To Connect With Customers, Have a Human Conversation
This past March, I flew from Washington, D.C., to San Diego to attend a trade show. It was my first flight since February 2020, right before the pandemic started. I was a little nervous but also excited to start traveling again. During my layover in Dallas, a gentleman sitting nearby noticed my Cleveland Browns shirt. “What do you think of Baker Mayfield?” he asked. (If you are not a sports fan, Baker Mayfield is the embattled quarterback for the Browns.)
I looked at him and smiled. “I don’t know,” I said, “Sometimes he looks good and other times horrible. He was pretty good the year before. Are you from Cleveland?” He replied, “Yeah, I grew up around Shaker Heights, and I have been a Brownies fan since I was a kid. What about you? Are you from Cleveland?” “No,” I said, “I grew up in Columbus, but I have been a Browns fan ever since I was a child when the Kardiac Kids made it to the playoffs against the Raiders, and Brian Sipe ripped my heart out when he threw the interception on the last play of the game.” My new friend shook his head, knowing exactly how I felt.
Our conversation turned to where we went to college and what we did for a living. He was a developer for a software company and received his degree from RIT. I told him how a number of my colleagues went to RIT and about the development work we do to create direct mail automation software. We met each other serendipitously, yet we quickly found several things in common that helped us start a conversation and forge a connection.
After boarding my flight to San Diego, I found myself sitting next to a woman who was clearly nervous. I noticed as we took off that she had a death grip on the armrest as the plane bounced around from turbulence. “Are you okay?” I asked, “It looks like you are white-knuckling it.” She laughed nervously. “Yes. I hate flying, and I get nervous,” she said, “This bouncing around is horrible.” I nodded. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “I’m a private pilot, and this is pretty normal. It’s thermal turbulence caused by the ground warming unevenly, which causes the air to rise at different rates. That’s why the plane is bouncing. See those clouds above us? When we get above them, the turbulence will stop, and the air will be smooth.”
She looked at me strangely, but sure enough, once we climbed above the clouds, the shaking stopped and it was smooth flying the rest of the way. We continued our conversation. She was from Minneapolis and was headed to San Diego to go house hunting with her husband, whom the Navy had recently stationed there. She had a little girl who was staying at home with her grandparents. I am also a parent, so we shared stories about our kids. We didn’t discuss football or sports; instead, we talked about airplanes, parenting, and her trip.
I met two people on my trip to San Diego, and while the conversations were wholly different, they were relevant to each person based on a few things we learned about each other. I didn’t simply start sharing random facts about the Cleveland Browns or thermal turbulence out of the blue. Instead, we connected over what we had in common, which led to two unique and equally enjoyable conversations.
Treating customers as individuals
If you sat down with your customers or prospects in person, you would find that each conversation would be different. Each person would have a unique experience with your brand and various reasons why they engage your company. Your conversations would relate to those unique experiences and how your company can meet their needs based on what you know about them. No two exchanges would be exactly the same. You would listen and learn things that would direct the conversations.
In reality, it’s not scalable to sit down with each of our customers individually. Instead, we collect data about them through interactions and transactions, like purchasing history, what we learn during phone calls, or what ads they click on or respond to. We can use this information to shape our marketing conversations. Yet many brands choose to speak to a broader, generic audience rather than the individual, hoping their message resonates with someone.
I don’t know how many emails or direct mail pieces I receive from brands I regularly do business with where it’s clear they don’t know anything about me—or at the very least, they aren’t using that information in their marketing. If they were, they would know I am not interested in buying women’s lingerie and hair products, but I might be interested in their sale on men’s clothing. When you’re bombarded with generic, irrelevant marketing day in and day out, you eventually tune it out. Unfortunately, many companies throw money at the problem—spending more to send more—rather than listening and applying what they’ve learned about their customers to the conversation. And as we know, that’s not how humans communicate or build connections.
So how do we make our marketing as effective as human conversation? Customers fall into three primary buckets: ones we know nothing about, ones we know something about, and ones we know well. It is no different than our personal connections. With new acquaintances, we ask broad questions, and as we get to know them better, we start targeting our questions to our mutually aligned interests. Would you invite someone who hates sports to a football game? Of course not.
It’s the same in marketing. We need to listen, learn, understand our customers’ needs, and align the right message based on what we know—just as we would when chatting with someone out in the real world. In marketing as in life, quality beats quantity every time. Be valuable, spend less, and treat each interaction as a personal connection. We have the technology—and you have the data—to make each conversation different, relevant, and, above all, human.