midland Mainline had attained the stunning level of 86% customer satisfaction in an industry largely renowned for its dismal performance. Then disaster struck in the form of the tragic Hatfield Crash on the GNER line in October 2000. Railtrack was called to account and Midland Mainline, like all train operators, was seriously hit by delayed services while the overdue safety measures took months to implement.

End of story? Certainly not! A good story about the future will have many of a company's brand values embedded in it. One that you can clearly see from the extract above was informality, as expressed by addressing the customer as 'Brian' rather than 'Mr Robinson'. The story also goes on to describe the value of honesty, and this was lived through the travel crisis of the winter as the company's Sales and Marketing Director, Malcolm Brown, even appeared on television and radio advising passengers not to travel by train at the worst moments. The reason was not that trains were unsafe, but because of the great disruption and inconvenience.

What has not been told - probably most of us customers would have been too aggrieved to listen at the time - are stories of individual heroism and commitment to the customer practiced by Midland Mainline staff in the darkest hours of the crisis. Many volunteered to drive customers long distances in their own cars and in their own time to help combat dreadful delays. It's a long way to Sheffield to Utoxeter by car, but this is just one example of such a journey undertaken.

However, the company was clearly focused on feting and celebrating these stories of great service internally. This was one of the ways in which morale was kept alive despite the tremendous battering from rail passengers and the media.

Develop A Talent For Storytelling

By now you should have a clear sense what a simple but powerful vehicle for change creative storytelling is. We tend to think of stories, legends, myths, as somehow being untrue, and yet they have been the most long-lasting and pervasive ways of communicating knowledge in human history. Fables, parables from the Bible, and great legends from Ancient times have far outlasted the scientific, rational understanding of their time. There aren't many bar charts in the Odyssey! Here are a few practical tips for how to make a story effective for you and your customers.

1. Creating the story

This is ideally done as a group activity because a shared view of your future is more likely to gain validity and ultimately acceptance. The more diverse the group, the better.

2. Different customers - different stories!

Just as you might segment your customer base and approach them differently, so you should write a different narrative about the experience you want to be giving to each type of customer. And if you're still working with the concept of internal customers, these become the subjects of your tale. In this way you can get a 360 degree perspective on the whole range of customer experiences you are offering.

3. Don't forget your people

It's critical to also write a story of what will be different for staff to marry with the new external reality. The writing of such a story is often pretty good therapy, especially if you try unleashing people on a 'before' and 'after' version of the story! The former will undoubtedly allow a lot of long-standing gripes to surface, which surprisingly seems to clear a lot of debris from people's minds and enables them to be very positive about the future reality they then go on to describe.

4. Push beyond what seems possible

One of the warning signs that your ideas are not original enough is that they are likely to be too easily accepted. If nobody is stirred or shaken it's likely they are yesterday's ideas.

Remember that what is possible in the future is always a big step - or at times a giant's leap - ahead of what the majority believe. Balance with this the fact that the story should be just the feasible side of outrageous. The kind of thinking needed here is 'why not?' or 'what if?' rather than 'yes, but'. If it's desirable, but outrageous - great!

5. Communicating the story

The stories can be told, added to and embellished by as wide a number of people within the organization as possible. This may mean at strategy planing sessions, training courses, team meetings, etc.

Although the primary focus for the stories you have created is within the organisation this doesn't mean they can't be used outside, as well. Returning to the theme of spreading your brand story, Marriott Hotels ran a series of successful one-page advertisements describing real stories of heroic service performed by their associates, such as receptionists rushing to the airport with a forgotten passport.

Remember that even in a digital world we are all storytellers at heart. Jeff Bezos, founder of, recognises this when he says "If you have an unhappy customer on the Internet he doesn't tell his six friends, he tells his 6,000 friends." So why not take one step ahead of the pack and write your own story before your customers write it for you.

Originally published: 19 Jun 2006


Copyright © 2015 Nigel Barlow. All Rights Reserved.