The truck bounced along the sandy path, going further and further into the desert. We were in a remote part of a very remote middle-eastern country.
It was hot. The truck was the only source of shade. It was driven by a man we didn't know.
“Killed by a Bedouin in the desert?” I asked myself. “This is how it all ends?”
We considered jumping from the truck and running away, but it was moving too quickly. When our cellular signal vanished, we wondered how anyone would find our bodies.
We’d been traveling for two years. From time to time we would wander into a bad neighborhood and scurry back to somewhere safe. I had been nervous once or twice, but I had never panicked.
Panic was coming on fast now.
Great setting. Uneasy feeling.
Let me start from the beginning.
We drove to the desert from Aqaba, Jordan, a resort town on the Red Sea. We hummed along in our tiny, manual transmission rental car headed to Wadi Rum to spend two nights in a desert “camp.” The scenery was remarkable.
We had booked a heated bubble tent with a transparent ceiling. We planned to watch the stars from a king-sized bed.
Things began to turn bad when we arrived at the park’s visitor center. Our emailed instructions told us to buy park passes and leave the car. We were to be transported by the camp’s driver.
When we climbed out of our rental in a parking area, something felt weird. We were approached by a driver, but things felt off. I wasn’t sure why. The driver said he worked for our camp, but he wasn't wearing anything identifiable and he tried to sell me a tour.
Something definitely wasn’t right.
After we purchased our passes in the visitor center, the front desk associate told us to drive another seven kilometers into the park. Hmm, that wasn’t what the instructions said…
When we left the office, the man we assumed was the driver was off selling tours to other people. He never glanced our way as we ventured further into the park.
After a few minutes of driving, we arrived in a scraggly looking village. The “town” was tough to figure out. The parking was unclear. There was little signage.
To say we were confused is an understatement. We drove in one direction, then turned around and drove in another.
We eventually concluded that we were supposed to park near a group of other cars off the side of the road, but there was no clear indicator. We left our rental car in an unmarked lot.
Hotel greeter or trained killer?
Bedouin guys were everywhere. Two young men approached us as we climbed out of the car. One spread a map on the hood and began explaining tours. I had no idea what was happening. I was in “hotel check-in” mode and this dude was in “sell more crap to tourists” mode.
This was off to a bad start.
He pushed on with his sales pitch. I was uncertain, annoyed, defensive, and unwilling to spend any of my Jordanian Dinar.
Immediately, I didn’t trust him. I just wanted to get to my tent, so I said “We'll decide later” to end the awkward, pushy sales pitch. I still wasn’t sure if the salesman had anything to do with the camp, or if he was just some random tour guide targeting confused tourists.
More confusion. More anxiety.
“I knew this was the end.”
Abruptly, the salesman tossed our bags into the back of a truck. “Let’s go,” he said.
Reluctantly, we climbed into the truck's cab. His vehicle was in rough condition. The exterior was a disaster, but the interior was worse. The door’s panels had fallen off. The fabric was shredded. Plastic bits hung from the ceiling. We quickly realized the truck was missing brakes.
So far, everything we had encountered (the lack of signage, the random people, the sketchy truck, and the poor instructions) eroded our trust. We were traveling into the desert in a truck with no certainty of our destination.
That’s when we became concerned for our lives.
Just as my phone lost signal, the driver made a poor joke about where he was really taking us. He didn’t need to tell me anything. I watch YouTube. I knew this was our end. His humor wasn’t funny.
We drove in silence as I attempted to memorize a route through the desert back to the car. I wanted an escape plan.
Then we came around a rock formation and thankfully, incredibly, much to my relief, there was the camp!
After twenty stressful minutes, we had arrived. I started breathing again. I was no longer thinking about abduction, torture and death. A cup of hot tea in the lobby tent helped to calm me down, but the damage had been done.
The driver, who was now playing the role of hotel manager, talked to us as we lounged on low-slung couches. He and his staff continued to offer tours and other services. My brain, however, simply wasn’t in the buying mood. I resisted because I had lost trust.
The whole thing was feeling like a scam. Prices seemed arbitrary and set on the fly. They wanted cash instead of my credit card. My suspicion antenna was on high alert. I felt like I was being pushed around by sketchy people with questionable tactics.
Once I began to feel uncertain – once trust had been undermined – I saw everything through that filter. Every statement, every word, and every action were viewed through a lens that caused me to question, hesitate and evaluate.
