Selling to Mr. Spock

Nowhere am I so desperately needed as among a shipload of illogical humans. –Spock in ‘I, Mudd’

Star Trek’s  iconic Mr. Spock was half-Vulcan, half-human. It’s the former we first notice in Spock – Vulcans are governed entirely by logic and rationality, unencumbered by emotions.

But it’s the latter that takes Spock from caricature to character. Spock mirrors our own schizophrenic, rational / emotional natures. He is the sock puppet for humanity, allowing us to look at ourselves afresh.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that from looking at economists, strategy consultants – and much of the B2B sales literature. They suggest that people, particularly smart business people, are mostly rational decision makers, persuaded by well-established rules of scientific evidence, logic, and the inexorable rules of mathematics.

In other words – they treat buyers like Vulcans.

But as with Spock, the truth for buyers is far more complex.

My Brain’s Bigger than Yours

In recent weeks I’ve spent a lot of time with B2B sales organizations. I’m reminded of how much businesspeople have bought – hook, line and sinker – the idea that customers buy through rational decision-making. The economists’ models are live and well in sales training programs.

Feeding the ratiocinating Vulcan side of buyers is necessary. But it is almost never sufficient. The true role of the intellect in B2B buying is as follows: Buyers scan options rationally, but they make their final selection with their emotions – then rationalize that decision with their brains.

The cognitive role in buying is vastly over-stated. Brains don’t rule. Spock is not 100% Vulcan. Neither is your customer.

Your Customer is Not a Vulcan

Question: What do the following things have in common? Value propositions; challenger selling; strategic fit; problem definition; pricing; negotiation; objection-handling.

Answer: In B2B sales, they usually center around analytical economic value, assuming that the rational resolution of each issue is the key to helping a buyer achieve a decision. Look for these buzz-phrases; clients buy results, you’ve gotta show the bottom line, the key is to demonstrate value, and so forth.

Nothing wrong with that list; but what’s missing are the things that actually trigger a buyer’s decision – not just justify it. Those include, for starters:

  • confidence that the seller can deliver what (s)he promises, and
  • the resulting ability to sleep through the night
  • integrity
  • character
  • commitment to principle
  • a long-term relationship focus
  • a sense that the seller has the buyer’s interest at heart
  • the seller’s ability and willingness to defer gratification
  • vulnerability of the seller
  • a set of values beyond economic value
  • a sense that the seller is a safe haven for conversation.

In short – trust in the seller.

Your customer is not a Vulcan. Your customer is Spock – partly human.

The Cognitive/Emotive Disconnect

I spend my time with smart, complex-business, B2B professionals. Every single one of them will acknowledge the importance of the above list. Yet every one of them lives in an organization where 90% of attention is focused on the buyer’s Vulcan side, doing slide decks, spreadsheets, valuations and scenarios.

In the real B2B world, all those rational items are the (necessary) justifications for customers looking to rationalize their (emotional) decisions. But they aren’t the decision-driver.

Buyers often (rationally) screen sellers. But they quickly form favorites, unconsciously, and usually before the sellers have even had a chance to address the issue. All the Vulcan-targeted approaches are aimed either at forming a buyer’s opinion (too late, already done), or changing a buyer’s preformed opinion (already set in concrete).  It rarely works.

Proof? Ask yourself how many times your customers failed to see the brilliant case you had made, because they were somehow biased against you. You tried to sell to the Vulcan in your Spock-customer; but that human side kept rearing its ugly head.

How Complex B2B Buying Really Works

Very few buyers will tell their boss, “Gee, I guess I bought from those guys because, you know, I really trust them.” That’s career suicide. Buyers need the air-cover (and, to be fair, the reality check) of a rationality-based argument. It’s our job as sellers to deliver that rationale to them, bullet-proof and logic-tight as it can be.

Because in business, we all need to pretend we’re Vulcans.

But deep down, we all know what’s really going on. People buy with the heart, and rationalize with the mind. Brains are a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Being right, by itself, is a vastly over-rated proposition. Being right too soon just pisses people off. All else equal, a trust-based sell will always beat a rationality-based sell.

