Movie Mondays: Pulp Fiction’s 10 Lessons for Business

By katie simpson on May 19, 2014

Grossing over 200 million from worldwide box offices, multiple Oscar nominations and an Oscar, Pulp Fiction was an undeniable success. While a story about the underbelly of LA these characters learn lessons that every business should know.

Copyright: Miramax Films

1. Be Honest in Your Interactions

In the “Prelude to Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” two hit men working for Marsellus, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) have to recover a suitcase for their boss. They enter an apartment where four men live to get the briefcase.

While the viewer never knows exactly what these men did, we know this: These men crossed their business partner, Marsellus. The transgression was so bad, that they are killed.

Okay, most business relationships aren’t life or death.  However, Marsellus’s response to betrayal shows something everyone can agree on: You can’t work with someone or buy from someone you don’t trust. If you didn’t think McDonald’s could provide safe meat to eat, would you buy a hamburger there? Of course not!

So, how do you build trust? Different companies build trust differently but almost all include honesty and transparency. Buffer is reknown for their transparency on all metrics. They are honest and open whether the numbers are good or bad.

Another great example is Noah at OKDork. He created trust through his candid pieces on his own professional career including getting fired at Facebook. Not only does he tell a fantastic story, he reveals that he is human too. The reader empathizes and connects with Noah as a person, not just a blog.

Making these choices to reveal can leave many people and businesses uncomfortable. We’ve been in the business of looking good, not vulnerable. But to create trust, you have to be honest about the good and the bad. You don’t need to reveal every detail, but giving your company a face, a story can help people connect to your brand and trust you.

2. Create Limited Choice

In the next section of the movie, “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”, Vincent goes to buy heroin from Lance. Lance presents Vincent with three seemingly identical options in plastic bags. Yet he introduces each option with a name, and where it is from.

From there, Lance reduces choice for Vincent to two options. Two of the choices, Lance explains, are the same price with a very similar high. However, Lance focuses on the more expensive choice. Sure you pay for more, he explains, but the experience will be vastly different.

“The first two are great, but this one? This one is a mad man.”

Lance may be wearing a bathrobe, but in this scene he does a brilliant sell of an expensive product. First, he differentiates each product, naming them to help Vincent see differences. Then, he reduces the buy to an either or. Why? To push Vincent into buying the more expensive, higher quality product.

Too many choices can actually overwhelm the consumer, making them less likely to choose any product at all. One psychologist found that for every 10 mutual funds the employer offered, the participation rate declined by 2%. Why did people participate less when they had more variety? It was so overwhelming, the employees put it off.

While having a variety of products or services can help a business, showing customers only one call to action, or a few choices can encourage a higher rate of activity.

3.  Understand the Tools You Use

In “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife”, Vincent takes out Mia, Marsellus’s new wife. While Vincent is in the bathroom she finds his plastic bag of heroin. Mistaking it for cocaine, Mia snorts it and overdoses. This mistake nearly kills her.

This scene is a metaphor for businesses. If the human body is the business, then the tools you use are the ingredients you put into your body. Some aspects, such as having someone responsible for accounting or tracking sales are as necessary as water. But some business choices, such as what software you use, are like food choices. Some businesses will prefer apples, others oranges. You put your business in danger when you assume, like Mia, what something will do to you.

Many businesses, for instance, don’t realize the affect paper processes have on them. PWC discovered that 11% of business paperwork is lost or misfiled. That can mean, lost invoices, and longer sale cycles. Plus, one four drawer filing cabinet can cost $1,500 a year. Paper may not kill businesses, but it slows down innovation, making it harder to grow and thrive.

Take a look at the tools you use for business. Are they helping you move forward? Or are they causing more problems?

4.  Accuracy is Crucial

Photo credit: ogimogi via photopin cc

After Mia overdoses, Vincent panics and takes her to his dealer, Lance. Vincent has only one option to save Mia’s life: Inject adrenaline straight to her heart. To do it, he needs to know where Mia’s heart is. Without that, he can’t do an accurate shot. If the shot isn’t straight into Mia’s heart the adrenaline won’t work and Mia will die.

