There is an original Hawaiian Beach Boy and his name is Ted.

Every day at the Waikiki Beach Boys surf shop on the beach in Oahu, Ted teaches tourists how to surf and sometimes shares a story about the legendary Pink Palace hotel on the beach. Or tells visitors how he first purchased the name of the iconic business all the way back in 1977. Or jokingly complains how it’s sometimes tough to get his team of young tanned beach boys working because they focus a little too much on the beach girls. But the biggest challenge Ted faces is that there are lots of people offering surf lessons on the beach, and they all offer pretty much the same thing.

Of course, the Waikiki Beach Boys advantage is that they have Ted – and he has been the heart of the service for decades. Everybody knows Ted. But what happens when Ted isn’t working?

This is the question that kept coming up over and over as I recently led a team of business executives around Hawai’i to speak with local business owners about their operations and the challenges they face. Over the course of the day, our teams visited a well known local snow cone shop, a seller of the only gourmet chocolates produced on Oahu, a Hawaiian jeweler, a local organic coffee shop, and a store with the world’s largest collection of Hawaiian Shirts for sale. The aim of all these conversations and our entire day was to help these leaders think more innovatively about the sales challenges they faced.

This was the ultimate experiential focus group, as we interviewed business owners while customers walked into their stores. Over the course of the day, several lessons became clear in how nearly identical businesses differentiate themselves, what actually matters to customers, and why some businesses sell while others fail. Here are just a few of the sales lessons we all took away from our day in Hawai’i:

  1. Have A Backstory – If there was one thing that separated the busy businesses, from the empty ones – it was the fact that the busiest ones had mastered the art of telling a backstory. What was particularly interesting about them, though, was just how subtle that backstory sometimes was. For example, all one street vendor needed was a simple sign noting that his shop was the oldest lei maker in Honululu. That one sign told the story he wanted to tell.
  2. Get The Locals First – For any product or experience, it is tempting to focus on the highest margin customers first. For most of the retail stores in Honululu, that was clearly the visiting tourists. Yet often the tourists would ask the locals where to go – and the locals became the trusted recommenders who could make or break a local business. As more tourists want the “real” experience, this endorsement from supposedly lower value customers like locals actually means the difference between success and failure.
  3. Win On Personality – When you ask Ted or any of the Beach Boys what makes their kayaking tours different, he might just tell you the truth … they’re not. If you are renting a kayak and going into the ocean, pretty much anyone can offer that service. But Ted and his boys CAN win on personality, even if they sell the same thing. Which proves a pretty consistent truth … sometimes people will just buy a product or service from the person they like better.