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Thou Shalt Love Thy Customer

July 6, 2015

Close up of a Handshake

Inauthenticity reeks, and it reeks badly. I strain to think of a more obnoxious, offensive, unpleasant experience in my professional life than having a business interaction with somebody who I can tell legitimately does not care about me or my needs. The only interest that this kind of individual has in our business interaction is his self-interest, and somebody who is only self-interested will pursue solutions that address his interests even if it’s at my expense. Most of us have had an experience with a pushy salesperson who was either unwilling or incapable of listening to us when we were trying to explain what our needs were. Nobody wants to buy from that guy. Nobody wants to do any kind of business with that guy. Don’t be that guy.

Of course, the ability to empathize and emotionally connect with people comes more easily to some than to others, but nearly everybody has the ability to improve. Part of the effort to improve requires developing the right habits, but part of it might also require introspection about where our values lie and coming to terms with the fact that sometimes our business efforts do not truly reflect our values.

If you are in any kind of business that requires you to be persuasive – and truly, most professions require this to some degree – then you do yourself a huge disservice if you aren’t trying to be actively aware of the emotional effect that you’re having on people. If a customer or client perceives you as being pushy, emotionally disconnected, uninterested, fearful, or anything that makes it difficult for them to trust you, then you are very likely not going to have the kind of relationship with this person that would allow her to feel comfortable bringing repeat business to you or to refer her friends to you. Even if you give this customer high-quality service or an exceptional product, the toll that working with somebody who makes the customer feel negative emotions takes sometimes outweighs the value of the high-quality product. This is just one, among many reasons why authenticity in your professional life is so important.

Below I suggest some important habits and other considerations for anybody dedicated to bringing authenticity into their professional relationships.

1. If You are Genuinely Impressed, Say So

When attempting to connect with somebody, few things are as powerful as a genuine, heartfelt compliment. For the person who is truly interested in the client, this shouldn’t be a terribly hard thing to do. Most people relish opportunities to talk about themselves, and especially about the things that make them feel proud. If your client is interested in tennis, for example, and brings up the fact that she just finished playing a set before the meeting, a business person who is committed to connecting with this client might ask follow up questions to understand the interest a little better and to give the client the opportunity to talk about herself and her accomplishments. Inevitably, as you give people the opportunity to share with you the things that are important to them, you will hear something about their interests, their talents, their family, or their lifestyle that you will find genuinely impressive. Don’t miss an opportunity to let them know that they’ve impressed you.

Of course, this shouldn’t be overdone – excessive compliments can be perceived as inauthentic or intrusive. Also, I would not attempt to give a compliment unless it’s truly heartfelt and you feel that you’re identifying something worth complimenting – people can typically see right through that. And for some people, acknowledging other people’s strengths doesn’t come naturally. Those that have grown up in competitive environments (and with three brothers, I know a thing or two about competitive environments) sometimes fear that complimenting somebody else makes you vulnerable and exposes weakness. If you have this fear, I recommend getting into the habit of complimenting people whenever you can to overcome this fear – what you’ll quickly discover is that a heartfelt compliment is more often perceived as a display of confidence and emotional strength. When you build up others, you deepen your connections, everybody feels good, and everybody can walk away from the situation feeling that something positive just happened. Don’t be stingy – compliment!

2. Seek to Understand

Among the most basic of human needs is the need to feel as though one’s needs are understood and appreciated by those around them. Most of the time, we try to fulfill this emotional need through our friends and family, but if a customer comes to you with the intention of purchasing your goods or your services, there is a sense in which she is making herself emotionally vulnerable to you. She is trusting that the representations you are making to her about your product or your service are truthful and that what you are giving her is the right solution for her problem. She also trusts that any kind of written or oral agreement you come to is going to be honored and taken seriously. Many people do not sufficiently appreciate the fact that being in a position to sell something is a position of power – and like Spiderman says, with great power comes great responsibility. When I am consulting with a potential client who is considering retaining my services, I believe it is my responsibility to recognize the power of the position that I am in and to be a mindful steward of the vulnerabilities that my potential client is sharing with me. And to be a mindful steward, I have to seek to understand her.

The most important part of understanding the needs of your customer is the ability to look past the position that she might be taking on anything. A client might call me up and say “I need a criminal attorney – my neighbor put up an ugly fence to spite me, and I’m pretty sure that’s against the law!” This is a bit of a crude example because as a lawyer, it’s immediately obvious to me that what she’s looking for is a civil litigation attorney who can help her sue or threaten to sue the neighbor to remove the fence. The point, of course, is that she came to me with the position of ‘needing a criminal attorney,’ but listening a little bit more to what her actual need was, the solution that would address her problem was different than the one she took in her initial position. Most of the time, the answer is not that easy – it requires a little bit of digging. When a potential client expresses something to you that clues you in on the need they’re after, it often makes sense to take a little time to repeat it back to them to make sure that you have it right. “What I’m hearing you say is that you’ve been having a neighborhood dispute, and you feel as though the erection of this fence was intended to cause you emotional distress. Did I get that right?”

The practical value of seeking to understand your client’s position is obvious – you want to give them the right fix for their problem. Sending a person who specializes in criminal defense, for example, would probably do very little good for the person who needs to sue her neighbor. But the emotional power of expressing to someone, in your own words, the need that they came to you to address is incredibly powerful. If you are not already in the habit of identifying and articulating the needs of your clients, you would be well served to develop it.

3. Deliver a Product that Reflects your Values

One of the biggest moments of clarity in my early professional life was the realization that I did not truly believe in the product I was selling. At the time, I was a life insurance agent, and I was part of a team that was encouraged to sell a particular product to every potential customer that we encountered. Now, as I did then, I appreciate and understand the benefits of having this product that we were asked to sell, and I can understand that there are a lot of very persuasive arguments that this product would be very valuable to most people. The point, however, is that I did not believe that it was the best fit for most of the customers with whom I had interaction. And no amount of work that I was doing on myself could quite persuade me otherwise. Feeling that way put me in a really difficult position. I remember thinking, “I want to do well with this company and I want to be deferential to the direction in which the company wants to go, but at the same time I’m having a lot of cognitive dissonances when I try to persuade somebody to buy this product that I haven’t been persuaded is the best fit for them.” The behavior that I was expected to engage in didn’t reflect my values, and you better believe that my customers picked up on it. They sensed that I was trying to persuade them to go in a direction that I didn’t even believe in – they recognized that at the time I was more interested in making the sale and impressing my bosses than I was in their individual needs. Given that, as you can imagine, it was very hard to sell.

Ultimately, the solution for me was to leave the new company and try my hand at something else. That worked out very well for me in the long run because it led me to law school, and I discovered a profession that gives me the opportunity to engage in causes that truly move me. And now, I sell something in which I have a lot of confidence – myself! But the initial realization that I was not the right fit for this job was a difficult one. Had I not made that realization, however, I might not have ever determined how to be an authentic business person. When you’re in a situation where you’re facing constant, repeated pressure to push people into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ product, it becomes very difficult to truly love and value your customers. My advice is that if you are in that situation, recognize it, and either figure out a way to do it authentically or create an exit strategy. Your true, long term success may very well depend on it.

I hope that my views and suggestions on this topic have been helpful!