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A Cautionary Tale for Marketers: Do’s and Don’t’s from the Perspective of the Marketed-To

Story 1: Don’t Do This

I got one of those broadcast email solicitations from a very reputable organization that hosts executive roundtables. Brian (a stranger to me) wanted me to attend an informational meeting. To his credit, he “had me at hello” with the very first lines of his email, which were both personal and complimentary: “Andrea, let me first say I LOVE the name of your company and the genesis of it…the ‘new beat’ story. Outstanding!”

“Wow,” I thought, “He’s taken the time to find out about BossaNova and make a personal connection to me. He gets me! He likes me! I like this guy!”

What followed was a directive to “Read on” with a photo of a jubilant baseball team and the assertion that “There are lessons you learn in Baseball that can apply to business leaders like YOU once you understand their importance and their impact” (with a bulleted list of those very lessons). His call to action at the end of the email was aggressive and impersonal.

Brian had me right off the bat and lost me soon after. I have nothing against baseball—not at all. I’m just not much of a sports enthusiast and, truthfully, get tired of the male-oriented metaphors. Brian’s very personal appeal followed by his very impersonal (and misaligned) form letter was a particularly lethal combo. Now, not only am I a “no” for the information session I was invited to, but I have an attitude about both Brian and his organization to boot. Three strikes, you’re out.

Story 2: An Approach to Emulate

A few weeks ago I was surprised by a knock at the door—an unexpected delivery of baked goods from a local sweet shop. The package included a hand-written note from Kacy, the office organizer I had hired exactly one year before. The sweets were to commemorate my first anniversary in my new home office, with a reminder that she was available should any lingering piles be in my way, and a request to tell others about her services if I was so inclined.

I immediately logged onto Facebook (well, by “immediately” I mean right after I had a cookie) and posted kudos for Kacy, along with a link to her web site. I sent her an email to thank her for the unexpected treat, alert her to the free Facebook advertising, and acknowledge her for the lesson in great marketing. She wrote me right back to thank me, saying, “I’m so glad you like them! I never know if someone’s going to be out of town or unavailable, but it always works out. In my client list, I have a column where I note the dates of our last sessions. Once a month or so I run through those and send the goodies out!”

The sweets hit the sweet spot, for sure, far more so than being hit over the head with a baseball bat. Maybe Kacy got lucky with her choice. Although it seems to me she could have sent me anything (even one of those giant foam fingers) and the good feelings from the unexpected personal acknowledgement would have prevailed.

A Plea to Marketers

The two anecdotes aren’t apples to apples—different relationship histories, different communication media, different calls to action. That said, I find them both illuminating.

To all marketers out there (including myself), here’s my plea:

  •         DO make it personal
  •         DON’T use a personal tactic to get someone’s attention and then switch to a more generic approach
  •         DO find creative ways to appreciate the people who have given you business in the past
  •         DO use the element of surprise
  •         DON’T be afraid to ask for more work or for referrals.

The moral of the stories: Intimacy is a powerful tool in business. Use it wisely, especially with strangers. Mix it in with a little unexpected generosity and you’ll hit a home run.

Trust on the Toll Road

A good friend of mine, Bob, recently lost his mother.  Following the funeral, disheveled and still in mourning he took to the road to return to Boston.  Approaching the tolls at the New York Thruway, he tried to slow down and discovered he had no brakes. 

In the split second Bob had to choose what to do, he examined his options.  Hit the cement barrier and risk getting hit from behind or go through the toll and hope the car in front of him was moving away thereby minimizing the risk of injuring someone.  He decided to put the car in park–which only slowed the car a little–and go through the toll. 

Unfortunately the car in front didn’t move away.  Luckily no one was hurt. 

When the police officer showed up, he too had a choice.  He had to determine whether it was, in fact, an accident and that Bob was telling the truth about his brakes failing, or if he was simply telling a tale to get out of a ticket by swaying responsibility. 

The officer chose a third option–he assumed Bob was trying to avoid the $1.25 toll.  What made this officer ignore the more likely choices and go for dishonesty of the third kind?  Was it Bob’s disheveled look?  Did he sound drunk? 

