A few weeks ago, when the ash cloud from the Iceland volcano shut down airspace throughout Europe, hotels around the world suddenly found themselves in a seller’s market. Thousands of travelers were stranded away from home and desperately needed a place to stay. Many hotel managers responded to their sudden and unexpectedly captive customers by raising their rates to breathtaking levels.
The hotel business is a business after all, and in a free market the owners of hotels have every right to charge whatever they can get. If there’s more demand than supply for a scarce resource, higher prices will in theory, and usually in practice as well, allocate that resource more effectively, more efficiently and yes, even more fairly, than just about any other approach. What’s more, over the long term, higher prices will encourage enterprising folks to figure out how to provide more supply of that scarce resource, thereby resulting in a lower price.
In that sense, hotel managers were smart to recognize an opportunity and take full advantage of it. Yet in doing so they missed out on an even bigger opportunity—the opportunity to create passionately loyal customers. Instead of raising their rates, they could have actually given a discount to stranded customers. Instead of negative publicity and angry customers, they would have ended up with priceless positive publicity and extremely grateful, loyal customers.
So why did most hotels opt for short-term profit over long-term customer loyalty? Because we live in a culture where quick, anonymous, fungible transactions are increasingly pushing aside unique, treasured, long-term relationships.
With all our amazing information technology, we’ve become very, very good at doing transactions in such a way that there is little or no need for any continuing relationship. Local merchants, who in years past would get to know their customers and extend credit to them, now simply process a MasterCard transaction. Customer loyalty, instead of being a rich and authentic human relationship, has been reduced to frequent buyer credits in the merchant’s database.
Easily quantifiable features and prices are emphasized and promoted, while factors such as quality and reliability are routinely ignored, both by buyers and sellers. Instead of working for years to build a reputation for reliability, sellers offer (at an additional charge) extended service contracts, administered by a third party. Buyers use the Internet to find the absolute lowest price for an item, so wrapped up in optimizing the transaction that they forget about other factors, such as the craftsmanship (or lack thereof) of the people who make the product.
In a world based solely on transactions, you can be anonymous and efficient and completely compartmentalized. Your entire persona can live in its own gated community, without the need to reveal who you truly are, and without the need for commitments of any kind.
But is that any kind of way to live?
What makes life rich is not found in the stuff that transactions so efficiently deliver. Life’s richness comes precisely from those things that the transactions bypass or ignore. It can be difficult and messy to make a commitment and then to follow through on that commitment no matter what. Yet in working through those difficulties and in maintaining the commitment, you will find some of life’s greatest treasures. You will find strength you never knew you had, and that strength will grow. You can experience a divine connection, that no mere transaction will replicate, with the unique inner beauty of others, and with all that is.
It’s easy to get caught up in the compelling transactions to which you have access on a non-stop basis. Stop and remember, though, that behind every transaction there are people—people with unique stories to tell and rich dreams to be lived. The value of truly knowing and connecting with those people is far greater than any transaction could ever be.