There’s a human at the other end

He stared at me through steel-blue eyes, lower lip quivering in some weird kind of suppressed rage or unbridled contempt. I had just broken Rule Number One: I had suggested he might be wrong.

“Think I don’t know who my customers are?” he seethed. “We did twelve million in sales last year. You really 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 off and rolling.

“We market to mechanical engineers in manufacturing operations. Basically computers with legs. Machines. Robots that can think. Nerds who dream about having a better calculator. Engineers, for God’s sake!”

I maintained eye contact and waited for him to run out of steam. He started to make another point, held up his palm and shook his head, then leaned back into the nice-but-outdated chair.

I remained calm. I’ve experienced this conversation many times before. The malevolence was rare … and at least a little troubling. I raised my hand, my own palm facing him in the universal “wait a moment” gesture, paused that moment, then spoke again.

“You’re absolutely right. Your customers work as mechanical engineers. Can’t argue with that.” His right eyebrow climbed a quarter-inch, and the vein by his left eye pulsed. Was I giving in that easily? “They come to work every day, and they do everything you claim. Many of them are so smart and focused it’s hard for them to relate to non-engineers.

“But the simple fact is they’re also people. In fact, they’re human beings before they’re engineers. Lose sight of that simple fact, and your numbers are going to put you in the mood you’re in right now.” He leaned forward, eyes fully open, ready to interrupt, but I stiffened the hand gesture. “I’m not saying you can’t sell to them. Look, you have twelve million in proof I’m not about to argue with. What I am saying is you can’t sell as effectively if you put the job first instead of the human being that performs it.”

Disgust flickered in his gaze. “Are you saying my sales guys should hold hands and sing ‘Kum Ba Yah’ on sales calls?” Then a wry smile warned me his fatal zinger was soon to arrive. “Maybe you think we should put poetry in our ads. That what you’re telling me?”

I dropped my chin, shook my head, and waited a moment. “First of all, venturing into the ridiculous does nothing to advance the conversation.” I was zeroed in on his eyes, and they flickered in surprise. “Here’s the thing. For years, I’ve had companies tell me that their customers were engineers. Doctors. Attorneys. Accountants. Insurance salesmen. Teachers. Equipment operators. You know what they all had in common?”

He shook his head.

“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 presented in particular ways.”

As he processed that, I readied my own zinger. It hit the target.

“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, more than you know you should. Have convinced yourself you golf better than you really do. Would rather work than go on vacations with your family. Won’t spend a penny more on anything than necessary. And you drive a Buick.”

The vein throbbed, but I didn’t let up. “How does it feel? You ready to reach across the desk and grab my throat?” I smiled. “You like to gamble? I’ll bet you an even thousand if I talked to the people selling your inputs to you, that’s exactly how they’d describe you.”

His expression suggested he was puzzled and trying to grasp for something. When he spoke this time, his voice was quieter and seasoned 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 rye. And I drive an Audi, not a Buick.”

I smiled again. “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 hours because you want your kids to go to a better college than yours, 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 the company to stay healthy so they can feed their kids.”

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

“Some teacher may think your new software is cool, but he didn’t go into education because he liked software. Nothing makes him happier than seeing kids learn, and nothing breaks his heart more than a student who just can’t grasp a lesson. Show him how your software rescues that student, and you’ll win him over by making him a more effective teacher for that one student.”

He started nodding gently, eyes fixed on mine as I continued. “I understand the thinking. Yes, that mechanical engineer may be impressed your component has twelve gizmos and alternating chrome-plated thingamabobs. But he’ll be more likely to specify it if he knows it won’t fall apart in the field or blow his budget. Because if either of those happens, he’s out of a job, and that’s what worries him the most.

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

“I’m not talking about group hugs or some kind of feel-good nonsense. Leave that to the self-help books. I’m talking about going beyond the stereotypes to understand what really makes your customers tick. Their hopes, their dreams, and most important, their fears. I’m talking about bypassing the specs and connecting with them at an emotional level.” He continued to match my gaze, so I kept going.

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

He closed his eyes for a moment before taking a deep breath. “Okay. How do we start?”