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The Power Of Belonging: How To Turn Your Business Into A People Business


by Joseph A. Michelli, author of “The Airbnb Way: 5 Leadership Lessons for Igniting Growth through Loyalty, Community, and Belonging

What business are you in? When asked that question, Howard Schultz, then CEO of Starbucks, responded, “We aren’t in the coffee business serving people, we are in the people business serving coffee.” While this might seem like a subtle or unimportant distinction, it speaks to a company’s strategy.

If you seek to win in the marketplace through differentiated products or service offerings, you may very well be a coffee, automotive, or travel business. But if you believe your products and services are reasonably similar to those of your competitors, you’re likely seeking to differentiate yourself through the customer experiences you provide. Those experiences are shaped and delivered by your people to a group of people you call customers: this makes your business a people business.

To be effective at delivering differentiated human experiences, leaders must define the optimal customer experience they want to deliver every single time, including how customers will feel every time they interact with your brand. In essence, this branded customer experience and its emotional customer outcome make up your organization’s own Way We Serve Statement™. Stellar examples include the Pike Place Fish Market’s “Treat customers like they are world-famous” statement. Mercedes-Benz’s version is simple and to the point: “Drive delight.” The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company’s has tangible warmth: “Create the home of a loving parent.”

Another company that’s aced developing and driving awareness for its optimal customer experience is Airbnb. It was founded in 2008 by two design students and a web designer with three air mattresses and a rudimentary web platform. The goal was to help cover the monthly rent for the design students, whose third roommate had left. Over the course of a decade, Airbnb quickly grew its online travel marketplace into a company valued at approximately $38 billion, with over 7 million listings across more than 100 thousand cities in over 191 countries.

As Airbnb scaled, the founders became increasingly thoughtful about their brand and Airbnb’s optimal branded experience. But rather than heading off to a retreat to contemplate the Airbnb experience by themselves, these leaders reached out. They solicited input from approximately 500 employees, hosts, and guests. Cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky described the byproduct of that exploration:

What started as a way for a few friends to pay the rent has now transformed into something bigger and more meaningful than we ever imagined. And what we realized is that the Airbnb community has outgrown the original Airbnb brand.

… for so long, people thought Airbnb was about renting houses. But really, we’re about home. You see, a house is just a space, but a home is where you belong. And what makes this global community so special is that for the very first time, you can belong anywhere.

That is the idea at the core of our company: belonging. 

Three Key Strategies, Three Key Questions.

In essence, the optimal Airbnb experience (or Way We Serve™ statement) is one in which every guest feels a deep sense of belonging — no matter where they travel. But defining the optimal experience is only the critical first step. That definition alone won’t assure that all stakeholders are aware of the desired experience or inspired to deliver it. To drive that awareness of belonging anywhere across the global Airbnb host network, Airbnb utilized three effective strategies:

While each business has its own unique circumstances, every leader should be asking these three essential questions of themselves. Each addresses one facet of a leader’s role in transmitting the intended customer experience to the company:

  • How do we want every customer to feel in every interaction with our brand?
  • How clearly have I shared that desired experience across my business?
  • If I asked everyone in my organization how customers should feel, would responses align with a desired and branded customer  experience?

Consider these questions in the context of your own organization. They will help you gain a deeper understanding of not just the nature of belonging in terms of your company, but how your company can best make people feel welcome, no matter your business.


Joseph A. 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. He 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“. His new book is “The Airbnb Way: 5 Leadership Lessons for Igniting Growth through Loyalty, Community, and Belonging“. Learn more at www.airbnbway.com.