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Part Three: Fostering Relationships

We all want customers to know and love us, but how do we make that happen? We’ll get to that, and share some flirting tips. (Don’t worry; it’s not as weird as it sounds.) Then we’ll talk about how important it is to just be nice, and how hard it is for big companies to do so. We’ll end this section by taking the sting out of sales and sharing the two most important words in sales—and the two most damaging words for your brand.


Chapter 12: Do They Love You?

It’s important we look at how to get people to love our companies. I do believe there’s something to this whole “love” thing, but worry that we approach it the wrong way: our actions are like those of a sixteen-year-old with a perpetual boner. He might utter the word “love” ad infinitum. This wouldn’t mean that he actually understood what it meant.

What we love about companies

I love a few people but I don’t feel that way about the company Shell, and no feel-good ad will ever change that. Still, I think we can associate emotion with our companies. We might not love an office park, stock valuation, or corporate fleet of vehicles, but look more closely, and you’ll find things to love about a company. After nine years of building our company (smashLAB) it’s something that I feel a fondness for. We’ve learned a great deal from it and it has become a large part of who we are.

Similarly, I think we can appreciate the hopes and dreams that others invest in their companies. When people care that much, their energy becomes infectious. I also think people love their iPods and it seems that some quite like a pint of their favorite beer after a long day at work. People form bonds with a car that’s delightful to drive, clothing that makes them look their best, and meals that consistently make their mouths water.

We may not feel something for a company in itself, but I think we can get close to it. We’re moved by those who are passionate about what they do. Similarly, we can develop good feelings around certain products and services, when they bring ample reward with them. If there’s a way to build goodwill—and perhaps love—for our companies, where do we start?

Love grows

Earlier in this book, I noted how critical we all are of the many company slogans that make great claims regarding “love.” I stand firm on this point—just saying the word doesn’t really mean much. That doesn’t make it any less important for us to try to connect with our patrons. My position is, we have to do it sincerely, instead of thinking we can get away with using the words void of any real investment.

If we aspire towards having people love our companies, we need to get past the empty platitudes we typically subscribe to, and instead start to think in terms of real relationships. One thing we know about relationships is that good ones don’t start out fully formed. Love is generally contingent on time spent together. As commonality is found, bonds can be formed.

You don’t plant a seed and stare at the ground until a bud appears. With this in mind, isn’t it odd to go into a meeting with a new prospect and say “You’re going to love our service!”? That kind of exuberance may be understandable but it’s sure strange to hear. My tendency in such situations is to think, “You don’t know me, so how can you say that?” In trying to build an emotional bond between your customers and your company, you have to relax and wait for things to develop. There aren’t any shortcuts.

I know you

To grow a relationship, we need to build familiarity, establish trust, and simply get to know one another. The first is easy: you just need to be there and keep being there. A person who only shows up when there’s something in it for them makes for a lousy friend. A company that only pops up when it can make a buck is about the same.

Companies that are “there” for us (when we need them and when we don’t) get stitched into our personal landscape. Let’s take the corner store down your street. Although you may think little about it, I bet you know the person who works the counter there. One day you needed milk and visited the shop. The next week you picked up the Sunday paper. Sometimes you even grab ice cream or potato chips to satiate a late night craving. The owner of the shop would be foolish to see you as a single-serving customer; instead, he’d know that you were building a relationship and that with time you’d get to know one another. He might watch your kids grow up, and you might see his do the same.

Writing this passage feels strange. It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be documented. Yet, on countless occasions I see companies treat their customers poorly, or approach them as a resource to strip mine. It’s obvious that this is shortsighted behavior, but it begs to be restated. As Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.”78

When the going gets tough

My wife is a lovely and accepting person; there’s little you can do to shock or offend her. I’m rather particular about things and a tad obsessive. I suspect that I’m not quite as easy to be married to. Still, we’re decent, caring, and committed partners who love one another. This doesn’t exempt us from the same struggles and challenges that other couples work through. What keeps us together—knock on wood—is that we care about one another enough to keep working on things and to persevere through hard moments.