The truth is, our emotional instincts are extremely powerful (not to mention frequently accurate). We make our decisions first based on those emotions, and then struggle to justify them according to the rules of the game.  Unlike Spock, we lead with the human, and bring in our Vulcan sides as a check.

Many, many of my clients say: “That may be true for lots of people, but not for my [boss] [client] [customer]. They’re completely Vulcan, data-based, just-give-me-the-facts people. You’ve got to treat them like Vulcans, because they demand it.”  But the fact that they demand to be treated like Vulcans is 95% about ego – and that’s their human side.

Ironically, all this is especially true for those who believe the world works on brains. They are prone to buy even more emotionally, because their self-worth is tied up in thinking that emotions don’t matter – which renders them oblivious to their own human decision-making process.

Even if your customer thinks they’re a Vulcan – treat them like Spock. Address the human side – then give them Vulcan-food to justify their feelings.

It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.  – Mr. Spock in ‘Errand of Mercy’

Intimacy: If You Can’t Say the I-Word, You Have the I-Problem

Many of you know about the Trust Equation – (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation. Trust research has shown that of the four factors, the one most associated with high trust scores is – Intimacy.

Recently I’ve spoken with two organizations – one in financial services, the other in professional services – that are uncomfortable using the word “intimacy” in a business context. They’d prefer something a little more, you know – business-ey.

Intimacy, they feel, is, you know, that other stuff…not appropriate…uncomfortable…you know…

The Intimacy Chicken and Egg Problem

This is not new. People and firms from those industries in particular tend to score high on Credibility and Reliability, with their lowest scores often in Intimacy. Still, I hadn’t put left and right together until recently. Here it is:

The ones who score low on intimacy are the ones who do not like using the term “intimacy.”

Which on the one hand is perfectly reasonable: after all, discussion of intimacy feels kind of intimate.

But on the other hand, it raises this question:

If you can’t talk about the I-word ­– how are you ever going to get better at it?

Intimacy: Not Just a Girlie-Man Thing

Intimacy, as defined in the trust equation, is related to empathy. The client of someone with great intimacy skills will feel secure, understood, and comfortable sharing sensitive information with the advisor.

By contrast, a professional with poor intimacy skills is not likely to get invited to the meeting in the first place – rendering the rest moot.

Way back in 1993, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema wrote in Harvard Business Review about Customer Intimacy. Since then, a great many companies talk about “customer intimacy” as a very viable business strategy. Companies from such wussy industries as defense contracting and oil have focused on this concept.

Which raises the question: if the he-men who sell to the Marines and who work in the Awl Patch can talk about “intimacy” – then why can’t lawyers, accountants and Wall Streeters?

Fear of Intimacy

There’s no need to get all Freudian about this. I think the biggest reason for our fear of intimacy in the business world is related to our increasingly dysfunctional idea of shareholder capitalism. The common thread? It’s all not personal.

We have become enamored of Schumpeterian creative destruction – but really don’t care to look at the nuts and bolts of structural unemployment.  That’s a little too, you know, personal.

What’s the purpose of a company? You know, to make money. And what are people to the company? Resources. Human resources. Better yet, human capital. That’s what we’ve come to believe: the word “human” is the adjective, “capital” the noun it modifies. It’s not, you know, personal.

Why is intimacy a no-no for so many in business, while “customer intimacy” gets accepted? Because it’s not so personal, that’s why. “Customers” are collective abstractions, not unlike Mitt Romney’s curious assertion that corporations are people. We talk about “the” customer – but never about a customer.

When we can turn people into abstractions, treat them as categories suitable to be measured and analyzed, then we don’t have to treat them as personal. They can be “customers,” or “human resources,” or “strategic partners” – just not as individuals. Our ideology has let us conveniently dehumanize business.


The inability to deal with intimacy in business is tied to the inability to see business as personal. It’s the same cloth. The day we can look at a customer or an employee and see a human being – that’s the day we can begin to deal with intimacy in business.

Until then, if you continue seeing “intimacy” as socially inappropriate, you are willfully relegating yourself to less trustworthy status.