Is this scene medically accurate? Probably not. But, there’s a lesson in this that businesses do need to know. Accuracy is crucial, especially in gathering information.

Without great data, it’s hard to track labor costs, inventory, and other crucial metrics for your business. Filling out information on paper is prone to error. Often fields aren’t filled in, calculations can be off, or photos aren’t matched with the proper form afterwards. If this were Pulp Fiction, these issues could make Vincent confuse MIa’s stomach for her heart.

Businesses that move to mobile apps to collect business information not only find that they get information more quickly but also receive more accurate data. Using smartphones and tablets allows these businesses to harness:

  • Computer calculations
  • Photos for visual documentation
  • GPS location capture
  • Pre-populated fields
  • Drop down lists

These are just some of the many features that businesses use to make their forms more accurate and faster. One contractor found that field reports that once took several days now take only 30 minutes.

5. For Customers, Emotion Trumps Logic

In “Prelude to the Gold Watch” Butch (Bruce Willis) remembers meeting a close friend of his father’s, Captain Koon. Koon tells Butch about the history of this watch, and what it meant for Koon to bring it back. This watch isn’t just an expensive gold watch, it has huge sentimentality, and meaning stretching back through Butch’s family. After double crossing Marsellus, Butch realizes he left the watch in the apartment. Though going back could get him killed, he goes anyway.

So what does Butch’s choice have to do with business? Most of us will make choices like Butch did: decisions based in emotion, not logic. The experience of buying something can be just as important as what the product will give us. While buying an iPad from Verizon or Apple may not seem that different, Ryan Faas came away with two very different takeaways.

Perception matters, and how customers feel coming out of a business interaction is huge. Not all people may risk life or death for a sentimental object. But 89% of consumers have stopped doing business with a company after experiencing poor customer service. 86% of consumers are willing to pay up to 25% more for better customer service.

So how can you improve your customer service? Some easy ways to improve include:

  • Always say thank you
  • Follow up
  • Find the knowledge gaps you need to fill
  • Create a simple way to find a customer in danger of churning
The “Thank You Effect”: 50 Small Ways to Improve Customer Service from Greg Meyer @grmeyer

6. Safety is Crucial

In “The Bonnie Situation” Vincent and Jules are leaving Brett’s apartment with their informant, Marvin (Phil LaMarr). In the car Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the face, killing him, splattering blood everywhere, all while putting Vincent and Jules in danger.

Accidents happen, no matter what line of business you’re in. In 2010, over 4,500 people were killed on the job. Some of the most common reported worker’s compensation injuries included

  • Vehicle accidents
  • Injuries from falling objects
  • Slipping/Tripping
  • Injuries from overexertion

No business is perfect. But knowing where the weak points tend to be can allow you to prevent careless errors and even save lives.

7. Appearances Matter

After accidentally killing Marvin, Vincent and Jules have to get off the street and cleaned up. They go to Jimmie’s (Quentin Tarantino) to hide out and get cleaned up. Marsellus sends in The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) to fix the situation. The Wolf helps get the guys cleaned up, create an illusion of a clean car, and dumps the evidence of Marvin’s death.

Dressing up, even for a phone interview can make you feel more confident and help you suceed.Photo credit: joshuahoffmanphoto via photopin cc

The lesson for businesses in The Wolf’s work isn’t about illusions, it’s about appearances. His work reveals that humans are visual creatures. The human brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. Our visual nature is why infographics do incredibly well on the internet.

In a world inundated with information, visuals can help tell a story quickly in a compelling and easy to digest way.

You can use visuals in more than just your marketing or social media presence. Some great ways to incorporate visuals can include:

  • Give photos of your work to customers, especially showing before and after
  • Don’t just add a testimonial to your website, add the customer or partner’s face
  • Take photos to show where the problem is to help explain an issue to customers

Effective use of visuals can not only help you garner new leads, but also help with technical customer service. Your clients will understand the information more quickly, and you can focus on repairs instead of explanations.