Recently, our son’s throat swelled up terribly. (I’m writing this passage in hospital, while waiting for him to recover.) When he went to day care all was fine, but by afternoon he couldn’t move his neck and his lymph nodes swelled drastically. By the time we arrived at the hospital he was despondent, blotchy, and not breathing properly.

After a number of tests and many nervous hours of waiting, Oscar was admitted to hospital where they are treating him for an infection of his throat and tonsils. The whole thing really isn’t that big of a deal; he’ll be fine. Thursday was pretty nerve-wracking, though. There was swelling near his spine, and the possibility of his airways being blocked. This didn’t happen, but for the next few days he had a tough time as he was poked, prodded, and handled. This was a small scare, but it freaked Amea and I out considerably. Oscar is still little and means absolutely everything to us.

Although I never want to repeat this experience, I think it brought us closer together in a way. It was unpleasant, but we’ve shared an experience and got through it. As we waited for doctors and test results, Oscar and I talked and read a number of books. As he started to feel better, we munched on popsicles and watched cartoons. In a way, we spent a week bonding. Life is full of moments like these: some in our control and others outside of it. Making our way through these things, can strengthen our bonds with one another. Things aren’t always smooth in between companies and customers—choosing to “own” those more prickly moments might prove a rewarding strategy.

Sure, we put more effort into our families because these relationships are most important. That doesn’t mean the experiences we have with clients aren’t important and worth working on. You wouldn’t know this by how some companies treat their clients. Your cell phone company promises great options when you sign up, but then imprisons you in a multi-year contract. The coat check drops your hat in beer and then pretends it was water to get out of the dry cleaning bill. The salesperson fawns over you until a local celebrity with walks into the store. Relationships are destroyed at moments like these, or are they?

I say these are the exact times at which we can build love with our clients. Just imagine if that cell phone company eliminated contracts and allowed you the freedom to choose. Or, what if that bistro had the hat cleaned and offered a complimentary meal as an act of apology? Or, how would you feel if that sales-clerk pleasantly acknowledged the high-roller but noted that they’d have to wait while they helped you: one of their most valued customers? Smart businesses show us love when it’s inconvenient to do so.

Can we talk about this?

Sandra seemed increasingly reticent over the past few weeks. My hunch was that she was getting blowback from her superiors on the new creative and was starting to question our studio’s suggested direction. I didn’t really know how to address the situation, so I finally just put it out there: “Sandra, I sort of get the feeling you want to punch me. Am I right?”

At first she laughed and then there was a brief silence; I continued, “I know this is an odd part of the process. Some of our customers get freaked out at this point and I bet you’re getting resistance from the folks at your office.” I continued, “What I want you to know is that you can speak freely with me. I just want to make sure that you get what you need out of this.”

That’s all it took to break the deadlock and get things back on track. Just asking a somewhat playful question opened up the possibility of speaking casually, and banished the cloud looming over our heads. Acknowledging our client’s fears and assuring her that we’d take care of their needs helped reinforce that we were on same team. “Camps” start to emerge on some projects; it’s my job to ensure they don’t become destructive. We all need to share the same goals.

My wife and I rarely argue. When there is a problem, though, I find that we tend to clam up until someone’s willing to break the silence. I don’t understand why, but making that first gesture can feel overwhelming. Yet, once the conversation gets started, common-ground is established and we get things rolling again. This isn’t uncommon; of all the conflicts I’ve experienced, only a few haven’t been minimized through simply talking.

Break from the script

There’s a restaurant near our office that’s housed in an old bank. It’s tastefully remodeled and has a good lunch menu. Recently I ordered something new from the menu: a couple of fish tacos that were nicely presented and rather tasty. Yet for a main dish, they seemed poorly portioned. Perhaps the host heard my stomach’s growls as he later asked if the helping wasn’t enough. I explained it seemed more like an appetizer than a full course. He returned shortly with another helping, noting that they’d change the dish to a larger portion soon. Most wouldn’t have done a thing, but he won me over by paying attention, asking questions, and treating my opinions as relevant. I return often and bring friends with me.

