I spoke a few weeks ago at a corporate event and I was telling them about my first day on the job after getting out of graduate school.
My boss comes in and tells me how happy he is that I have completed my MBA and joined the Marketing Team. "Your new job is to make 100 phone calls a day," he said without even a hint of a smile on his face. "You'll have TWO conversations."
I had only had the job for five minutes and I already was looking around for the hemlock. Who wants to have 2 conversations a day? Worse, who wants to NOT have 98 conversations a day?
My trepidation and concern sprang from a truth that I only partially understood at the time:
People don't sell things or ideas in a monologue. They only sell them in a dialogue.
People need three things to have an epiphany, three ingredients that must be present, in my opinion, to get them to change something or to act. They need information, they need dialogue, and they need time to digest and process what they're hearing.
I learned this at a very young age. When I was a boy, I went to the Baptist Church, and on Tuesday nights we would go out and knock on doors and invite people to come to our church. We called these regular Tuesday night adventures, "Visitation."
When we knocked on a stranger's door, we had no idea what kind of reaction we might get, and the reactions ran the gamut.
Sometimes, they would slam the door in your face and tell you to shove it.
Sometimes they would ask what time church started. We'd tell them it started at 10:30 on Sunday, and lo and behold they'd all be there scrubbed up and sitting on the padded pew of their choice.
And, of course there were all manner of reactions in between 'shove it' and 'showing up'.
Even back then as a boy, it always intrigued me that there was such a wide range of reactions to these door to door efforts. Later on, I realized that the reactions had very little to do with us being there, and almost everything to do with what happened BEFORE we got there.
So, when my boss asked me to make a hundred phone calls, I pushed back and offered an alternative, a marketing program sort of loosely based on what I had learned from "Visitation". Instead of dragging people out of a meeting to have a two-minute phone call that they probably don't want to have in the first place, why not start a conversation with them and let them lead? Why not set up a safe, common place where potential clients could come join up and learn what we were learning in real-time?
Keep in mind that this was 15 years ago, and this kind of online communication was not as common as it is now. It was definitely a new idea, and it came from this really uncomplicated notion I had that people are people, and that maybe what worked for the church might work in marketing communications. Like a lot of people we met on Tuesday nights all those years ago, a lot of companies and their leaders are living with their situation, they are unsure of what to do next to solve their problems, they face pressure to solve the issues, and they are open to new ideas and even old ones that work from somebody they trust.
To set up our version of "Visitation", I suggested a simple solution to my boss. Let's send a short letter of invitation out to the senior executives in our target companies. This letter was going to simply say was that we as an organization had spent all these years collecting mountains of data and studying business problems of every stripe, and we had learned plenty that might be valuable to you, Mr. Executive. Let us share it with you. Yes, completely free of charge. We would give them an email address to reply to if they were interested.
My boss couldn't believe it.
"What? No sales language in the letter?"
"We're just going to invite people to join us and learn from us, and that's it?"
He was incredulous. He then made a funny gesture that made us both laugh out loud. He suggested that we try this gambit only in Texas so if it didn't work we can say that we only lost one state (albeit a really big one). And, he ended our short phone conversation by giving me this challenge, "If just five people join this group, Dennis, it will be the best marketing idea we have ever had."
I started trembling a little and thinking about which five people I could get to join...my mom, my brother, my wife, etc.
But my fears turned out to be totally unfounded, because we sent out the letters one day to around 1,000 Texas senior executives, and in just a few days the emails started rolling in. One after another, executives and decision-makers joined our little troupe, and soon we had over 150 souls all waiting on a note or white paper from us. After assembling this little "congregation," I started to work on what "sermons" to preach to each of them. I'd see in the business section of the daily paper that Company A had a turnover problem, and I would send my contact at that company a white paper or sometimes I would have our engagement experts write a few paragraphs about how employee engagement correlates with turnover. Never did we ask for a meeting or offer to sell anything.
And, then one day, it would magically happen. An epiphany. After sometimes months of emails and white papers and articles, something would happen and the last bit of info we'd send over would just gently push them over the edge and they'd send a note back asking me for a meeting. "Could you send your guys out on Tuesday? You all obviously know more than we do about this stuff, so come help us out."
Now, that is the true definition of a warm sales meeting. Those get-togethers were always cordial and kind and about as productive as it gets. Everybody was at church on time and glad to be there, metaphorically speaking.
And, there were some pleasant surprises. For almost 12 months, I sent emails and white papers and information and who knows what all to a company whose whole persona said "Go away!" But one day, the strangest thing happened. I got a call from a complete stranger, someone who had NOT signed up and was NOT on my roster, a senior executive who introduced himself and then proceeded to tell me how much he loved what I had been sending and how they did have the tiniest little turnover issue, and that he just might want to talk to one of our senior partners about how to fix it.
I couldn't help but ask, "Who are you and how did you know about us and how to contact me?"
His response floored me, "You didn't know? One of our lower level employees signed up for the group and he has been forwarding your information to everyone in the company for the entire year! Everyone from the CEO to the guy who sweeps the floors gets your emails and we've really all learned a lot from you guys."
What???? Can you say that in my good ear?
So, what's the lesson here? Keep giving your target audience what they need to someday have an epiphany: the right information, safe and useful dialogue, and time to digest it all.
You'll be glad you did. People will someday come to your "church." I can almost guarantee it.