by James Kane
In 1930, a paper cup salesman for the Lilly Tulip Cup Company walked into a Walgreen’s Drug Store near 43rd St. and Bowen Ave. in Chicago, IL and changed the world.
That’s a pretty dramatic statement, but it’s true. You see, paper cups were big business in the early part of the 20th century. As scientists and public heath officials warned people about the dangers of drinking from unwashed glassware and shared eating utensils, disposable food and beverage products became all the rage. And, of course, where there is a rage, there is a salesman.
One prime target of these paper cup peddlers were drug stores. After prohibition became law in 1919, the introduction of the soda fountain in American drug stores not only filled the social void caused by the closing of bars and speakeasies, but ushered in the dawn of the soft drink. Egg cremes, Black Cows, and Cherry Phosphates became staples of the new American diet, and the glasses they were served in the target of every paper cup salesman in the country.
All except one.
While most cup vendors made the obvious pitch to the drug store owners and soda fountain managers – no more broken glasses, no more dishwashing, no more risk of spreading disease – our salesman had a different take. When he first walked into the Walgreen’s off 43rd Street, he knew that he couldn’t make a sale using the same tired arguments that others had made before him. So, instead of trying to sell the products he brought with him that day, he stood in the back of the room and watched. More importantly, he learned.
It was just before noon when the store began to fill up with day’s lunch crowd. He watched as the first ten patrons arrived and took up all the seats at the fountain’s counter. And then watched as one by one the people from the streets entered the store, looked around for a vacant seat, and walked out the door, having never bought a thing. It was all that watching that made everything clear. He knew what Walgreen’s problem was, and it wasn’t paper cups.
The problem Walgreen’s had was the same problem every soda fountain of its day had. Not enough space. Everyone wanted a seat, but those who got there first didn’t want to leave. Without the turnover, the stores were losing sales – and lots of them! Our salesman knew by observing one potential customer after another walk out the door without being served that the answer was not cups, it was lids. He explained to the Walgreen’s manager how he would increase the soda fountain’s sales tenfold without adding even one foot of new counter space. Yes, he would provide them with paper cups, but every one of those cups would come with a lid, and the concept of “take out” was born.
This is a story about the power of insight and the importance of stepping back to see what the real problem is. We all have our bag of goods – the things we try to sell to others every day. We come ready to explain our value and convince the non-believers of our importance, only to be left dumbfounded that they just don’t get it. The tried and true paper cup pitch is “we can SAVE you money.” The insightful one is “we can MAKE you money.”
We all fall into the trap of trying to sell what we have instead of selling what others need. The first requires doing nothing more than what you have always done, the second demands that you step back and understand what the real problem is. Being “future ready” is not only about knowing how to go forward, it’s about knowing when to step back. Knowing how to put yourself in the shoes of others and figuring out what they truly need and want. What your boss needs. What your institution and organization needs. What your client and customer needs. What your industry needs. Sometimes you may have the solution in your bag. Sometimes you will need to order lids.
Insight is not a magical gift we are born with. It is something we develop – by listening, by watching, by learning, and by practicing empathy. It takes some time to get good at it, but the results are definitely worth the effort. They certainly were for our paper cup salesman. He made the sale to Walgreens, but practicing insight would bring him even greater rewards. Standing in the back of the room and watching what was really going on gave birth to the take-out business, and forever changed the course of Ray Kroc’s life. Applying what he learned at the Walgreen’s drug store in 1930 would influence his decision to buy a small restaurant in San Bernadino, California 20 years later from brothers Dick and Mac McDonald. The rest, as they say, is history.
Merging the worlds of business, neuroscience, and behavioral psychology, James Kane is one of the leading researchers and consultants in the science of loyalty and the role it plays in human relationships and the communities we form.Kane makes the case that loyalty is a complex human emotion and a fundamental part of our human nature. When an organization or individual demonstrates those loyalty-building behaviors, they can develop relationships that will last a lifetime and result in unwavering and unlimited support.
SLA has retained the services of James Kane for a 12-month pilot program where he will audit and assess one Chapter’s current relationships, consult with and train Chapter leadership, and develop and implement loyalty strategies that will have broad applicability to other SLA units. He is the closing keynote presentation at the SLA Annual Conference in Philadelphia. For more information see JamesKane.com