Thin Slicing Business Nightmare

08/17/2007 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today's Guardian reports on a nasty mistake made by a fancy hotel:

Staff at Cancun's five-star Hotel Coral Beach appear to have assumed this was another street vendor or beggar, so without asking questions they ordered her to leave. Except the woman was Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel peace prizewinner, Unesco goodwill ambassador, Guatemalan presidential candidate and figurehead for indigenous rights.

Be honest. You're running a hotel at a Mexico beach resort and a small hispanic-looking lady wearing typical Mayan dress walks in. Is it not just plain stupid to ask her to leave, regardless of how she looks? Isn't there some easy way to establish, without insulting anybody, whether or not somebody belongs in the hotel lobby? Or are the "locals" such a problem that you'll let this happen? And if it does happen, will you rationalize?

So what do you think, is this good business? Keep in mind, as you consider the question, that this hotel has probably done that same kind of thing a thousand times to people who weren't Nobel Prize winners. So have the other big hotels along that same strip of beach. And most of their guests are probably glad when they did. And then there's that exception to the rule.

Personally, I don't think the lesson here is how bad the Hotel Coral Beach is. I think it's that lots of people make this same mistake all the time, and we need to be reminded that every so often one of those stereotypical-looking people is carrying around the Nobel Peace Prize.

The business point here isn't a matter of ethics or moral right or wrong, but rather, what's good for business. I'm assuming that this ugly incident isn't going to improve the business performance of the Coral Beach in Cancun. Yes, I know we say in business that there's no bad publicity, but then again, come on, this is bad publicity.

Today's stupid hotel moment is a great example of what Malcolm Gladwell calls "thin slicing" in his book Blink. Thin slicing might be called snap judgment. Gladwell shows that it's powerful when it works, but also dangerous when it doesn't.

At one point in that book he shares a study showing that car sales people routinely make better offers to white males than to black males or white females. Then he uses a counter example, Bob Golomb, sales director of the Flemington Nissan dealership in New Jersey, who sells more than double what the average car salesman sells:

He follows, he says, a very simple rule. He may make a million snap judgments about a customer's needs and state of mind, but he tries never to judge anyone on the basis of his or her appearance. He assumes that everyone who walks in the door has the exact same chance of buying a car.

What I love about Gladwell's example is that Golomb isn't just a nice guy, but rather a remarkably effective salesman. The point isn't that the other sales people are bad because they're discriminating and stereotyping. The point is that Golomb sells so much more than his colleagues. So by avoiding the snap judgment he makes more money, not less.

Ultimately, whether we like it or not, business is about money, as in sales and profits and such. As a business owner, I'm still hoping that on the long term the Bob Golombs win and the Coral Beaches lose.