My adman old man Thomas Murray used to say the first and hardest thing to convince clients of was that “the world isn’t about your product, the world is about people.”
Meaning, no matter how great a ballpoint pen you’d invented, how safe a snow tire you’d manufactured, how absolutely wizard a service you offer—if you’re going to sell it to people, you’ve got to understand its true meaning in their lives—lives governed by the universal philosophy: “There will never be another me.”
He also talked about what you have to do once people buy your thing. You have to remember what it means to people. And more importantly, what it doesn’t.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been dealing with insurance people lately. They are nice enough when I talk to them, but their sense of urgency in wrapping these cases up indicates that they think it’s a natural and even agreeable part of my daily life to follow up with them routinely over weeks and months until my 20-digit claim number rides as sprightly on my tongue as my own birthday.
They deal with insurance all day every day. Why would I mind dealing with it just one or two short hours a week? They’ve also forgotten that I’m a “customer” in the first place. I was a customer the day I bought the policy. Every day since, I’ve been nothing but an accident waiting to happen. Now that I’m an accident that did happen, I’m treated like the basement flood itself: drained, slowly.
Insurance people aren’t unique in failing to see their customers as customers see themselves. I am sure it requires daily discipline for a dental hygienist, for instance, to try to think of patients not as “non-flossers” and “half-ass brushers” but as whole people with infinitely complex lives that have 99.984% to do with issues other than our teeth and gums.
Barbers would know more about why we don’t go to them every six weeks religiously if they remembered that those weeks were spent on so many pressing to-do’s besides “not going to barber.”
To your oncologist you’re a cancer patient first—oddly obsessed with hobbies you call “making a living,” “enjoying food” and “having hair.”
Customer service people at the bank wouldn’t ask us, at the end of the call, if there’s “anything else I might do to help you” if they (or the writers of their script) remembered that our “banking needs” are the least of our problems. No, Madam, you can’t help me, unless you know how to tuck point my chimney, or break off a long and toxic friendship, or lose 20 pounds.
My own little company isn’t immune. I often hear myself and my colleagues expressing exasperation to one another that our customers don’t read our emails carefully enough, or fill out our registration forms accurately, despite our new and improved user-friendly interface! The other day I reminded us all that for most of our customers most of the time, daily life feels like riding a unicycle through a snow squall while getting salt pellets shot at you.
If you picture your customers living that way, you’re actually pretty impressed by how much care they take in their dealings with you and your company—and how patient they are with your unavoidable professional narcissism.
But of course it’s hard to maintain that sense of perspective, because of the snow squall and salt pellets you’re dealing with daily, yourself!
Which is what I don’t like about that weary old quote about how you should be nice to folks because they’re dealing with something you don’t know anything about.
I think you’re better off treating people as if they’re dealing with something you know everything about. They’re dealing with everything, all the time. Or at least that’s how it feels to them, anyway. And that’s how it feels to you.
Because in the unanswerable words of Rosanna Rosannadanna: For you, me, the dentist, the barber, the oncologist and the insurance agent—it is indeed, always something. Which would be a good slogan for an insurance company, come to think of it.
I’ll close with one more related thought from my dad—this one delivered to his angst-filled, FOMO-addled teenage kids—”You’d worry less about what other people think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”
You’d communicate better with them, too.