The Way We Connect

What makes marketing or sales effective?

The message?

The timing of the message?

The medium of the message?

Yes to all of these, of course.

But I believe there is another factor that affects the effectiveness of marketing and sales interactions the most: The flavor of the customer interaction.

You can have an otherwise-great message, delivered at the right time and through the perfect communication medium, but if that message is delivered in a way that is cold, transactional and disinterested, it will not engage the customer. The actual flavor or personality of the customer interaction is frequently the most defining issue.

One of the funniest examples to support this point is the service philosophy of Ed Debevic’s, a Chicago restaurant that sports the slogan “Good Food, Fresh Service.” Ed Debevic’s imitates a mythical archetypical diner from the 50’s, with servers who routinely shout at customers, embarrass them and engage in “sassy, mock rudeness.” The food is mediocre; the decor is kitsch, but my kids always want to go to Ed’s to laugh Benihana is about the experience, not the food.at the waitresses. As with any comedian, delivery often trumps content. Is the Benihana’s experience about the food, or the way the chef throws his knives? Who has a better chance of selling you a bottle of wine, the robotic sommelier or his human counterpart?

Take another example: You go into two music stores to research sound effects for your electric guitar, because you want to create strange echo sounds during your Saturday afternoon jam sessions with friends. In both stores you talk with knowledgeable sales people, who are capable of telling you pros and cons of the available echo-machines. Imagine that price and product availability are the same (which they often are). You have an engaging, interesting dialogue with the first salesperson, who asks you a lot of questions about what kind of music you play and spends five minutes jamming with you. Then, you have a cold, transactional interaction with the second Echo Machine...you can find it anywhere.sales person, who efficiently describes the products’ features and prices but doesn’t show much interest in you as an individual.How much does the contrasting flavor of the two interactions affect your decision about which store gets your business? Is it possible you might even drive back to the first store to buy from the better salesperson? (I’ve done it, and I’m sure many of you have also.)

Most companies are not vending machines. Customers do not walk up, compare a superficial short-list of decision factors, reach out, pull a lever and walk away. Purchase decisions are influenced by many factors- many of them sub-conscious, many of them seemingly minor.

We live in a world where our customers believe they can substitute most of the products and services they buy with other options. We live in an age where customers believe in product and service commoditization. All cars start at 25 degrees below zero; all detergents get your clothes their whitest, and we don’t believe that the “sparkling drop of Retsyn” in Certs mints really makes a difference.

In this product-parity world of ours, most product decisions are influenced by a whole range of non-product factors. (If you don’t believe this, please read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Even if you do believe this, read the book anyway.) If these factors blend in Brand Harmony, communicating a clear, compelling story, the customer is more likely to pay attention, be moved and act.

Within the range of non-product factors contributing to Brand Harmony, the customer/company interaction sings loudly. No matter how well other factors blend in harmony, the customer notices the tenor of the interaction.

This fact shouldn’t be surprising. If you are introduced to a person at a party, much of your opinion about him will be influenced by the mode of his interaction with you. Arrogant, snooty and supercilious? Forget him. Warm, engaging and friendly? You may decide he’s worth more conversation.

We need look no further than our everyday experiences as customers to observe this, but most companies pay little attention to perfecting the flavor of their customer interactions. Retail sales people are trained on product features, store policies and unjamming the machine that prints receipts, but they are rarely taught about the company’s philosophy for customer engagement (which probably doesn’t exist). Sales people are trained in ethics and compliance, product attributes, competitive points of difference, managing a sales pipeline, and the math behind the company’s sales compensation system, but sales management rarely discusses the personality of an optimal sales encounter with these sales people.

So, if you want to beat the competition, I suggest you make improving the customer/company interface your highest-priority communication project. Most of your competitors are focused on adding flash to their websites, changing their ad headlines and updating the salespeople’s prescribed PowerPoint presentation.

Although every company’s situation is different, I have found that the relationship-building encounter model described in Chapters 2 and 5 of my book We: The Ideal Customer Relationship, and in my free ebook, Encounters, is a very useful guide for improving most customer/company encounters. Simply put, when a company realizes that the purpose of all customer/company interactions is to build relationships with customers, they have opened their eyes to the secret of improving their customer interactions.

So, please remember that the difference between a good website and a bad website, a good salesperson and a bad salesperson, a good customer service representative and a bad customer service representative, is highly dependent on the personality of the customer interaction. As is said, “all else is commentary.”

Take Notice

Over the next week, notice how often your purchase decisions and product evaluations are influenced by the personality of the interaction the selling company has with you. Even a great steak can’t compensate for a rude waitress.

How do you compare?

Now, look at your company. Does your company have a defined attitude and approach to the company/customer interface? What marketing media get the most attention- ads, websites and direct mail, or human encounter?

Try This

Imagine it is one year from today. An employee of your company is having a perfect encounter with a customer, an encounter that manifests the best your company has to offer. What is the nature of that encounter? Now, imagine that the personality of that encounter is infused throughout all interactions your company has with customers, including your website, customer service center, the way your receptionist greets visitors and the way the CEO greets investors. What would that look like? Imagine you are one of your customers, and you are blown away with the way the company interacts with you. How would you describe it?

Our marketplace has created a strong sense of gravity that pulls companies reflexively toward impersonal, perfunctory, mass-produced customer interactions. Economies of scale, operational efficiencies and transactional management mindsets make these kinds of interactions attractive. Fight this force. Your customers will love you for it.

Steve Yastrow

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