Kathy Gibson is at SAP SuccessConnect in Berlin – The best way to turn customers into fans is to stop being concerned with customers at all, according to Iron Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson.
Talking to a packed house at SAP SuccessConnect last night, Dickinson disclosed his opinion about customer care: “It’s bullsh*t.”
He explains: “We talk about the relationship between customers and companies. But I hate customers – and you must hate customers. Why? Because the definition of a customer is a person who can walk away.
“A customer walks into the store: but he is a customer because he can walk away again.”
When it comes to customer relationship management, he points out that relationships imply feelings, and turning these into good feelings is what makes a customer into a fan.
“That’s why fans stand in a muddy field to see your show. The sacrifices made by the audience to come and see us on stage are enormous. And we should never forget that.”
Apart from being the lead singer for Iron Maiden, Dickinson has had a varied and lively career as public school dropout, airline pilot, airline fleet owner, drone manufacturer, airship developer and craft brewer.
Although he was the child of a working class family, Dickinson found himself at a top English public school (what people outside of England call a private school). It proved to be a brief interlude as he was expelled for urinating in the headmaster’s dinner.
A letter from the headmaster on his expulsion reads that Dickinson’s “tongue will always be his undoing”, proving that even top teachers can get it wrong. “I’ve made a fortune out of my tongue,” Dickinson says.
Talking and communicating is the lifeblood of business and of relationships, he adds, and he still uses an original Nokia feature phone.
“What is wonderful about it is what you do with it: you talk to people,” Dickinson says. “It’s a strange concept, I know – especially in business.
“I run two or three businesses and one of the biggest problems I have with people now is getting them to talk to each other rather than send an endless stream of emails.
“It strikes me that electronic media is powerful way of avoiding making a decision and not being present with another human being. It is different when you sit down in front of someone else and have to make a decision.”
Communication also involves listening, another skill that Dickinson believes is in decline in the business world.
His own history is one of seizing the moment and believing things can happen.
While pursuing a university degree in modern history, Dickinson worked as a social secretary, booking a lot of bands. “This gave me access to a telephone and, my word, the world changed.”
Apart from anything else, it allowed him to answer an advertisement and join a band, which collapsed when it fired its management and ended up being sued for 300 000 pounds.
Dickinson was then recruited to a fairly new band, Iron Maiden, which was an almost instant success.
“Almost immediately, we had a number one worldwide album and became the hottest heavy metal band in the world.”
And so it happened that, by the age of 22, Dickinson had achieved his life’s dream of becoming a famous musician, with a global tour already under his belt.
“As a 16-year-old kid I would make ballpoint pen sketches of my life as a drummer. I had this fantasy life and felt if I drew enough pictures and visualised it in my head it would come true.
“And that is correct, because if you don’t dare to dream it will never come true. You must allow your imagination to run riot with whatever you think might happen because then they might happen. But if you live in a little box, it won’t happen.”
But the very success he had dreamed of made Dickinson ask himself some serious questions.
“At the end of this tour, Number of the Beast, I had a bit of a revelation,” he says. “I was crawling along the corridor in a hotel in Tokyo, looking for bread rolls on room service trays, when I caught sight of myself in a full-length mirror.
“There is a painting by William Blake of King Nebuchadnezzer, who thought he was turning into a beast, where his is crawling on his hands and knees with his back leg turning into some animal’s leg.
“I saw myself and realised that is exactly what I was turning into – a horrible creature if I let this rock and roll thing lead my life.”
Dickinson turned to healthier pursuits: building rockets and taking up fencing, which he had excelled at as a schoolboy – in fact he ended up coming seventh in the UK fencing championships.
He also got bitten by the creative bug – or, as he describes it, mosquito.
For 10 years, he held down a fulltime job as an airline pilot for Astraeus Airlines, while fronting for Iron Maiden.
“So I had to request unpaid leave to go on tour,” he quips.
Working for the airline, Dickinson realised there were times when planes weren’t busy, so he got the idea to fly the band to New Zealand to perform there.
The accountants – “from the land of no”, Dickinson says – thought it would be too expensive, but the band believed it would make sound economic sense to play live to fans in distant countries.
“We were an outsourcing airline, and I could even fly the plane myself, so we did it.”
One of the unintended consequences of the tour was that the plane itself became the most photographed airliner in the world – and the tour made money.
When the airline went broke and closed down, Dickinson started what he calls a “garage for aeroplanes”, a workshop for plane maintenance with 80 employees.
From here the company started to fly older planes for companies, and even helped Djibouti to start up its own national airline.
Dickinson has also gone into partnership with an airship designer, and they actually won a US military contract against Lockheed-Martin, which saw their airship being built.
“The Airlander is the world’s largest aircraft, with vertical take-off and landing, no runways required because it can land anywhere, and zero-carbon flight,” Dickinson says. “We are hoping to announce our first commercial customer later this year.”
Another project is Pouncer, which Dickinson describes as the world’s first edible drone. Made of compressed plant material that can biodegrade or be used to fuel a fire, it can carry enough food to feed 50 people for a day. With 25 able to be dropped in one pass of a C30 aircraft, and landing within meters of an intended target, they could carry food and supplies to people cut off after natural disasters.
Dickinson is a great believer in finding opportunity in disaster.
“For instance, digital was a disaster for the record labels. But that is because they were fat and lazy – and they made their customers into criminals for loving the product.
“However, they are fans of the bands, but customers of the record label. So now the music is effectively free, but the T-shirt will cost $100; and fans will pay for live shows.”
What hasn’t changed is integrity, he stresses. “No-one will pay for a T-shirt if you suck. But the market is there, it’s just a shift in where the income comes from.”
After a bout with throat cancer, happily in the past, Dickinson took up beer brewing – and the company has sold 20-million pints of Trooper and Red ‘n Black so far.
“Why did I get into brewing?” he asks. “Well, I like drinking beer, I like the taste of the stuff, and I like integrity.”
The company actually brews its own beer rather than simply labelling someone else’s, which is where the integrity comes in, Dickinson says.
He has also collaborated in the manufacture of a limited edition – just 666 of them – Ed Force One pilot watch. “Because that’s cool.”
Beating cancer hasn’t changed his life, Dickinson says, but it has made him conscious of having his time wasted. “Your time is your own,” he says. “If you choose to waste your time – good for you, and it’s not a waste if you choose it.
“But having it wasted by other people is something you should be brutally unforgiving of because you cannot get it back.”