Trusting Delta

From Delta Airline’s Website, Delta’s Force for Global Good

“Delta is firmly committed to our environment, safety, and social responsibility. We demonstrate these commitments in hundreds of ways throughout the world on a daily basis as we partner with our employees, vendors, customers, civic, and non-profit organizations to make a difference in the communities where we live and work. Many of our programs are award-winning and industry-leading. We don’t do them for the awards. We do them because they’re the right thing to do.”

Richard H. Anderson
Chief Executive Officer, Delta Airlines

From the Atlanta Business News, July 27, 2011

Airlines Spoil Fliers’ Unplanned Tax Holiday

Airlines have complained for years that taxes added to ticket prices drive up the cost of travel. But when those tax collections stopped last weekend and airlines had a rare chance to give fliers a break, most opted to keep prices the same and pocket the difference.

For Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, that amounts to be $4 million to $5 million a day in extra revenue, the company said Wednesday.

A Congressional stalemate led to a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration Saturday, preventing the agency from collecting about $200 million a week in ticket taxes.

Delta and other major carriers then increased base fares to cover the lapsed taxes, saying they need the extra money to cover high fuel costs. The result is that travelers are paying roughly the same total price as before, instead of getting a discount from the unplanned tax holiday.

“It just seems like it was the perfect chance for the airlines to throw a bone in consumer satisfaction,” said CEO Rick Seaney…

…Delta’s official statement on the matter: “Given the high cost of jet fuel, Delta has been competitive with other airlines that increased their base fares following the expiration of funding for the Federal Aviation Administration to adjust for the taxes no longer being collected.”

The Curious Case of Curiosity in Selling

What’s the top, number one, single greatest factor affecting success in sales?

There are often multiple answers to questions like that, because all the prime candidates overlap similar territory. You might argue for a can-do attitude, or customer focus, or a committed team.

Let me make the case for curiosity.

Imagine being in a constant state of heightened curiosity when you are with, doing work for, and thinking about your customers. What would that look like?

The answers fall into two broad categories, I think:

1. If you were curious on your customer’s behalf, you would:

• Notice an awful lot of things about their people, products and customers
• Formulate many hypotheses
• Ask a lot of questions to pursue those hypotheses
• Want to know lots of things on general principle: preferences, history, culture, practices
• Be other-focused

2. And while you were being curious, you would spend less time on:

• Worrying about how to get the sale
• Worrying about how to speed a decision, or close, or qualify a lead
• Trying to portray yourself in ways you assume will influence the customer

Now here’s the punch line. Most approaches to selling tell you to ask a lot of questions—basically like the first category.

But they also tell you to worry about that second category. In fact, they say the sole purpose of all questions is to get the sale. Most sales approaches say you absolutely should worry about getting the sale, speeding a decision, qualifying, etc. Which kills curiosity.

Curiosity says, to hell with that. Curiosity says, the purpose of questions is to find out what could be: what could be better, what the right thing is, what the customer should do.

The paradox, of course, is that curiosity-driven selling just plain works better. It works better because the questions are grounded in the customer’s world, not the sales person’s needs.

The linear, process-driven, metrics-based approach to selling that has become so prevalent has many virtues, but one gigantic, glaring defect: By trying to maximize the sale, it has devalued the customer—thereby reducing sales effectiveness (insert ironic music here).

Curiosity may have killed some cat once upon a time; but it serves salespeople well. Curiosity isn’t a sales tactic. Done right, sales are a natural byproduct of being curious.  There’s something very simple and right about that.

The Silver Lining in the Recession Cloud: a Shift Toward the Customer

Can you feel it? It’s all around us.

No, I’m not talking about the doom and gloom of the stock market or the latest bank collapse. I’m talking about a the subtle changes where you shop, eat, bank, style your hair and service your car. Despite the dark sky of economic woes, there’s a silver lining – a shift toward the customer.

* Chain restaurant staff are more welcoming.
* Safeway has a sale sign on every item (recognizing that people need to perceive a deal before they’ll buy)
* The local Toyota dealership is offering free Cappuccino’s on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and now leaves you with a bounce-back coupon.
* Staples offered 50% off any copy paper (although tied to their rewards program – not very customer focused)

Last night, while I was at the local Target, the floor manager announced (loud enough for customers to hear) that any employee that helped a customer find a “high ticket” item resulting in the largest sale would get a $5.00 Target gift card.