Instead of embracing my usual desire to whip out my credit card and buy more tours, food, services, and souvenirs, I was pushing my wallet further into the protection of my pocket.
I like to buy stuff. These folks like to sell stuff. But the lack of trust created by the circumstances made me hesitant to spend. Everyone involved, including me, was losing out because I didn't feel comfortable spending my money. Instead of a win/win, the loss of trust created a lose/lose.
Let’s stop for a minute for a reality check. Is my American, paranoid, Jack Bauer/24, TV-watching orientation getting between me and trust? Probably.
Should I have understood that the way these guys were doing business is just the way it's done out there? Probably.
But my reality is my reality. The customer may not always be right, but the customer is still the customer. Doing business in any way other than the customer’s way is a tough route to success.
I wondered if my perspective was unique, so I asked other guests how they felt about the check-in experience. Universally, they reported the same anxiety over the process. Everyone I spoke to had felt uncomfortable and wondered if the driver was legitimate. The realization that I wasn’t alone inspired this article.
I was a typical guest at the desert camp. My perspective (my bias, you could say) is normal. They’re in the business of serving western tourists. We come with the experiences and expectations of a tourist experience.
It’s essential for the desert camp to step into the shoes of the tourist and see the experience as the guest sees it. Understanding what their guests are thinking and feeling is critical if they want to succeed. This isn’t a new idea. It’s business 101: Empathy with your customer breeds success.
I'm sure you're way ahead of me and already seeing the parallels between the drive into the desert and the journey your clients take through your business. We stayed just two nights in our tent and spent about $400. Your clients stay many nights in your tent and spend a lot more.
The camp loses out on the sale of a tour, a souvenir, or a few extras when trust unravels. You can lose far more. You end up with a client who trusts little you say, struggles to take your advice, resists paying your bill, trashes you on review sites, and may even switch firms mid-stream.
Tiny changes can change everything.
What could the camp have done differently?
A better instructional email, signage, logos on the greeter's clothing, and website photos of the old trucks would have turned the experience around completely.
A few minor improvements would eliminate the fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The camp would be trusted. Sales would increase.
More importantly, what can you do in your practice to maintain trust?
So often it's the little things. Trust is especially tenuous at the outset of a relationship. If tiny missteps damage that trust, it's hard to recover.
Trust is impacted negatively when…
- You put me on hold and never come back during my first phone call.
- You promise to email directions and never follow through.
- The building has multiple entrances and I can’t figure out which one to use.
- The front desk is unattended.
- No one expects me when I arrive for my consultation.
- You mispronounce my name.
- You’re late.
- My coffee order is wrong.
- You spell my name incorrectly on the client agreement.
- Your departure/payment/exit process is awkward.
One could argue that these missteps are trivial and shouldn't impact the relationship. That's a reasonable argument that should carry in an objective, rational world. Sadly, that's not where we live.
I was never in any danger in the desert, but I still felt panic.
You don’t intend to disrespect your client when you rush back from court, 10 minutes late, and mispronounce their last name. But your intention is unrelated to their perception. The client's reality is the client's reality. You've got to step into their shoes, feel what they feel, and understand things from their perspective if trust is the objective.
Take time to see it differently.
Spend some time seeing your business from the perspective of the client. Examine the process step-by-step. Study the pieces that seem trivial. Look at each element as an opportunity to build trust.
Contemplate how the client might experience each interaction regardless of what seems reasonable or rational to you. Remember that this is all foreign for them. They are visiting your camp in the desert.
We survived our time in Wadi Rum. We had an excellent experience and loved sleeping beneath the stars.
But we left the camp knowing our trip wasn’t as full as it could have been. Had we trusted the camp more, we would have experienced more. We would have enjoyed our time more without the negative filter casting a shadow over the visit. The damage done in those first moments was never fully repaired.
I’ll remember our desert visit forever, just like many of your clients will remember you forever. How your clients will recall their experience is often determined early in the process. It happens in those first few moments and it colors everything you do.
Treat the inception of a relationship with great care. Every interaction, from the referral, to the first visit to the website, to the first phone call, are of magnified significance. Each step along the way has more meaning than you expect because it happens while the client is formulating a judgement.
Your new clients may look calm and collected, but deep down they're wondering if you're going to drive them into the desert to their deaths. Do whatever is necessary to help them understand that you are there to help.