You can address situations like these in many different ways but I’ve found luck in sometimes just breaking away from what’s thought of as “professional” behavior. Instead of having a set-protocol or any excuses, I try to treat clients like good friends. Sometimes this means breaking from the script and talking with them candidly. On others, it means writing off some time or reworking a project to make them more comfortable. Mostly, it comes down to ignoring policy and simply trying to understand what’s bugging them. We can’t make everyone happy. Then of course, there’s little reason to not open the lines of communication and try to fix a mess. After all, it’s easier to keep an existing client than find a new one.

Move over

We may uphold ideals of selfless love, but most of us are actually quite self-involved. Needless to say, our companies aren’t all that different. We start by thinking about what we want and then seek others to further this desire. Think of the language we employ: “I need to hit my quota!” “Why won’t they just stop tire-kicking and buy the thing?” “This guy keeps calling with stupid questions. I don’t have the time for this shit!” “My client keeps asking for pointless changes. You know, if you took the clients out of this, I’d actually like this job.”

We sometimes act like jerks because we think life’s only about us. (I hate to admit it, but I too suffer from this affliction sometimes.)By only thinking about what we need, we deprive ourselves of fulfilling experiences. There are many great things we can be a part of, but perhaps they don’t all start and end with us.

Although I make many suggestions throughout this book, I accept that some of my observations are outright wrong. One thing that I’m convinced of, is that the good stuff in life... the really, really good stuff doesn’t come from us but rather is a result of those we’re surrounded by.

I’m not a particularly exciting person, and I don’t need to be. I’m surrounded by kind, colorful, and interesting people. Each one adds something to my life, and I’m grateful for that. I also accept that these relationships are strong in part because everyone involved benefits equally from them. Be it support, exchange of ideas, sharing of experiences, or just casual talk—there are numerous reasons why these relationships work. None of them are solely about me, though. That wouldn’t be a relationship—it would be advertising.

Ask questions

When it comes to interaction with others (be it personal or business) we often open the outgoing valve fully and close off the intake. We’re so caught up in what we think we need that we forget to ask who this person in front of us is and what they need. My wife has an interesting kind of interaction with people, and I think it’s largely because she asks so many questions.

You see, she’s simply interested in others. Amea likes to know where people have come from, what they love, how they are motivated, and what their personal histories are. I should note that she does none of this with any kind of ulterior motive; she’s simply curious. As a bit of an introvert, I watch this with amazement. I’m a little nervous when it comes to talking with people and asking personal things. I tend to shy away from doing so until I know people well. Watching Amea do this opens my eyes to the connections that can be formed by doing so.

You likely spend a fair amount of time telling your clients about your company and what you do. Might it be better to instead start by trying to understand their motivations, hopes, fears, and all that other stuff? Companies sometimes act like narcissists; who wants get in a relationship with one of those?

It’s just “business”

We’re told repeatedly that “business isn’t personal,” which is in my opinion a complete and utter heap of stinking bullshit. Of course business is personal! When you lose an account, you feel crummy. If you make your client happy, you probably feel good. Should you be promoted or praised by someone you admire, it likely changes how you feel for the rest of the day. The only time that business isn’t personal is when it doesn’t affect you. Even then, it’s probably personal for someone else.

Let’s consider the people (or as we say in business: connections) that help spread the word about our companies. Do they do it just because of business, or is it perhaps more personal than that? When you give a pleasant customer a deal, is it only because it’s “good business,” or is it also because it’s enjoyable to do so for nice people? Pretending that business isn’t personal is dangerous. Some may feel that I’m falling into hyperbole here, but I believe such thinking to be de-humanizing. It leads companies to make terrible decisions.

We’ve worked with one customer for several years. Time and again, we’ve proved our value by performing our job well. Over the years we’ve also learned about one another. She’s shared her excitement about her son flying planes for the Canadian Forces and her daughter getting into college; she’s equally interested to hear how my little boys are doing. Our conversations always come back to business, but along the way, we talk about our challenges, successes, careers, moving experiences, real-estate, good wine, and almost everything else. In working together for so long—and not hiding our personal lives—we’ve built a real relationship.

