In a business milieu that preaches mass-production and efficiency above all else, art collector Heather Flow’s entrepreneurial philosophy stands out for its passionate defence of the unique, creative, and collaborative.
“In a basic sense, I don’t tell people what to like,” Flow explains. “Why would everyone want to have the same kind of clothing, relationship — or art?”
The New York-based contemporary art advisor runs Flow Advisory, a small firm that — in its own words — collaborates with clients to create inventive, pliable, and dynamic private collections which preserve collective history.
What does that mean in practice? Where other companies might seek to build a product for an ideal consumer, Flow tailors her efforts to the client as a unique individual. She dedicates hours to identifying her clients’ tastes and finding diverse aesthetic avenues to explore.
“I’m a believer in acting as a true partner with a client, rather than dictating that they should collect this or that. I could put less research and effort into it, or make collections that all share the same focus; it would probably cut down on time. But that always felt boring and a little soulless to me, not to mention unethical. If you’re essentially building the same collections, how do you decide which client gets the strongest works?”
Flow’s perception of replicable client service being unethical is startling — almost refreshingly so — when juxtaposed against current business trends towards automation, digital service, and minimized customer interactions. There’s a certain impersonality to modern businesses, especially those enmeshed in startup culture.
This sense of aloofness roots, at least in part, in the efficiency-based philosophy that most organizations adopt. Businesses aim to deliver an established suite of products and/or services to customers while simultaneously “wasting” as little of their employees’ time and energies on avoidable interaction.
“Today, most companies are set up to easily scale,” Forbes writer Blake Morgan summarizes in an article on the matter. “They seek to push large numbers of customers through processes that are as efficient as possible. Any kind of variation can throw off the operation […] The organization is built to manage demand, and the more the company relies on operational efficiencies to manage those demands, the more impersonal and mechanical the experience feels.”
More and more, customers’ experiences are literally mechanical. In March of last year, Salesforce projected that the use of AI among service organizations would grow by 143 percent within 18 months. Equally notably, 24 percent of surveyed organizations said that they already used AI, when 34 percent planned to implement the technology within the next year and a half.
It is worth saying that this relatively impersonal, individualized-but-not-individual approach can work. Tech startups and mid- to large-size companies often need to make efficiency a top priority if they want to survive, much less thrive. Moreover, depending on the company — say, a rideshare app or e-retail store — consumers may actually prefer limited, AI-facilitated interactions.
The problem comes when a playbook that is meant for large businesses and online-centric service providers is incorrectly applied to small companies and consultancies that, like Flow Advisory, rely on strong client communication and trust. Then, the result of such strategies is decidedly less than optimal. To borrow a pithy summation from Blake Morgan, “Impersonal and mechanical customer experiences are real mood killers when it comes to building relationships.”
The fact of the matter is that much of the pro-efficiency advice peddled on the Internet isn’t designed for small business owners. Over the last few decades, fast-growing startups have risen to a near-idol status in our cultural lexicon. As a result, most business advice seems to be written around one (faulty) assumption: that most businesses are amping to be the next Amazon or Uber.
But for the smaller organizations that don’t hold that primary directive, adopting an approach that sacrifices client relationships in favor of apparent efficiency could be toxic. Small business owners need to understand what matters most to their businesses and jettison all advice that assumes other priorities.
For Heather Flow, client collaboration and understanding lies at the heart of Flow Advisory.
“Sometimes I’ll be off on a studio visit with a client, and they might make a comment in passing that isn’t even related to art. It could just be a statement like, my favorite director is Lars von Trier, and I’ll think — oh my gosh, that’s it. That’s the missing link in my understanding of your aesthetic taste; I have a direction I want to explore now.”
“Working uniquely with each client allows for creativity,” Flow concludes. “Those conversations allow the unique voice of each collection to emerge over time.”
The point to all of this? If you’re in a niche that demands quality service — don’t shy away from personalizing your offerings or developing client relationships. Popular or not, a startup playbook can only take a creative small business so far before it falls flat.