Think back to not too long ago. Didn’t you feel complacency just prior to the storm clouds moving in? I’m guessing Lehman Brothers, Fannie and Freddie all were perched on their porches in rocking chairs before the tornado came. The energy was about to drift to the buyer.

New found energy?

Genuine customer focus?


Here’s the question that pulls at me – what if this customer focus du jour carries beyond the current storm clouds? What if this recent shift back toward customer satisfaction propagates valuable lessons that translate into better service once the sunny days are here again?

Perhaps this is a divine shake up — requiring us to “love your brother as yourself” in order to get back on track.

Those who are truly customer-focused will soak up what works and what doesn’t through these trials. Those that are thinking about these activities as a tactic to wait out the storm will probably revert back to their old ways.

In the short term, buyers benefit. In the long-term both buyers and seller can.


Using Trust-based Selling in Banking: St. Meyer and Hubbard

Two years ago, I got a call from Jack Hubbard of a firm named St. Meyer & Hubbard . They did sales training for bankers, or so I understood, and were developing a "Trusted Advisor Prospecting System."  I was initially skeptical.  I viewed Trust-based Selling as more suited for B2B clients, and largely for later-stages in the sales process.

They showed me otherwise. 

We spoke a few times by phone, and exchanged some writings. I was quickly impressed with their unusual combination of vision-and-values perspective and down-and-dirty detailed, tactical programs.  They were teaching clients to apply trust principles at earlier stages and more retail-focused levels than I had appreciated was possible.

Jack and his partner Bob St. Meyer and their team have now written their own book—Conversations with Prospects—which I can enthusiastically recommend.

Recently I got to see them in action at an annual conference they put on for bank CXOs, mostly existing clients. And I don’t know when I’ve seen such a uniformly positive, enthusiastic and solidly appreciative set of clients.

Until a week ago, I had never personally met Jack or Bob—yet I felt like I was catching up with old friends even before meeting up in the hotel lobby. At dinner, they were Midwest-friendly, but also New York direct and to-the-point.

They clearly know banking. And here they were putting on a conference for their clients about their own subject matter—selling. But they always steered the conversation around to the others at the table. They never mentioned selling their own services. Which of course sold me even more.

In other words, they walk the trust talk.

Jack, for example, sends out over 500 emails a week of the “you might enjoy this article” variety. He doesn’t use a tracking system to follow each one up; he’s not looking to connect each of his actions to a client profitability analysis, nor does he constantly examine his behaviors to determine his sales efficiency. He just focuses on his clients, both those with whom he has signed contracts and those who have yet to do so.

Here are a few excerpts from “Conversations with Prospects.”

One thing all prospects want is the same thing any of us want in our most valuable personal relationships. They want to be visible. They need a bank, but they want a banker—someone who knows who they are, what they do, and what are their challenges and opportunities.

Bankers often try too hard to prospect using techniques that are all about the bank, relying on persuasion instead of conversation. Unless the banker gets lucky and hits the prospect at a moment of desperation or unfulfilled need, the prospect invariably pushes back with any number of brush offs, but most often the shut-down line is: “I’m happy with my present bank.”

Bankers will introduce themselves to prospects by saying things such as, “I’d like to come out and introduce myself because I think I can save you some money.” Or, “I’d like to discuss our cash management offerings.” Who really needs to spend time listening to another banker peddling the same products as the rest of the pack? We see a lot of sales letters that are just as bad, talking about the sales person and company, but not the potential customer and their issues.

Needs are not products. Bankers that discover, create, and exceed the need will always have business. When the push to sell products overrides the best interests of the client there is little discussion about managing anything.

When sales people are measured solely on the basis of production, the client is the ultimate loser.
In trust-based selling, the sales person stops trying to be interesting and learns to be interested. Banks that understand this work hard to focus on and understand the buying cycle of their prospects and clients. When banks match their sales cycle to the customer’s buying cycle, it’s a trust connection and they are well on their way to a sale.


Customer Service Showdown: The Cable Company vs the DMV

The stories you are about to read are true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Wait a minute—there are no innocents! Let’s name names. It’s the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles vs. Comcast Cable.