I can understand if the officer thought Bob was lying to avoid a ticket. He’s probably seen many people run through tolls.  What baffles me is why he would think Bob would run a toll when there was a car at the toll booth.   What made him select the most improbable scenario?

The implications for trust are profound.   We can influence our own trustworthiness by reducing our self-orientation, and increasing our credibility, reliability and intimacy. 

Yet those factors don’t operate in a rational vacuum when we consider whether to trust others.   Our upbringing, general experience, specific experiences, psychological makeup and even job responsibilities go into the mix. 

Put yourself in the shoes of the police officer.  Perhaps something similar happened in the past.  Maybe he’s heard so many excuses, that everything sounds like a variation on the theme.  Maybe he was just having a difficult day. 

Maybe he trusted someone’s story that turned out to be a lie once too often.  We want to be trusted, and we would like ourselves and others to be trusting.  We have to recognize when our own issues get in the way of trusting others.  And hope that our own hard work to be trustworthy will be enough for others to trust us. 

What happened to Bob?  The tow truck driver confirmed that the brakes failed.  

And the officer made my friend pay the toll, just in case.

The Wrong Elevator Speech: Disaster and Recovery

This is week three for me of a four-week road trip. I’m getting a little loopy, but am collecting some wonderful client experiences, lessons and stories. Here’s one from a British account executive.

“I was going to see a potential client for what could have been an important piece of business for us. Unfortunately for me, I missed the scheduled plane by minutes, and thus was delayed by an hour. I called, and they agreed to reschedule the meeting to accommodate me.

“When I arrived, a bit flustered, the team of a half-dozen clients execs had gathered downstairs, and we all then went to the lift to go upstairs to the designated conference room.

“Unfortunately the lift was made for about four people. We all crammed into the lift, and it slowly began to climb. At that point someone—how shall I put this—well, as we English say—passed gas. The lift continued its crawling pace upward. No one, of course, said a word, nor even altered their expression. There was dead silence.

“As the doors finally opened, we all rushed to get out—all at once. And all 7 of us thereby tumbled onto each other on the floor. We all picked ourselves up, even more embarrassed, and again without saying a word to each other, made our way into the conference room.

“As I set up at the head of the room, I could feel the weight of this triple discomfort: I was late, the tumbling all over each other—and of course the ‘gas’ incident in the middle. It was all contrived to create a mutual sense of misery.

“What to do? I stood in the front of the room and said, ‘Gentlemen, little did I know this morning what a fine level of intimate relationship we should all achieve in so little time here this afternoon. I am honored indeed.”

“Well fortunately, everyone fell all over each other laughing; I had somehow managed to prick the balloon of the unspoken that hung over us like a cloud, and the rest of the day went marvelously. And oh yes, we got the sale.”

What this gentleman had done, in our nomenclature, was to Name It and Claim It; that is, to speak aloud the one thing that no one could figure out how to talk about. He did it with humor—an excellent tool—and was rewarded for the relief he caused by an appreciative relationship, and even a sale.

How many of us waste moments like that, buried in our own fear of speaking the truth? And how many sales do we leave on the table because of it?

 

Three Little Words

My mother always told me that bad luck comes in threes. At the risk of pushing my luck, I’m going to disagree with her–at least when it comes to trustworthiness. Here are three phrases, each three words long, that are an essential part of any Trusted Advisor toolkit: "That makes sense," "Tell me more," and "I don’t know."

"That Makes Sense"

Charlie speaks this phrase all the time and it’s remarkably effective. I say "speaks," rather than "uses," because it’s not a tactic; it’s a genuine expression of empathy.

When said from the heart, "That makes sense" is an incredible intimacy-builder. It’s no accident it also happens to be what relationship guru Harville Hendrix teaches couples to practice saying with each other when working through tough personal issues. Simply put, it’s validating. In a business context, "that makes sense" is particularly disarming in response to an opposing viewpoint…or something you don’t really want to hear.

Note that saying "that makes sense" is not the same as saying "I agree." With "that makes sense," you’re simply looking at the world from the other person’s vantage point and seeing how things might be pieced together. And unless you’re speaking to someone whose mental faculties are completely compromised, I promise you things do make sense over there, and there’s a way to see it, somehow or another.

