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Develop an “Otherness” Mindset: 4 Effective Strategies to Engage Your Customers

Develop an “Otherness” Mindset: 4 Effective Strategies to Engage Your Customers

In a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, Robert Benchley observed that there are two classes of people: those who divide people into two classes and those who do not. From my vantage point, people can be divided into those who understand and practice “otherness” and those that do not.

When I use the word “otherness,” I am referring to actions that give high priority to the needs of others (not to the extreme of “selflessness” but as a contrast to selfishness.) Given that personal happiness and business success have both been linked to creating value for others, an “otherness” mindset is a worthwhile pursuit.

In my recently released book,The Airbnb Way, I outline effective strategies to bolster the way you and your team practice otherness on behalf of your customers. Here are 4 of them:

Actively Listen

While listening seems simple and natural enough, listening for understanding is more challenging than it appears. To achieve effective listening, a person has to send information that is correctly processed by a receiver. To know that the information was correctly received, the sender must verify the accuracy of what the receiver interpreted from the information. All too often, customers share information and team members never reflect back what they heard. This leads to inaccuracies and rework. Organizations like Mercedes-Benz (a client I worked with on a prior book) and Airbnb invest a great deal of time and energy helping service providers refine active communication skills that drive accurate understanding.

Practice Empathy

While understanding the “what” of a customer’s communication is essential to meet their needs, understanding the “so what” of their communication may be even more important. For example, it is one thing for an Airbnb host to understand that the air conditioning in a guest’s room isn’t working and quite another to empathize with what it might be like to try to sleep in that room. Empathy is likely to create a connection and drive more urgent action. As such, empathy is a key dimension in the calculation of one’s emotional intelligence and it is not a fixed skill. Individuals with an otherness mindset readily strengthen their ability to listen, not only to the words someone is saying, but to actually hear what that person is feeling. In his book Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard, author David Augsburger highlights the benefits of strengthening one’s empathy skills, “being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”

Attentively Welcome

In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow crafted his hierarchy of human needs and theorized that once basic needs like food and shelter are met, people have higher-level needs like a desire to feel they belong. Individuals who develop their otherness mindset, actively seek to meet this universal yearning in those they serve. Leaders at Airbnb, for example, have placed belonging at the center of their mission, which reads, “to create a world where people can belong through healthy travel that is local, authentic, diverse, inclusive and sustainable.” How do you assure that team members and customers feel an attentive sense of belonging across their journey with your business?  Do customers experience a sense of belonging on your website, as they step into your office or your store? Do you create a welcoming environment through thoughtful attention to detail?

Read the Invisible Signs

During an interview for CBS’s 60 Minutes, Danny Meyer, legendary restaurateur and author of the book Setting the Table, emphasized that “everyone is walking around life wearing an invisible sign that says, ‘Make me feel important,’ and your job is to understand the size of the font of this invisible sign and how brightly it’s lit. So, make me feel important by leaving me alone. Make me feel important by letting me tell you everything I know about food. It’s our job to read that sign and to deliver the experience that that person needs.” Danny Meyer’s invisible-sign analogy encapsulates the refined art of customer experience excellence and an otherness mindset at its best.

Throughout my career, I have met individuals across industries and at all levels of organizations that practice the skills mentioned above. Great service professionals and leaders like Howard Schultz (former CEO of Starbucks), Horst Schultze, (the founder of the modern-day Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company), and Chip Conley (Hospitality Entrepreneur and Strategic Advisor of Airbnb) – all embody an “otherness mindset,” and all continue to refine their skills. How about you?

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by Joseph Michelli // Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D., C.S.P., is an internationally sought-after speaker, author, and organizational consultant. His insights encourage leaders and frontline workers to grow and invest passionately in all aspects of their lives. Dr. Michelli is the author of numerous national bestsellers, including The Starbucks Experience, The New Gold Standard, and the New York Times #1 bestseller Prescription for Excellence. He was named as one of the Top 10 thought leaders in Customer Service by Global Gurus. His new book is The Airbnb Way: 5 Leadership Lessons for Igniting Growth through Loyalty, Community, and Belonging (October 2019, McGraw Hill). Learn more at

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.