And believe it or not, one of these is a wildly positive story about customer service. The other, of course, is not (lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, especially if that place is New Jersey).

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to guess which story is which.

First, the disaster story—courtesy of my friend Judy.

Judy called XYZ about a common transaction. “Sure,” they said, “here’s what you need to bring, and we’ll take care of you.”

She gets there: “What? Who told you that! You need to go back home and bring the other thing.”

She returns. “You can’t do this, your ex-husband’s name is on the records. We need a copy of the twelve-year old divorce decree, plus his signature on a form. We don’t have that form, but we’ll fax it to you.”

Days later. “Who told you we could fax that to you? We can only mail it.”

More days. “We need to confirm your social security number.” She gives it to them. “Sorry, we can’t match it; we don’t have records of your social security number.” “Then what were you going to match it to?!" Judy asks.  We have entered Kafka-land some time ago.

At last, Judy leaves with the desired outcome. It turns out to be wrong.

On returning yet again, it’s, “well, who in the hell gave you that? It’s obviously wrong. Hey lady stop screaming—no need to take out your personal problems on us!”

OK, that was—drumroll—the Cable Company!  Comcast of West Orange, Essex County, New Jersey.

And that means—yes, people, believe it or not—the raging success story is the New Jersey DMV. Lately renamed the  Motor Vehicle Commission

I visited the Morristown office recently to register a new (actually used) car and change my address. I walk in at noon. The parking lot is full. I dread what is about to happen to my afternoon. 

But no; the lines are short—very short—and moving. I’m aggressively approached by someone who looks me in the eye. “Waddya here for, how can we help yez?”

“I want to register a car, and do a change of address,” I say. No hesitation. “Great, come on over here, let’s kill ‘em both off at once,” she says.

And she proceeds to do just that. She gave me practical advice: “If you don’t mind camping on a phone to Trenton for 10 minutes, it’ll save you a whole lot of time later—I’ll get you a chair. Meanwhile, I can download this part and fill it in for you.”

An elderly woman came in with an oxygen tube and a walker. An employee briskly walked her to the ladies room, then on her return, firmly asked someone else to move down to the next chair to make room.

A man with an accent said he was foreign born but naturalized years ago, and was worried sick about getting some documentation. An employee talked to him intently for 5 minutes; he ended up saying, “Oh, thank you so much, I am so relieved to find someone to help me with this, thank you.”

A woman next to me said, “I can’t believe how much better this place is than the department store I was just in.”

I sought out the office head before leaving to congratulate him on how different this office felt than others, and how much better than it used to be. “Yeah, we’ve got a pretty good team here,” he said, waving at his staff of eight or so.

Now, here’s the punch line. Which office do you think has bulletproof glass in front of the service windows?

Answer: the one who needs it.

Faking Customer Centricity

Customer centricity is a powerful business concept. But that’s not all it is.

Properly done— Pepper and Rogers and One to One are the class act in this arena—it is key to an approach to business that combines social good and corporate success.

Done right, it’s a goal in itself—not a mere tactic for profitability. Profitability emerges as a byproduct, not as an overriding goal. True customer-centricity yields more profit than profit-centricity alone does.

But this view is up against a lot. The broader approach to business is centered on competitive advantage as the goal, and the shareholder stakeholder as the primary beneficiary. And that has a perverse impact on the idea of customer centricity.

Remember 60s radical Angela Davis? She was a student of Herbert Marcuse, a radical philosopher who developed the concept of “repressive tolerance.” Sounds contradictory (he was a Hegelian, for the philosophers in the crowd), but makes good sense (he was also perceptive).

It means, simply, the best way for a majority to neutralize a threatening minority is to develop an attitude of tolerance. That way, the majority system appears to be un-threatened, and the minority to be un-threatening. The status quo is the winner.

While that idea has some limits (it’s hard to tolerate violent terrorists beyond a certain point), it works pretty well in the realm of ideas.

Which is why “customer centricity” is so easily hijacked by the dominant ideology of competitive advantage. The competitive paradigm—our leading view of business today—is repressively tolerant of customer-centricity. The hijacking turns the new idea into merely a tactic to serve the old idea. Customer centricity is neutralized, subsumed into the competitive paradigm.

