The human on the other end

The business owner stared at me through steel-blue eyes, his lower lip quivering in something like suppressed rage or unbridled contempt. I had just committed a cardinal sin: I had suggested that he might be wrong.

“You don’t think I know who my customers are?” he snarled. “We did twelve million in sales last year, and you think you can walk in here and tell me that I don’t know who my customers are?”

I gently tried to re-frame my point, but he was rolling.

“I had just committed a cardinal sin: I had suggested that he might be wrong.”

“We sell to mechanical engineers in manufacturing operations. They’re computers with legs. Machines. Robots that can think. Nerds that would trade their girlfriends for a better calculator. Engineers, for God’s sake!”

I took a deep breath and waited for him to run out of steam. He started to make another point, shook his head, and leaned back into the imitation-leather chair. I’ve had this conversation many times before, but rarely with such malevolence. I raised my hand, palm toward him in the universal “wait a moment” gesture, took another breath, and spoke again.

“You’re absolutely right that your customers work as mechanical engineers. No argument there.” His right eyebrow rose a quarter-inch. Was I renouncing my stance? “They come to work every day, and they do all those things you claim. And many of them are so smart and focused that it’s hard for them to relate to non-engineers.

“But the simple fact is that they’re people. In fact, they’re human beings before they’re engineers. And if you lose sight of that, you can’t communicate with or sell to them as effectively.” He leaned forward, ready to interrupt, but I stiffened the hand gesture. “I’m not saying that you can’t sell to them. Hey, you have twelve million in proof that I’m not about to argue with. What I am saying is that you can’t sell as effectively if you put the job ahead of the human being that performs it.”

Disgust flickered in his eyes again. “Are you suggesting that my sales guys should hold hands and sing ’Kum Ba Yah’ with them on sales calls?” Next, a wry smile warned me that what he saw as a fatal zinger was on its way. “Maybe you think we should put poetry in our ads. That what you’re telling me?”

I dropped my chin and shook my head. “Of course not.” Another pause, and I zeroed in on his eyes. “For years, I’ve had companies tell me that their customers were engineers. Doctors. Attorneys. Accountants. Insurance salesmen. Teachers. Heavy equipment operators. And every one of those companies acted as though everyone in each of those groups was some sort of machine that responded only to specific types of inputs that are presented in certain ways.”

I aimed my own zinger. “Look at you. You’re a middle-aged white guy who owns a business selling industrial components. Probably got three kids. House in Carmel. Vote Republican. Drink Glenfiddich, maybe more than you should on weekends. Have convinced yourself that you golf better than you really do. Would rather work than go on vacations with your family. You won’t spend a penny more on anything than you have to. And you drive a Buick.”

He seethed, but I didn’t stop. “How does it feel? You’re probably ready to reach across the desk and wring my throat. But I’ll bet you an even thousand that if I talked to the people who own the companies that sell to you, that’s exactly how they’re going to describe you.”

His expression shifted to puzzlement, and his voice became quieter, with a touch of injury. “That’s just a stereotype. I mean yeah, I’m a Republican, but the rest of that … for one thing, I prefer Chivas. And I have a Saab, not a Buick.”

“It offends you, doesn’t it?” A slight nod. “And it offends you precisely because it underestimates you and ignores what’s really important to you, right?” A bigger nod. “You don’t vote Republican because you’re a white guy, you vote that way because you believe in individual responsibility and economic freedom, right?” Another nod. “You work those kinds of hours because you want to send your kids to a better college than the one you went to, and you want to make sure your family won’t have to worry about money. You’re tight with money not because you’re cheap, but because you see a recession on the horizon, and you know that the people on your payroll need your company to stay healthy so they can keep feeding their own kids.”

His eyes widened, but he didn’t say anything, so I continued. “A radiologist may be brilliant, but she’s well aware that the lives of her patients truly depend on the decisions she makes. You can tell her that a new piece of equipment has this technical specification and that, but what she really wants to know is that it will increase her confidence when she makes a life-or-death diagnosis.

“A teacher may think your new software is cool, but he didn’t choose teaching because he liked software. Nothing makes him as happy as seeing kids learn, and nothing breaks his heart more than a student who just can’t grasp the material. Show him how your software will reach that student, and you’ll win him over. Help him become a more effective teacher for that one student.”

He started nodding gently, eyes fixed on mine. “And sure, that mechanical engineer may be impressed with the fact that your component has twelve gizmos and chrome-plated thingamabobs. But he’ll be a lot more likely to use and specify it if he knows that it won’t fall apart in the field or blow his budget. Because if either of those things happens, he’s out of a job, and that’s what concerns him the most.

“Your customers may be engineers, but believe it or not, engineers have emotions, too. Sure, they’re very rational animals, but if you really want to connect with them where it matters, you need to reach beyond the rational animal and zero in on the emotions.

“I’m not talking about group hugs or some kind of feel-good nonsense. Leave that kind of junk to the self-help books. What I’m talking about is going beyond the stereotypes to understand what really makes your customer tick. Their hopes, their dreams, and most important, their fears. I’m talking about going beyond the facts about your products and talking about what they’ll do for your customers at an emotional level.

“That’s exactly what truly effective salespeople, marketers, and copywriters do. It’s why they succeed, time after time. They never lose sight of the fact that, no matter who the people in the target audience may be, what really matters is that they’re human beings.”

His chin dropped to his chest, and he closed his eyes for a moment before taking a deep breath. “Okay. So where do we start?”