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Business Development One Bite at a Time - Chocolat (2000)

September 12, 2018

Business Development is no easy task for any A/E/C firm and even more difficult for a chocolatier in midcentury rural France. Business Development doesn't happen overnight. It is a continuous effort of habitual contact with potential clientele. What does that have to do with chocolate? Well, maybe more than you think. 


Networking season is upon us, and the fall brings soirées, fêtes, and of course, sweets. Many firms have already begun preparing with knowledge and contacts gained at SMPS Build Business Conference in San Diego last month; but making contacts and connections is only the first step. Often times business development is a task of planning, placement, and patience. In the case of Vianne Rocher, roaming single mother, entrepreneur, and master chocolatier, the arrival of her unorthodox ways at a conservative town presents her with a great challenge to start a chocolate shop at the beginning of Lenten Season.


The Review

Lenten season begins in a small village in France and with it arrives a stranger and her daughter. When Vianne Rocher arrives, she rents a shop and transforms it into a chocolate shop inspired by ancient Mayan recipes. Her unconventional ways draw the attention of the Mayor Count Reynaud, who sees her as a blight on the community that doesn't observe church traditions, wears bold clothing, and tempts them with chocolates during a holy time of fast. Despite his efforts to chase her off, she befriends the townspeople one by one by guessing their favorites sweets. 


Vianne especially befriends Josephine, an abused wife that she takes in and teaches the art of chocolate making. From Vianne she learns her self worth and how to take care of herself. She also befriends her landlady Armande and helps her reconnect with her grandson, despite the objection of Armande's daughter Caroline. As if the arrival of Vianne was not enough to draw the ire of the conservative town, soon after gypsies arrive and make camp on the banks of the nearby river. This causes the townspeople to take action against strangers, including a boycott of the gypsies and Vianne's shop. Vianne responds in a big and bold way by organizing a chocolate festival for Easter Sunday.


The cold war of morality comes to a head between Vianne and the Mayor as she  befriends the townspeople to accept her to stay while the Mayor tries to maintain conventional morality while resisting temptation and his own truths. In the end, everyone in the town learns a lesson about acceptance and, after realizing some truths of her own, Vianne decides to put down roots and keep the business doors open.


The Take

In the face of Vianne's uphill battle, the film teaches us that business development is a long game, and it puts planning, placement, and patience to the test. One character after another becomes tempted by her sweets and enveloped in her world allowing us to meet these characters, watch them move through the story, and witness the results as they become her loyal clients. Ultimately she changes the perspective of the whole town, but from the moment she arrives, she is the one making all of the first moves with each person that comes into her shop. Her progress throughout the film teaches some simple yet essential tactics and tenets of business development, such as:

Vianne makes a friend a customer at a time, and makes a customer one bite at a time. This is the definition of patience in business development. These situations are not "shotgun weddings" where one encounter makes you partners as firm and client. This is a courtship of sorts, and each phone call, meeting, and lunch is a step towards a long-lasting relationship. This is where the phrase "how do you eat an elephant?" comes into play. Vianne does this with one chocolate sweet at a time.

Vianne develops the trust of the communities around her. Helping others helps yourself. Call it your "karma bank" or what you will, but a favor here and there to help a potential long-term client is time well spent. The RFP for the project you want may not even be drafted, but those seeds of goodwill planted ahead of time will come to fruition at the proposal. Vianne does this by not just giving her chocolates in exchange, but by taking the time to listen to the townspeople. 

Vianne welcomes opportunity no matter where it may come from. Many times, diversifying your client base may be seen as a risky move, but keep an open mind about where the work can take you. If you have only ever performed in transportation, water resources and environmental, jump into some marketing research to look at overlapping services such as energy and solar powers. In Vianne's case, the river gypsies that show up at the edge of town provide her with some new customers and potential friends. Even against the vox populae of the town, she chooses allies that others shun and ends up better off for it.

Vianne teaches the neighborhood about something new about another culture. Surprising as it is that in the time that the movie is set, no one knows about the true nature and history of chocolate. The townspeople seem to be unfamiliar with many of her recipes since they come from another continent. Vianne exemplifies what many in our field call a "subject matter expert". She teaches them about different approaches to chocolate, different uses for it, and even uses it as a conversation starter. She brings her foreign knowledge and culture to enrich the lives of the townspeople, even if they are afraid and put-off at first. Your company has a culture as well as your services. Be a teacher as well as a friend.

Through her teaching, she changes the perspective of the town. Her education of the town through stories, samples and sweets helps them to understand themselves better. Event the stalwart mayor of the town trying to keep up pious appearances in the town finally caves and gives in to her chocolates. The testimonials of the townspeople on her chocolates and how she has treated them get back to him, and (albeit in a ravenous fit of guilt) he can't resist her chocolates. Instead of shaming him as she had right to do, she welcomes him and buries the hatchet, living up to the testimonials given by the townspeople. Support and respect the testimonials given you, they grease the wheels of the BD machine. Word of mouth leads to business, and changing someone's perspective of your business will always generate word of mouth. It's why we have Yelp.

She decides to stay and put down roots because of the business built within the community. Good business begets more business. As with word of mouth, repeat business can give you a reason to put down roots. A successful project, and people talking about that successful project can result in opening a branch office, hiring local talent, and ultimately growing your business. As with Vianne, having developed a trusting and repeat clientele, she even goes against her mother's innate habit of moving on with the north winds when the time comes. She decides to make a home there for her daughter with good friends and plenty of business. And as a firm, when you have put down roots, the business will come to you as long as you do good business.


The film does a good job at teaching the BD cycle, against the greater backdrop of acceptance, learning, social mores, and community. All of these are applicable lessons in life and in business, but what strikes me as a great lesson is watching her work with the people as well as the chocolate. Her interactions with the townspeople portray the psychology and morals needed to conduct good business development. The irony is that as much as the town mayor harasses her and spreads lies about how immoral she is, her morals as applied to business are totally sound. Vianne in the film practices planning, placement and patience, and without judgment, fear or malice; a businesswoman and single mother we can all learn from.


One thing I have learned as a barista, as anyone in food service will tell you, that if a person comes to you for a service or product once, they are a customer. When they come back repeatedly for an experience they feel comfortable with, they are a client. That lesson is as true for a chocolate shop as it is for a construction firm. That wisdom notwithstanding, chocolate appeals to all types of clients, which is something to keep in mind when socializing in the months ahead.


To hear the perfect sales pitch (for undoubtedly the easiest thing to sell) check out the clip below, and try not to let your mouth water too much.



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