8.  The Power of Favors

In “The Gold Watch” chapter, Butch runs into Marsellus on the street. They get into a fight, landing in a random store. However, both Butch and Marsellus land into trouble when the storeowner, Maynard (Duane Whitaker), pulls a gun on them. They are taken to the basement where Maynard and Zed (Peter Greene), the security guard, decide to rape Marsellus.

Butch breaks free and is about to flee, leaving Marsellus with these two men. However, he goes back, freeing Marsellus and killing the two rapists. When Butch asks, Marsellus says they are even, as long as Butch leaves LA, and never comes back. By saving Marsellus, Butch gains safety.

Doing favors for other people can also be good business. Why? It builds you a reputation. As Jeff Goins points out, “the more you help people, the more people want to help you.” People want to reciprocate. That could mean they are more willing to buy something from you, trust you as a source of thought leadership, or just become a great referral through word of mouth.

What are some ways that business can give things away? At GoCanvas, we give every customer a free trial of the product. A free trial is a great option for SaaS companies, allowing potential customers to try a product without any risk. Starbucks rewards customers with free apps or songs each week via iTunes, encouraging weekly visits to one of their stores. Joss Whedon’s new film, In Your Eyes, is gaining press because his team is sending random gifts to those who rent the movie. These random gifts turn into tweets, instagram photos, and facebook statuses, creating a viral marketing campaign. 

You don’t have to be so technology heavy to surprise and delight your customers.  If you provide a more traditional service, loyalty marketing programs can be a great system too. Customers enjoy occasional freebies or special access, and the program encourages return behavior, increasing their value over a lifetime with your company.

It may seem counter intuitive, but you can gain a lot by giving things away.

9.  Know your Audience

At the very end, Pulp Fiction returns to the restaurant that “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer) decide to rob. Initially, they show a business acumen, restaurants tend to have less security than banks or convenience stores, plus more people to rob in one place. In theory it’s a great place to rob.

Only one problem for this duo: They didn’t plan on hit men in the restaurant. Suddenly, their tactics of intimidation aren’t working. Eventually, this leads to a Mexican standoff.

These two restaurant thieves make a problem many businesses struggle with: knowing your audience. Without knowing who your audience or customers are, it becomes incredibly hard to create the right ask. Worse, it becomes impossible to understand their pain points and why they bought your product or service in the first place.

To know your audience, sit down with some of your customers and ask them questions such as:

  • How did they find your company?
  • What were their pain points?
  • What did they hope to get in your product/service?
  • What are the benefits they’ve found with your product/service?

It’s not just what they tell you but the story and language that they use that is truly valuable.

If you want to learn more about studying your audience, check out Neil Patel’s Beginner’s Guide to Online Marketing. While more focused on marketing online, Neil has great tips to help you understand your audience.

10. Always Follow Through

When the holdup begins in the restaurant, Jules has options. He could give the case to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. Already making the choice to end his life of crime, Jules could leave this last job for Marsellus unfinished. Instead, he refuses. He’s willing to say no even when he has multiple guns pointed at his face.

Why? Because he has a job to finish. And while he may want to leave his work he doesn’t leave a job undone (and maybe having to clean his car out over this suitcase was also a good incentive).

What Jules shows though, is the importance of follow through. It’s not only providing a great product or service, but also ensuring all loose ends are tied up. It means reaching out to a customer after they’ve asked about a problem, to ensure that their issue was actually resolved. It means after hosting a great event to spend the hours writing thank you notes. It means getting things done.

One crucial aspect of follow through that is often overlooked is the process of finding the tools and people to help you follow through. It’s not just willpower and grit that gets people through: it’s taking action. It’s know what you need to get that action done.

In Jules’s case, it meant letting two small time robbers get away with a hefty although petty crime. With a mixture of grace, intimidation, and good timing, he was able not only to get out of the restaurant alive but also with his boss’s mysterious and valuable case.

Twenty years later, Pulp Fiction is still as entertaining as it was in 1994. While Vincent’s cell phone may be dated, the humor, the story line isn’t. Hopefully these ten business lessons stay just as relevant too.

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