Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson at SuccessConnect Berlin.

How to Turn Customers Into Fans: Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson Challenges HR at SuccessConnect Berlin

Hard core Iron Maiden fans might be surprised to find out that lead singer Bruce Dickinson not only keynoted at SuccessConnect Berlin 2018, but enthralled the audience of human resource (HR) professionals every second he was on stage.

He came out with an in-your-face challenge — “I know you’re an HR audience, and I’m your worst nightmare” — and never let up.

Speaking to a full house at the end of day one, Dickinson told his edgy and amazing life story. In between thrilling fans with unforgettable guitar riffs and his operatic voice, he has shape-shifted his entire career around one theme: relationships with people. This is someone who’s equally comfortable as front man for one of the world’s greatest rock bands, commercial pilot, fencing champion, brew master, best-selling author, and most recently, social entrepreneur providing edible drones for people in disaster-hit locales. Here’s my take on Dickinson’s rules for life — colorful expletives deleted.

Hate Customers, Love Fans

Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson shared lessons from his improbably eclectic career at SuccessConnect Berlin.
Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson shared lessons from his improbably eclectic career at SuccessConnect Berlin.

Dickinson said the reason why millions of people would rather stand in a cold, wet, muddy field to see Iron Maiden than watch the band online is because they’re fans, not customers.

“We can often forget that in a world of software and social media, it’s all about people,” said Dickinson. “I hate customers. You must hate the customer because the definition of a customer is a person who could walk away from your business. You’re actually selling a relationship…with feelings. There’s no software for feelings, but there’s a feeling you get about software. You want those feelings about software to be good. That’s how to turn customers who are able to walk away into fans.”

Talk and Listen

As a working-class youth, Dickinson was expelled from a leading public school in the U.K. after a major infraction (something to do with a profane act involving the headmaster’s dinner). He held the incident up as emblematic of his strengths.

“The headmaster wrote a letter saying [my] tongue has always been [my] undoing. I’ve made a fortune out of my tongue,” said Dickinson. “You can never write off anybody. What saved my life is talking to people. I’ve always talked to people.”

Fast-forward to today, Dickinson pointed to electronic media as one of the biggest obstacles to getting real work done. “Emails are wonderful ways of avoiding decisions, transferring responsibility onto electronic paper, and not being present with another human being…It’s the talking that matters in business and how you get things done.”

If You Dream, It Can Happen

After becoming the lead singer of the hottest heavy metal band in the world at age 21, Dickinson said he realized the power of dreaming big.

“When I was a 16-year old kid, I would make ball point pen sketches of my fantasy life. I thought if I draw enough pictures, and visualize it in my head, it will come true,” he said. “If you do not dare to dream, if will never come true. You must allow you imagination to run riot with whatever ideas you think might happen, because they just might happen.”

Dickinson found himself in the enviable yet scary position of achieving everything he ever wished for when he was 22 years old. His revelation came while crawling (yes, really) down the corridor of a hotel in Tokyo searching for bread rolls on room service trays (the kitchen had closed for the night and he was hungry). “I saw myself in the hallway mirror…and realized I’d end up turning into a horrible creature if I let this rock and roll thing rule my life, and I decided to take up other hobbies.”

Launch an Airline With No Planes

Bitten by the “creative mosquito,” Dickinson has channeled his insatiable curiosity and personal passions into a dizzying number of new ventures. He became a full-time pilot, combining his love of flying with his band’s desire to play before far-flung fans worldwide. When that airline went broke, he started another by disrupting the airline business model, helping the Republic of Djibouti restart its national airline.

“Airlines go bust because they own airplanes, so I decided to start an airline with no airplanes or get airplanes for free,” he said. “We started a garage for fixing old airplanes, which require more maintenance. We can fly those airplanes and give you money back with a cheap deal on maintenance.”

Dickinson is also building the world’s largest aircraft, which appeals to his “steampunk mentality.” It’s slated to offer 50 metric tons of cargo capacity with zero-carbon flight. Another initiative is developing the world’s first edible drones. Entirely biodegradable, they can be thrown from an airplane, bringing food and medicine to people otherwise isolated during the first weeks of natural disasters.

Integrity in the Face of Challenges

Dickinson was candid about lessons learned following his bout with cancer. “There’s no such thing as wasted time if you choose to waste it. Having your time wasted by other people, though, is something you should be brutally unforgiving of, because you can’t get it back.”

Oh, and about that brew. After giving thumbs down to a pitch for Iron Maiden red wine because making money was not enough of a reason to do it, Dickinson decided on a traditional English ale. “I like drinking beer, and I Iike beer with integrity. The Iron Maiden way is to design our own beer. That’s our integrity ─ having your own beer that’s a success in its own right.”

Twenty-two million pints later, Bruce Dickinson’s beer is quenching the thirst of fans in 54 countries. Enough said.

Follow me at @smgaler.