Nine years ago, Lou and I were in Florence and came across a wonderful kitchen and pottery store. We’d just bought a home, we were in love with Florence, and likewise fell in love with the store and the pottery. We purchased large bowls and platters for ourselves and for our family and close friends back home who had played a key role in our courtship and marriage. A few years later, we were back in Florence and bought more of the same; friends who traveled to Rome later brought us even more. We loved this pottery so much we wanted to eat it.
Today, we’re moving to France. We hold this beautiful Italian pottery in our hands, we look at each other, and we know that somewhere in France there is a piece of pottery with our names on it. What we have is still lovely; it’s still functional. But we’re not looking to serve food – we’re yearning for the thrill of falling in love with something, with bringing it into our home, with integrating it into our lives, of making it stand for us and vice versa. We want to be the pottery, and we are no longer Italian pottery — we are hoping we are French pottery.
We thought we’d easily sell the stuff at a yard sale, but even at yard sale prices most of it remained at the end of the day. We could barely give it to friends who happily received similar pieces as gifts only a few years ago.
It’s the experience, stupid.
It turns out, we didn’t fall in love with the pottery. We fell in love with the experience of the pottery – the transformation it signaled in us – the value we co-created or imbued it with when we found the uncommon store on a back street in Florence, when we spent hours uncovering each unique piece, perfect for ourselves or friends, when we served dinner on it, and when we saw it every day in our dining room. The pottery said we were newlyweds. That we were building a home together. That we were in love and loved others. That we were in Florence, and maybe we were just a little bit Florentine.
But now with the prospect of a new experience – and new meaning – on our horizon, we were ready to let go of these symbols to make room for what lies ahead.
None of this was obvious to me until we tried to sell it in at the yard sale. What’s the value of the pottery without the experience? Our yard sale revealed it approaches – and yes, even touches – zero. Pottery in Florence? Hot! Pottery sitting in a yard in Northwest DC? Not so much.
So what experience does your company offer? To your customers? Your employees? Other stakeholders? Are you maximizing the value each group gets from interacting with your firm? If your organization is for-profit, could the value create (and therefore your margins) margins be greater by allowing customers to contribute their own unique value to your product or process? In a non-profit, are you creating value for those you serve – and your donors – through your interactions with them, beyond the services provided and the tax write-off? Are you creating as much value as you can by imagining and managing the experiences that each of your stakeholders has? Could your employees be more satisfied – and take better care of your customers – by creating a better work experience? (See Zappos.com and Southwest Airlines for two companies who take the latter to its full realization.)
Americans are increasingly willing to pay for experiences that linger long after the t-shirt is gone (see Pine and Gilmore 1999 for a thorough explanation of The Experience Economy.) We don’t just buy dolls, we spend all day at the American Girl store; and we don’t simply eat out – we have dining experiences, with the new trend going further to co-creation by hosting those experiences at home, with chefs or on our own (see recent New York Times article). The economic crisis of the past few years has made real that notion that physical things, houses, jobs are actually more ephemeral than we may have thought. But experiences endure.
At Smith, we engage in a 19-month executive development experience that we believe resonates long after the diploma has collect dust on the wall. We encourage each cohort of students to focus not just on the learning – not only the facts, the data, the SWOT analysis, the equations – but the experience of the learning community. The experience of learning from and teaching one another, of opening yourself up to create a learning experience unlike anything most of us have been through. I know, because as a faculty member, it’s the experience of learning in and teaching in the program that has transformed me.
Lou and I ultimately couldn’t part with two pieces of the pottery, but if they turn up in France broken and battered, all will be fine. We are still those transformed people. And while we still love Florence, we have a new home in France. And when we have that experience – when an organization, a place, a park, a walk, a bottle of wine, or yes, a piece of pottery, lets us add what is unique in us to the value it brings to our lives – we will be transformed again. Through the experience.