Your Grandparents Can Probably Give You Better Relationship-Building Advice Than Digital Marketers

Audible version complete with waltzing grandparents and crazy neighbors

Digital technology and platforms have radically changed the way that people connect in recent decades, both in our personal lives and professionally. Now, as the world confronts a global pandemic, we are relying on these new methods more than ever before. 

But while email, SMS, and social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn make it “easy” to find and connect with people, building meaningful relationships is another story altogether. 

Yes, digital technology can open the door – but it’s good old fashioned relationship building that gets you invited inside. This may sound obvious to most people nowadays, but I still see it go wrong all the time. There are long-standing social norms and conventions that people seem to forget – or outright disregard – when communicating over digital channels, and that only makes it harder to build lasting relationships. 

We’ve all seen the tone-deaf marketer or salesperson who hijacks a serious conversation to peddle a product* or expects the world from you after sending a handful of blatantly generic emails. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. 

In the real world, you wouldn’t walk up to a neighbor who you’ve never spoken with before and say, “Hey neighbor, I’m out of wine, can you give me a bottle?” It would be inappropriate. If anything, it’s more likely to set your relationship back than help move it forward.

Granted, it might work if you lead with a compelling story. But even then, it’s awkward:

Imagine knocking on your neighbor’s door and saying, “I am so sorry to do this, but I need your help. It’s my wedding anniversary, which I totally forgot, and I desperately need a bottle of Cabernet. I would go out to the store, but it closed early because of the coronavirus. I thought I had one bottle left, but it’s actually a Merlot and my wife hates Merlot. Cabernet is her favorite. Is there any way you can help me out? I promise to replace it tomorrow.”

“Um. Sure,” your neighbor says, “You forgot your anniversary? I’ve been there before. This is all very odd, but get it. I guess I can help you out.” 

When you already have a relationship, on the other hand, it’s a way different experience. Here’s what that same scenario would look like with my long-time neighbor who I know well:

Me (via text): “Out of Cabernet”

Neighbor: “Which one do you want? I’ll bring it over.”

Now that’s the gold standard for a friendly relationship, at least in my opinion. But that didn’t happen overnight. You have to build the relationship over time, and that takes work. Just ask your grandparents: Unlike today’s digital natives, people in their generation were far more adept in the art of relationship building. They were less distracted, less self-absorbed, and more present overall. They built and nurtured friendships that lasted a lifetime.

The big mistake I see happening today is people pushing too hard, too fast. Now that we can’t meet in person, it’s only getting worse. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that the people we are trying to build relationships with are actually people. 

Reality check: there are no shortcuts to a lasting relationship. Digital does not let you bypass the way we humanly connect with people. The more you try to force a relationship, the more suspicious you appear and the harder it becomes to connect in a meaningful way. 

This is especially true when the person you are looking to build a relationship with is a customer or prospect. Believe me, they can smell your pitch from a mile away. Don’t bother trying to hide it in the 8th email of a lightly-customized email “nurture” campaign. They have already tuned out. 

Instead of trying to “accelerate the customer journey,” how about treating them like a person?

For a quintessential example of how to do this right, look no further than your friendly neighborhood butcher. Here’s the butcher’s classic move: You walk into the store and they say, “Hey! Neeraj! Great to see you! You know that cut of meat you really liked the other week?” He goes into the back, grabs it, and comes back out, “I saved the last one just for you!” 

Even if you are a vegetarian like me who does not frequent the butcher, it’s easy to imagine this scenario playing out. But what is it exactly that makes this such a classic illustration of customer relationships done right? What’s the butcher’s secret? Did you catch it?

At the highest level, it works because his words and actions say, “I see you. I hear you. I know you. I think about you. I appreciate you.” Everyone loves that – everyone. What he’s doing is making a deposit in our relationship, and it works. 

Outside the butcher’s shop it’s no different. No matter the relationship, the best way to get it to take root is by listening, making regular small deposits into the relationship, and waiting patiently for the right moments to make them. 

Here’s a more 21st-century example: Last December, I was in Miami presenting performing at the 2019 TDWI Solutions Summit on behalf Incorta. After the show, I stepped outside and found myself on a beautiful waterfront causeway lined with Lyft scooters. What a perfect way to cruise around town. I pulled out my phone, unlocked the scooter, sent out a tweet, and then I was on my way.

An hour or so later, I pulled out my phone to end the ride and there it was: the perfect reply from @Lyft

I was blown away. Lyft didn’t follow the traditional social media playbook and respond in the way most companies do. They took the time to look at my feed, learn about me, and then respond with a really funny – and brilliantly appropriate – K-pop themed Giphy. 

Notice how they didn’t bother trying to sell me on anything – no discounts or special deals offered. Instead of the hard sell, they made a small deposit. It was very personalized and very specific. They listened. They heard me. They were human. I loved it.

So think twice before trying to craft the perfect words to close out some generic email nurture campaign or cold pitch to someone you hardly know at all. People want to be seen; to be heard; to be appreciated – and that demands more than just words. As I explain in my previous article, Words Matter… But Context and Serendipity Matter More:

People painstakingly obsess over word choice when trying to share their worldview or passion with others. But there is no such thing as the “perfect” wording. It makes no difference whether you are evangelizing a product or an ideology. The perfect words for one person are often the wrong words for someone else. 

Words alone do not win hearts and minds. Words matter, but it’s context that does the heavy lifting and serendipity that opens the door. 

What’s the secret to building real relationships and truly connecting with people? Be like the butcher.

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Footnote: Classic examples of tone-deaf marketers unsuccessfully hijacking serious conversations include DiGiorno pizza misreading a domestic violence hashtag on Twitter and Pepsi’s notorious “protest” ad featuring Kendall Jenner, among countless others. 

Credit: The featured image for this post came from one of Zendesk’s hilarious yet poignant commercials:

Published by Matthew Halliday

Co-founder, SVP of Product Strategy at Incorta. Passion for design, UX, data, stories, and making beautiful things.

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