11/16/2012 11:03 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

How to Drive Clients Away With a Stick

The Facebook post was soothing at first. "Rosh Hashanah is a time of contemplation and reflection," it said. I was raised Catholic -- I don't know a thing about Rosh Hashanah, and I was interested. "It's a time of thoughtful listening," the post went on. "That's why I'm offering a special $33 coaching session during Rosh Hashanah, but only to the first 15 people who respond." I laughed out loud, but it was a shocked-and-horrified laugh, the kind of laugh that leaps out of your throat when you drop your grandmother's vase on the hardwood floor and bust it into eighty pieces.

The Rosh Hashanah life coach wasn't done. A week later, I got a LinkedIn message from her, pushing body oils and lotions this time. I unfriended her on LinkedIn, to no avail. I got another direct message (I didn't know you could write to non-connections on LinkedIn, but I guess anything can be had for a price) hawking new coaching services. What about Grandparent's Day -- have you got a coaching special for that holiday, too?

There is a tug-of-war that goes on in marketing and promotion. Part of the marketer's brain wants to engage and open up conversation, as in the Rosh Hashanah contemplation-and-reflection opening. The other part of the marketer's brain wants to close business. It can be a tricky balance.

For sure, the right answer is not to disarm an audience member with a human message about the meaning of a religious holiday only to zing 'em between with the eyes with a BUY NOW! message. That's shocking and impolite. For eighteen seconds I assumed I was just another one of this lady's Facebook friends, sharing her thoughts on a Jewish holiday. Then I learned the truth: I was a potential client, an audience member and a mark. It's a horrible feeling (didn't last long, though: just long enough for me to unfriend the life coach and put her and her $33 coaching session out of mind).

We are very confused about marketing. We don't know what it is. We've been told to engage with people, but we can't resist going for that order. We don't know how to navigate, and the evidence is everywhere.

I went into a clothing discounter with my teenage daughter, and she pointed out another let's-insult-our-customers misfire. "Look at this sign in the dressing room," she said. "It starts out by telling us that the people who run this apparel chain love bargains as much as we do. That's fine -- they're addressing us as customers. Then they go on to tell us that they prosecute shoplifters to the full extent of the law.

If they want to share their business practices on the dressing room walls, why don't they also post a sign telling us that they pay their electric bills and keep toilet paper in ready supply in the restrooms? Run your business, merchant: you don't have to tell us every detail that goes into doing that. It's disingenuous, Mom; they start off by addressing us as shoppers, and then address us as potential shoplifters two seconds later."

The kid is right. Have "we prosecute shoplifters" posters ever deterred a shoplifter, anyway? The apparel retailer's tone-deaf message about how much we all love bargains didn't obscure the fact that it also believes everyone who enters a fitting room is fully ready to stuff a prom gown down her jeans. That's gross.

There is a frozen yogurt place two blocks from my house, but I take my kids halfway across town when they've earned a frozen yogurt treat, because the place in the neighborhood has little signs taped up on each of the frozen-yogurt machines. "Samples are for paying customers only," these little signs say. Really? That doesn't make any sense, because if you're the type of person who likes to sample yogurt before you buy it, you're going to try the sample before deciding whether you're going to be a paying customer, or not. Beyond that, the little signs are stupid.

If you don't want to allow samples, don't put out sample cups. Better to take the sample cups away than to insult your customers (over and over, as they pass twenty little signs on twenty yogurt dispensers) with messages about 'paying customers.' That sort of message is beyond tacky. The little signs drove me away (the yogurt wasn't that great, either). It's hard to imagine that the cost in overall ickiness would warrant whatever savings the yogurt shop gets from a reduction in the amount of over-sampling it was experiencing before the signs went up.

Is there a common thread in the Rosh Hashanah coach's story, the fitting-room signs and the yogurt shop afraid of overzealous yogurt-samplers? There is, and here it is: all three situations would have benefitted from a human touch. If the life coach wants to grow her business, she's better off cultivating relationships than using religious holidays to flog Groupon-type coaching deals. That's a slow, patient exercise, but what asset does an underbooked life coach have in greater supply than time?

The apparel merchant concerned about shoplifting could have enough staff on the floor to watch for shoplifters, and train those salesclerks to speak to every shopper in the joint in a friendly way. Will people who engage with the employees be as likely to make off with the merchandise? Are we likely to steal from the salesperson who's been chatting about peplum skirts with us? That would be a question worth exploring.

The yogurt shop may be overrun after school with kids looking for a yogurt sample, but what if the yogurt shop workers engaged those kids rather than putting up signs to deter them? What if the yogurt shop people acted human with the kids, and said "Samples are samples -- go ahead and get one" and trusted that the kids or their parents would reward them with full-cup yogurt sales down the road? Great Harvest Bakery has been giving away free slices for years, and it doesn't seem to have hurt their business. Trust is a wonderful thing. Staying human is another good one for marketers to study.

Everybody raised on this planet knows how real human beings treat one another when they aren't trying to sell something or terrified someone is going to rip them off. We know what those messages and vibes look and feel like. We resonate with the right messages and recoil from the wrong ones -- and thank God we do. That's how we know we're human.