Trust and Respect, Courage and Leadership

[the last Fast Company column]

What would happen if your friends and colleagues treated you the way marketers do?

What if your spouse sold your personal information to anyone who would pay for it? If your boss promised you miraculous changes and then failed to deliver? If your co-workers refused to talk to you unless you spent half an hour on hold first?

What if the people you liked and trusted made promises to you in order to get your attention and cooperation, and then broke those promises whenever they could get away with it?

Most of us wouldn’t choose to work with people who disrespect us as much as marketers do. Most of us wouldn’t choose a career where everything we interact with is prettied up and dumbed down.

Why do we hate marketers so much?

We don’t just hate them. We ignore them. We distrust them. In fact, when a marketer actually keeps his promise to us, we’re so surprised we tell everyone we know.

I got a call yesterday from a company that wanted to “confirm my order”. When I returned the call, I discovered that there was no confirming… it was just a come-on from a company I had never heard from to sell me something new.

Somewhere along the way, marketers stopped acting like real people. We substituted a new set of ethics, one built around “buyer beware” and the letter of the law. Marketers, in order to succeed in a competitive marketplace, decided to see what they could get away with instead of what they could deliver.

As businesses have become commodities, many of them have decided that respect is the first thing they can no longer afford. If you’ve ever been herded onto a cattlecar airline, or put on interminable hold by a cell phone company, you know the feeling. One telcom executive confided in me last week, “after we sell you an account, we never ever want to hear from you again. If we hear from you, it’s bad news.” Hey, it’s just business.

The few successful marketers we hear about again and again (we hear about them so often, they seem trite) are all on our short list because they still show their customers respect. Apple, “Frasier” (the long-running TV show), the Ritz Carlton, Linux—none of them talk down to their audience.

The magic kicks in when marketers are smart enough and brave enough to combine trust with respect. When a marketer doesn’t frisk you on the way out of a retail establishment, or trusts you to make intelligent decisions, you remember it. The number of companies that keep promises to their customers, respect their intelligence and keep their promises, alas, is quite tiny.

Of course, this means that a huge opportunity exists. It means that if you seek the very best slice of the market (the individuals and companies that can spend money—wisely—on new things) you’ll likely do best if you eschew trickery and misdirection and pandering and instead focus on customers that will embrace a realistic and honest approach to doing business. RULE ONE: Smart marketers treat their customers like respected colleagues and admired family members.

The ironic thing is this: at the same time that marketers have coarsened commercial relationships, they’ve spread their ethical mantra (or lack of one) to individuals as well. At the start if this column, I asked, “What would happen if your friends and colleagues treated you the way marketers do?” Well, in many cases, it turns out that they do.

Now, apparently, it’s okay if a company reneges on a pension commitment. Now, if the contract doesn’t specifically spell out how one company will treat another, it’s okay to rip the other off as long as there’s a loophole. Now, apparently, it’s quite alright to treat your friends and colleagues the same way a marketer treats his prospects.

If an organization makes a promise, then keeps it, delight kicks in. If a manager or an employee or a co-worker takes an extra minute or jumps through an extra hoop to honor a commitment to you, it’s something you’ll remember for a long time—precisely because it’s such a rare occurrence.

So there’s the real opportunity… to follow in the footsteps of the great marketers by reclaiming the interactions that used to be commonplace. Have the courage to make promises and keep them. Do more than you promised, not what the contract says. Assume your colleagues are smart, and show leadership by respecting their work as if it were your own. RULE TWO: Treat your colleagues the way a smart marketer would. With respect. And keep your promises.