"I see you’re concerned about investing a lot of money and time without being sure of the return. That makes sense."

"Sounds like it’s imperative to have the right executive sponsor in place before we move forward. That makes sense."

"It makes sense to consider all the options before you decide which firm you want to hire."

"Tell Me More"

"Tell me more" is a simple and elegant way to invite someone to share information with you. Distinct from a targeted, intellectually-impressive question, "tell me more" implies an absence of time pressure, agenda (as in motives), and a desire to show off. Its subtext: "The agenda is yours, my time is yours, and my focus is devoted to you, not me." Its beauty is in its simplicity and its other-orientation.

"I Don’t Know"

I’ve been in and around the consulting industry for close to 20 years and know very few consultants who are comfortable not knowing an answer to a question (myself included). On the contrary, we’ve convinced ourselves that clients not only want answers, they want the right answers…right away.  (See The Point of Listening is Not What you Hear but the Listening Itself.) Which leads to a lot of well-intended bad behavior, like ever-so-slightly exaggerating what we do know in order to fill in the gaps.

The alternative is having the courage to say "I don’t know" when you don’t know–being forthright in a way that appropriately conveys your overall confidence (so high, in fact, that you’re OK to admit what might be perceived as a weakness) and your commitment to find the most accurate answer. As counter-intuitive as it may be, "I don’t know" actually builds credibility (and therefore your trustworthiness) because it shows you are honest. ( For more about how the things we want to say the least usually build the most trust, read Trust and Golf: How Neither Makes Sense).

The Proof

Of course, we could add "I love you" to the list of word triplets, but then things start to get a little too squishy. (Or do they?)

I’ll end with this instead: intimacy, other-orientation, and credibility increase trustworthiness. "That makes sense," "Tell me more" and "I don’t know" improve your score on each. Therefore, three little words really can make you more trustworthy.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

P.S. By the way, with the new year upon us and so many of the usual resolutions already long-forgotten, it’s worth checking out Chris Brogan’s recent blog post, My 3 Words for 2010. Trusted Advisor Associates’ three words for the year (in draft) are Community, Rich-Soil, and Starpower. My personal ones are Leaps, Delicious, and Gravitas. And you?

 

 

 

Grounded Corporate Culture vs. Up In The Air Management

Over the holiday weekend we gorged on movies; Sherlock Holmes, Broken Embraces, a few others. One that got decidedly mixed reviews was Up In the Air. Personally, I liked it. The New Yorker explains it very well.

But you don’t have to agree with me for us to use the metaphor. George Clooney plays a globe-trotting firer-for-hire; an outsider hired by management to terminate people at arm’s length. (Never mind such jobs basically don’t exist, this is Hollywood). 

On a dozen levels, the movie deals with the issue of intimacy in business. Firing people by proxy; quitting a job by texting; romance in the friendly skies—or is it romance? And throughout it all, can we tell the difference?

Intimacy in Business

Also over the weekend, I had a cuppa with a client, a partner at a large global professional services firm. Call him Ishmael.

We talked about his business and mine, mine consisting in part of selling to his. Like many large firms, his has cut back virtually 100% on internal travel. 

Ishmael: A global business of collegial professionals can exist for a year without mixing with your partners. Maybe even a little longer. But at some point it begins to exact a toll. We’ve been webinared to death.   Worse, we only have two-dimensional, sensory-deprived images of each other. 

There’s only so much you can do to maintain a connection without the physical, breathing presence of each other. Avatars and holograms and con-calls don’t do it. Cultures don’t live by cloud-computing alone. To make a firm, you’ve got to drink beer together, play golf together, smell each other, laugh and cry in the same room at the same time. 

Is that a real poncho, or is that a Sears poncho? (Frank Zappa)

Up in the Air Management

What I liked about the movie was that the Clooney character actually does have the ability to be real: he shows it in a scene where he cuts through the cynical hatred of a terminated employee (the talented J.K. Simmons) to jarringly put him back in touch with his youthful dreams. And yet Clooney’s character is so practiced in the Plastic Ways that he ultimately can’t recognize when he’s lost touch with that ability.