She’s spent hundreds of thousands with our company as she’s moved from one organization to the next. I also can’t forget the thousands of dollars others have spent with us thanks to her recommendations. I like to think that her support comes as a result of the things we’ve helped her achieve, but I must acknowledge that she probably also chooses us out of comfort. She trusts us, knows us, and we have personal interactions. She cuts us slack when we screw up; additionally, she knows that in a pinch, we’ll sort things out for her regardless of the hour or what needs to be done. Many claim that business isn’t personal, but our business has benefited a great deal because we are personal.


In my late twenties I felt like a bust when it came to dating. So I swallowed my pride and decided to take any advice I could get. On a lark, I ordered a book that promised to help one learn how to “date better.” I can’t remember the title of that book, but it was well worth than the twenty or thirty dollars I paid for it. The author focused on one simple notion: dating is harder because of the creepy guys out there whose actions put women on guard.

Some companies act like smarmy guys: they talk a good game, but all they really want is a little “action.” Once they get some they vanish faster than they first appeared, and give little care as to the impact of their actions. Why else would we need Consumer Reports, the Better Business Bureau, or have terms like “buyer beware”? Most of us accept that companies are programmed to exaggerate and over-promise. So the one-in-a-thousand company that actually does as it says is often shot down and forced to go home alone before it has a chance. Advertising has made us cynical and with good reason. With people so disinclined to trust, how do we get anyone to believe those of us who do as we say?

Trust is easy, but it doesn’t come quickly. Establishing it requires you to concentrate on helping your customer, even if it means there’s no immediate sale in it for you. By doing so you begin to establish trust, but that’s just the first step. You confirm your trustworthiness by maintaining consistent and appropriate behavior over time. It’s all too easy to over-promise and under-deliver; avoid this common tendency. Try to say less about how great you’ll be and just over-deliver. I find myself asking if I shouldn’t be writing more on this topic, but ultimately it all comes down to that: do what you promise (maybe more) and always act in your client’s best interest.

Bring home flowers

In dating, grand gestures are common. Unfortunately, these niceties tend to occur less frequently as we move along. We grow complacent and too easily take people (and things) for granted. This happens in business just the same. We forget how important a client is to us, and how we once felt like the luckiest person in the world just to have them in our lives.

The person you didn’t expect to give you the time of day who eventually married you. The client you dreamed of working with that now relies on you as their primary supplier, or even the house that felt like a mansion on first viewing that now seems like just a roof over your head. We excite quickly and lose sight of how lucky we are. Sometimes I think we need a stern kick to the rump to wake up to what’s right in front of us.

Great people leave partners because they no longer get what they deserve. Great customers change suppliers to find the attention your company no longer seem to give. The funny part is that you don’t need to do much to remind those people how important they are to you. Often it’s the small stuff that adds up to something big. So every once in a while take a moment to remind these people what they mean to you. I find that such gestures are best made at times not marked on a calendar. Gifts at Christmas seem like a duty more than anything, so I tend to avoid them altogether.

A little surprise makes anyone feel special. Done well, these gestures are held onto for a long time. The great thing is that they’re also inexpensive. Surprise is remembering a customer’s name after only a couple of visits, or, being able to recollect the sandwich they order every time. Surprise is a note in their bag, saying how much you appreciate their business. Surprise is a rebate for always coming back. Surprise is a ticket to a concert that they mentioned in passing. Surprise is locating a copy of something they recently lost or just couldn’t find anywhere else. Surprise is a free upgrade that wasn’t expected. Surprise is all of these things and thousands more. Sometimes surprise is just a matter of emptying out the dishwasher before heading to work. Surprises are cheap, plentiful, and a nice way to keep the magic alive.

So there you are... the recipe for love

If you do everything noted here, your customers will love you. They’ll tell each and every friend about the great person you are, and convince them to buy only from you. Money will overflow from your cash register and you’ll never need to put another cent into advertising. The only real problem you’ll have will be to find a way to get past the throngs of adoring fans at your doorstep.

OK... so that might not happen; similarly, being a great partner doesn’t ensure that your marriage will work out. All you can really be responsible for is how you act. There are (at least) two parties in any relationship. You have to accept that some things are beyond your control. By setting yourself up for good relationships, I believe you stand a better chance of making it work. Love isn’t guaranteed, and it doesn’t necessarily last forever. When it works, little can beat it.


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Next chapter:
Do They Know You?




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