Some examples:

1. Is it just me, or has the Ritz Carlton recently stepped up its emphasis on employees using the phrase “my pleasure?” Other companies are copying it. If delivered without sincerity, it results in a hollow mockery of the intended customer focus. Delivered too often, even with sincerity, it risks appearing obsequious—an autonomic reaction, not an indication of customer focus, thus highlighting its use as a tactic, not a goal.

2. How about, “your business is very important to us…” It clearly isn’t, otherwise you’d hire someone to answer the phone instead of routinely kicking me to voicemail hell. Which means it’s another faux version of customer focus, using the hollow shell—the words, in this case—of customer centricity, but in service merely to cost-cutting. If you’re going to put me on hold, then at least have the decency to own the decision—don’t lie to me.

3. Or, “your opinion matters to us.” No it doesn’t. If it did, you’d do something more than a simple check-box card in my hotel room. If it actually did matter to you, the desk clerk would act like he or she cared when I made a suggestion. If it did, you’d use it for something more than employee ratings.

4. Or, "I do apologize for that, sir," when the thing being apologized for is either an objectionable corporate policy or a systems screwup, but in any case has nothing to do with the poor agent doing the apologizing.

The language of relationships—feelings, apologies, empathy—has been evident in business lately. It is ostensibly about personal connections, about taking responsibility, and about focusing on the needs and feelings of the customer.

That’s the theory. In practice, it’s often just more slick sloganeering. If a company really wanted to be customer centric, they’d apologize for mistakes they made, and own up to decisions they didn’t intend to change. Imagine hearing this from a company spokesperson:

"This is a result of the policies we follow; occasionally it severely inconveniences someone and it sounds like that’s what happened here. I can promise you I’ll make sure the company is aware of this result so we can work to reduce it in future—but to some extent, that’s the inevitable result of our chosen policy, and it’s intentional. I’m sorry that you’re caught in it, let me do what I can to resolve it for you right now."

That would at least be honest. Alternatively, one could change the policy in question. But for heaven’s sake, don’t lie to us and fake it.

Fake customer-centricity is like counterfeiting. Counterfeiting harms retailers, or wine merchants, or tech manufacturers, or software writers. Fake customer-centricity harms customers. It turns our commercial relationships into low-integrity lying.

We’ve got enough of that already. Insist on the real thing.

Here’s a video clip that says it all.

Ruining Trust by Taxing Mistrust: the False Negatives Scam

I’ve had Mastercard problems for a few years now—on overseas trips they frequently reject transactions. I would call to reinstate. They would say they’d fixed the problem. They hadn’t.

6 months ago they said getting a business card would help. I did. It didn’t.

I’ll be brief; this is not meant to be a bitch session, but an exploration.

October 23, Netherlands: MC rejects a $15 charge for hotel internet access.

October 24, 8AM, I call: “it won’t happen again, Mr. Green.”

October 24, 10AM: I try to change an airline ticket; card rejected. I call: “well, there is a lot of fraud outside the US boundaries, Mr. Green." (Oh, the xenophobia). "It won’t happen again, Mr. Green.”

October 25, Kuala Lumpur: Buying ticket to Singapore; card rejected. I call: “It won’t happen again, Mr. Green.”

October 25, Singapore: checking into hotel. Card rejected. I call: “It won’t happen again, Mr. Green.”

An hour later, rejected again. Ditto a day later.

I finally wise up and insist on talking to a manager. Unbelievably, what I hear is this:

“Yes, I can see you’ve had this problem with unnecessary rejections for over a year now. And yes, we’ve been giving you the highest clearance each time, but that only lasts a day. The automatic limit rejection triggers kick back in the next day. But I can put in a request to the review committee to get you permanently approved at a higher level, even outside the national boundaries.”

This is a business card? And now you tell me I have to call mommy every time I want to fly or stay in a hotel? But never mind.

The issue is—why is this happening?

It is not a unique event. It is an example of a broader phenomenon, and it’s not a good one.

In medicine, we have to weigh the value of a false positive vs a false negative. What’s worse? To be told you have breast cancer when you don’t, or to be told you don’t have it, and find out later you did.