The best movies are metaphors for life. There’s fodder enough here to rail against the twittering, ADD-ridden, thumb-dancing toys that threaten to reduce our attention to a tiny screen. But that’s not all.

Those new technologies are also metaphors in addition to being virtual reality centers. They are metaphors for other forms of anti-intimacy management tools–blind auctions; outsourcing; management by process; modular design; over-use of legal agreements; online employment search.

There’s nothing wrong per se with any of these tools. But taken uncritically, and at too great a strength, you end up with Clooney in the skies, aiming at what you think is real, but which ends up being just a pale reflection.  

…like a Sale sign in the window; you go in, and find it is only the sign that is for sale. (Soren Kierkegaard)

Intimacy 201

At first blush, intimacy is a strange word to use in a business context. "What, I’m supposed to intimate with my clients?" In the sense that being intimate means being familiar, informal, and emotionally connected…yes, indeed.

Intimacy is one of the four components of the Trust Equation and it usually gets the short-shrift. For most, it’s more natural to build trust by increasing credibility and reliability. And yet, without intimacy, business transactions are just that–transactions–and the "safe haven" experience that is the hallmark of Trusted Advisor relationships is a pipe dream.

Here is a Top 10 list of intimacy-builders to help answer the question, "How do I build intimacy with my clients?"

Caveat: While the three  groupings (Be Positive, Be Personal, Be Bold) are relatively universal, the specifics underneath are written from a U.S. orientation (mine) and should be adapted as appropriate to fit different cultural norms.

Be Positive

1. Tell your client something you appreciate about him. Don’t just think it; say it. "Amal, before we dig into our agenda today, I just wanted to say I really appreciate how you handled the meeting yesterday. You were clear and direct while also listening to the concerns that were raised. I think it made a difference for the staff."

2. Celebrate successes together. Give the tendency to be a Task Master a little reprieve. Suggest meetings, coffees, lunches–whatever–that are specifically focused on reflecting on/toasting a job well done.

Be Personal

3. Use your client’s name when you communicate with him/her. They say your own name is the sweetest music to your ears. Address your client personally in your emails, voicemails, and conversations.

4. Use colloquial language. Check the consulting jargon and multi-syllablic words at the door. Practice human talk. Simple. Straightforward. To the point.

5. Be empathic in all your interactions. Empathy creates emotional correctedness. Stop to demonstrate that you’re really tuned in to what your client is saying (both the words and the "music") before you ask your next question or make your next recommendation. "It’s clear this is a stressful situation, Frank" or "I can appreciate the difficulty in that" or "That sounds like a victory worth celebrating!" (see #2)

6. Be willing to express your own emotions. They’re legit too. "Gee, Johannes, I must confess to feeling pretty frustrated by what you just said" or "You have no idea how happy I am to hear that."

7.  Share something personal. The next time you’re doing the Monday morning how-was-your-weekend-fine-thanks-yours bit, don’t let it stop at a superficial exchange. "My weekend was great, Surita, thanks for asking. My parents were in town and Sam and I really enjoyed the built-in babysitting. We got a much-needed break."

Be Bold

8. Acknowledge uncomfortable situations. Caveats are conversational jewels: "Wow, this is awkward…" or "I wish I had better news…" or "The timing with this is embarrassing…"

9. Say what needs to be said. Practice doing it in 10 words or less. "We’re not going to make the deadline" or "We just don’t have the executive sponsorship we need" or "Jim is leaving the team." The direct approach works especially well in combination with caveats (see #8).

10. Take responsibility for mistakes. Yeah, it’s risky. It’s also human (we all make ’em) and refreshingly real. "Janet, part of the problem here is that I dropped the ball."

Of course, none of these "techniques" creates intimacy if they’re forced or disingenuous or robotic. It’s okay (and perfectly natural) to be a little awkward and unpolished–in fact, that just creates more intimacy.

