September 8, 2020 / Esther Choy

When you facilitate stories, you give your business a chance to survive the pandemic.

During Covid, over 72,000 restaurants have permanently closed in the U.S. The National Restaurant Association reports that the industry lost $165 billion in sales between March and July, and that the pandemic has cost over 8 million restaurant employees their jobs. During hard times, companies hunker down, lay off workers, and cut costs. All of this is necessary. After all, you have to play defense to survive. However, there’s a way to move from defense to offense. How? By aggressively listening to customers and taking the time to facilitate stories.

Here’s how one restaurant group based in Chicago has done it.

Roti is known as the “Chipotle of Mediterranean food,” a quick lunch spot during the workweek. With restaurants in downtown Chicago and other central business districts around the country, they have been a popular lunch destination and catered many business meetings.

But suddenly, downtown offices went virtual. Roti temporarily closed several locations and furloughed hundreds of employees. They could’ve joined the thousands of restaurants closing their doors permanently. But they didn’t, because Roti’s brand marketing team went into “listening mode,” says Gina Fong, a Consumer Anthropologist and Insights Coach based in Chicago.

Gina Fong, Consumer Anthropologist and Insights Coach Photo Credit: Vin Reed

Effective leaders listen, says Fong. “They don’t merely listen to respond. They listen to understand. They do not come from a place of judgment and they get themselves out of the way.” In other words, they listen aggressively. Knowing this, Roti drew on coursework they completed with Fong, who teaches at Kellogg School of Management. They relied “on their social listening skills to understand what customers needed during such unprecedented times,” she says.

During crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, listening to customers has to come first—before a business tells any stories of their own. And truly understanding stories is not just a matter of collecting the first thing customers say. It’s about doing the work to truly facilitate stories.

Here’s what this requires from leaders.

1. Curiosity.

When it comes to listening, this is how it breaks down for most people:

  • 50% Listening… what is that?
  • 20% Listening? But why?
  • 20% Listening? I’m a good listener, let me tell you a time when I…
  • 10% Listening!  So, tell me…

Very few people are even aware of these three challenges they face at the same time:

  1. The importance of listening.
  2. That they’re lousy listeners.
  3. Listening requires curiosity and empathy.

In my own role as President and Chief Story Facilitator at Leadership Story Lab, I’ve found that listening well takes a certain level of objectivity—almost to the point of what I call caring indifference. We just never know what will come up in a story, and responding with shock, judgment or even sympathy will only shut the story down before it really gets going.

Let me offer this extreme hypothetical example to make a point. Suppose someone says, “my favorite food is roasted ants.” You’re shocked, disgusted. But almost like a horror film, you can’t look away, so you press on. Because, if you want them to continue to provide the kind of information that can lead to a story, your response should be, “that’s interesting—tell me more! Where do you find these ants? How many different kinds of ants do you eat? What’s the best way to prepare them? Is there some food that pairs well with roasted ants? What beverages go especially well with them, enhancing the flavor of the ants? Oh, and when do you eat them? Are they more of a breakfast food, a snack, or a dinner?”

To facilitate stories we have to be able to process information that is not only new to us but also information that may be shocking to our systems. We can’t accept their story or the details they share on face value, because we want them to keep digging! So we strive to come across as an objective scientist as well as an interested, intrigued, and concerned friend. These are contradictions and paradoxes, so it takes a while to learn the balance.

“Listen without jumping to conclusions and interpreting what you hear,” advise Guy Itzchakov and Avraham N. (Avi) Kluger. “…If you notice that you lost track of the conversation due to your judgments, apologize to the speaker that your mind was distracted, and ask them to repeat. Do not pretend to listen.”

Shift from judgment to curiosity. “Listening with curiosity means listening without an agenda,” says Fong. “And curiosity is a lovely foundation for figuring people out.”

Free from an agenda and free to simply figure people out, companies can begin to see from the perspective that matters most. If companies are too attached to their own stories, says Fong, they stick to the direction they want to go, rather than letting their customers guide them. It’s wonderful when what the company finds important aligns with what customers think is important, says Fong, “but when it doesn’t, it’s a real blind spot.”

So, what did curiosity ultimately allow Roti to figure out? That “their customers wanted a stress-free meal that was not only safe but brought a sense of normalcy to their lives that were turned upside down by Covid.”

2. Framing the narrative.

When asked to tell a story, most people start by recounting a sequence of events without any meaning behind them. Or, in the case of consumers, they might give a laundry list of what they like or don’t like about a product.

Overcoming this and truly helping someone tell a story requires careful shaping of each question. Good questions help the storyteller “delve deeper into their thoughts and experiences,” as Itzchakov and Kluger say. The key to shaping such questions is “being thoughtful about what the speaker needs help with most and crafting a question that would lead the speaker to search for an answer,” they explain.

When you facilitate stories, you are also helping others frame their story. A frame ensures that the story’s emotional quality—the emotions it can naturally evoke—are evident.

This is evident in Roti’s customer’s stories. They didn’t just want a safe, stress-free meal—they wanted everything a safe and stress-free meal signifies: a sense that at least part of their day felt normal.

3. Acting on the story.

A business story comes alive through action. It’s not meant to be a pretty story written up in calligraphy and framed on the wall. Business stories are meant to shape the direction a team takes. In business storytelling, there always has to be a concrete takeaway.


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After listening to their customers with objective curiosity and finding the meaning behind the details, Roti took action. They launched contact-free delivery and pick-up. They expanded delivery to new areas, and for the first time ever, they created family meal boxes. “They listened to parents who were overwhelmed with preparing three daily meals,” says Fong, “on top of homeschooling their children and working from home.”

They also sprang into action after customers told them they wanted to help others but weren’t sure how. They started “Buy One, Give One” Thursdays. Simply by buying a meal on Thursdays, customers were able to donate a meal to first responders at hospitals like Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Their Thursday purchases provided safe, single-serve meals for healthcare workers.

Not only that, Roti drew on their catering expertise to work with Feed Chicago, a nonprofit that partners with local restaurants to deliver to local organizations that then distribute the food to people in need.

Being able to actively listen and facilitate stories like Roti did can give businesses “the power to predict,” says Gina. When businesses know what their customers really want, they can often successfully plan their strategies in response. In taking these steps, Roti is surviving these unprecedented times. During the Covid pandemic, the power to predict anything is a rarity, so it’s worth using story facilitation in order to go on the offensive.

(Want to develop and strengthen your ability to facilitate stories? Obtain your Certification in Story Facilitation with me this fall.)


Related Articles

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Why Is Leadership Storytelling So Powerful?


This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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