The medical industry in the US has responded resoundingly: we’ll take a ton of false positives so as not to incur a single false negative. And not just so we won’t get sued. It’s also because the patient pays the price of false negatives—economically and emotionally. It costs nothing to lay it all off on the consumer. The consumer is the insurer of first resort.

We all pay the price. We pay it in tons of unnecessary medical tests, because doctors are paranoid about being sued.

We have taken a social decision—how much to invest in health care for the ill—and subjected it to good old capitalist economics and to market-economy politics. When political correctness meets social policy, the businesses involved—medicine, insurance, credit cards—will massively opt for self-protection at the cost to—you guessed it, the consumer.

You are the one who pays for unnecessary medical tests. You are the one who pays for screening everyone at airports. You are the one who pays for statistically absurd radon protection when you buy a house.

And you (and I) are the ones who pay so that Mastercard doesn’t have to incur any losses. Because in fact, legally, they, not me, are liable for the bulk of fraudulent purchases. But we, not they, get to shoulder most of the costs. Fraud costs up? Just flag every transaction that’s online and outside the good ol’ USA, and lay it off on the customer.

Give the poor customer service reps training in empathy (which means tell them to say “I apologize” for things they had no part in). Retract your retraction the following day.

Oh yes—and tell the consumer it is all being done in their best interest. After all, you wouldn’t want someone to steal your credit card and use it for fraudulent purposes, would you?

Actually, right about now I would.

Ability to travel freely around the world with a credit card? Priceless. For everything else, there’s Mastercard.

We’ve Got the Hamburgers: a Customer Service Classic

I had a delightful dinner the other night at the home of a client in the Netherlands. It was his birthday, and at the dinner table was a mix of family friends and co-workers—all interesting, in part because all were very well-world-travelled.

One told me the following (possibly apocryphal) story.

When McDonald’s was first entering the market in Moscow, it placed a great deal of training emphasis on the elements of customer service. Fast, friendly, courteous, prompt—these were the principles McDonalds wanted its employees to embody in their relations with patrons.

An employee approached the trainer one day early in the process, with an offer to help. “Listen,” he said, “you seem like a nice person and I’d hate for you to appear foolish in front of the group, so let me explain something to you.”

The trainer was all ears, concerned that he had nearly made a faux pas, and grateful for the help.

“You see,” explained the employee, “we’ve got the hamburgers. The customers don’t. They want them—we’ve got them. They have no choice. They’ve got to go through us. And you don’t want them getting ideas about who holds the power here. Just remember—we’ve got the hamburgers. Now do you understand?”

Of course, it’s tempting to chuckle and say, how quaint, or can you believe the culture in Russia, or how dumb was that guy. Tempting, but wrong.

Because “we’ve got the burgers” syndrome lives on elsewhere.

• While looking at a car at a Saab dealership a few years ago, I asked to test-drive a model. “I really can’t do that now, I’m on break in 10 minutes and tomorrow’s my day off. Could you come back Friday?” Our burgers, our timetable.

• A customer at a discount clothing store was annoyed that the clerk kept talking with a co-worker while checking out—and making a few mistakes in the process. Transaction finished, the employee turned full attention to her conversation. The customer turned to leave, she said, “You know, a simple ‘thank you’ might have been nice.” Not turning to look, the clerk said, “It’s printed on the receipt.” You got your burger, you should be grateful.

• More subliminal, but no less real, is the implicit belief among consulting types that the client is buying knowledge and advice—and therefore is under a moral obligation to pay for any advice given, and to take it willingly. A client looking for the comfort of advance discussions is therefore trying to “get it for free,” and is ethically challenged if they don’t take the advice. How dare you challenge our burgers.

• When a corporate IT department is asked by a user for a capability like Skype, or instant messaging, they may get a lecture on why they don’t need Skype, or IM, but something else instead, and the real solution will take a while, cost more, and not do exactly what Skype or IM would do—but it’ll be great. You can’t handle the truth about our burgers.

“We’ve got the burgers” is not just a metaphor. It’s one symptom of a common disease—the disease of “it’s all about me.”

How about you? What’s your favorite "we’ve got the burgers" moment?