And Better Off for Living on the Edge of Life

P. has multiple myeloma, a particularly virulent and incurable form of cancer. Median survival is 50-55 months.

This is from a letter she sent yesterday to family and friends:

Yup. I am on the train, heading west. Not Kansas City, but Winona, MN via Amtrak. From there, a limo ride will take me to Rochester, Minnesota & the famed Mayo Clinic.

Today has been full of ‘deja vu’ experiences; it was almost exactly 15 years ago (October, 1994) that Husband 1 & I drove from [hometown] to Mayo Clinic, still reeling from the news of a dreadful diagnosis. I was suffering from a sinus infection in addition to a deep sense of despair. The multiple myeloma had invaded 90% of my bone marrow and I was severely anemic. Oooooh, what a difficult time it was — so many of you remember, especially daughter 1 and daughter 2.

Fast forward to today! Husband 1 is accompanying me again, since Husband 2 has very limited time off from his job. I am feeling good, my body having had 2 months without the effects of chemotherapy.

Life at home has finally settled into a wonderful rhythm. I breezed through thirteen days of radiation treatments focused on a lime-sized growth on my ribs. These lasted less than 5 minutes & the only side effect was perhaps some fatigue. Most days, I car-pooled with the husband of a dear friend who was also receiving radiation. So the process was quite enjoyable (and was moderately effective, though there is still a growth, the size of a fried egg — sunny side up).

The issue of what to do next was still unresolved. My decision to turn down the clinical trial at State U. was a clear one. However, it brought recognition that I was facing the beginning of the end (Aren’t we all? Every day?)

This decision – to focus on quality rather than quantity, was filled with both sadness & a sense of freedom. Along with making sure that all my affairs were in order (they aren’t – yet), I relished spending time in our woods, either sitting under a favorite tree & listening to the birds heading south, or cutting, hauling, splitting, & stacking wood for our fireplace/stove. We are planning a trip to California over Thanksgiving. I am holding onto the possibility of traveling to both Europe to visit Daughter 2, and a trip to Hawaii with Daughter 1. Have you seen the movie “The Bucket List”? There I was.

Then came a series of events, both big & small, that absolutely FILLED me with energy, enthusiasm, hope, and a sense of direction. To make this story short, I ran across a clinical trial going on at Mayo Clinic that looks very hopeful, requires minimal change in my daily routine, and I believe (fingers crossed) will accept me. This all occurred in about one week, everything falling into place.

Over the past FIFTEEN years, I have come to points such as this, where the end appeared near. And each time, something has shifted. I am here; filled to overflowing with gratitude, surrounded by love, a bit worse for the wear, but thoroughly enjoying the ride.

And better off for living on the edge of life.

To Hug or Not to Hug?

I’ve had several awkward moments greeting several different clients in the past few months, where the unspoken question for both of us has been, “To hug or not to hug?” The question seems to arise with clients who fall in two categories:

1 – Business friends – these are clients with whom I don’t necessarily socialize outside of work, but with whom I have established a relationship that’s far more than strictly business — a relationship marked by candor, warmth, genuine caring, and the easy exchange of personal as well as business information.

2 – Personal friends who have become clients – these are clients with whom I had a personal relationship long before we did any work together.

The dilemma arises when a handshake seems completely inauthentic because it’s too formal and distant, and yet a hug seems out of place in a business setting. So what usually results is a really awkward, jerky-movement thing, like two chickens in a barnyard – one of us sticks out our hand while the other moves in for a light embrace, then we both pull back and switch, trying to match the others’ first move.

Trusted Advisor work teaches us to seek intimacy — not fear it – through emotional connectedness with clients; to dare to show clients that we care about them and that we see them more as human beings than walking, talking revenue streams. And yet the question, “To hug or not to hug?” raises all kinds of ancillary questions. Such as:

-What if my client doesn’t like to hug anyone, let alone his or her consultant?

-Should the rules be different depending on whether my client is a man or a woman? The same gender or the opposite gender?

-What if someone else who is “outside” the relationship is there to witness (or be left out of) the hug?

-What is the equivalent dilemma in a country with different cultural norms, where hugging might be completely off the table but kissing might not?

-How much is too much? Where do we draw the line?

Your thoughts?