“We have met the aliens—and they are us.” (with apologies to Walt Kelly)

Earlier this year, Barclays Bank placed a sign outside one of its central London branches offering five pounds—cash—to anyone who stopped in and asked for it. The sign was up for two hours, during a busy Monday lunchtime. No one, not one, went in to claim the fiver. On-the-street interviews revealed that passers-by had seen the sign but didn’t bother to go inside.

“There must be a catch,” said one. “It’s a bank.”

A used car dealer in the US southwest noticed, when he drove past his lot one evening, that there were always people standing around, peering through the dark at the cars on display. He installed floodlights and business boomed. Prospective customers were so desperate to avoid his sales pitch that they preferred to check out the cars at night, then come in the next day simply to place their order.

To potential customers, suppliers, agents or prospects, you are an alien. Whether you are a banker or a used car salesman, your customers don’t really want to meet you or talk to you. At least not at first. They don’t trust you. They suspect you do not have their best interests at heart. They resent you for getting between them and their bank account or car.

And you behave like an alien to them. You speak of product features and benefits and choices in terms they don’t understand. You are not like them. Your motives are suspect, your behavior unusual.

Face it: you’re an alien. But you don’t have to be.

You are an alien because you don’t (yet) have a relationship with the prospect, potential supplier or new candidate. Look at the differences relationships make:

 

• You invite prospects to an event, looking for a two-percent response rate.

• You invite friends to your wedding reception: 90-plus percent reply.

• Your cold calls receive disinterested grunts, curt rejections, and excuses. You have a one-percent hit rate and are happy.

• Your calls to your friends generate enthusiastic dialogue: 80 percent call you back.

• You send direct mail, creatively designed, well targeted. You get a 0.2-percent response.

• You write to your mother or brother: 100 percent response.

We all know that relationships matter enormously. But how do we establish relationships with people who think of us as aliens? How can we communicate? In my 25 years of living and working in seven countries on three continents, I experienced a thing or two about being an alien and about how to communicate with aliens. Actually, a thing or three.

Rule 1: Be Quiet, Then Listen

Forget about understanding for a moment. Forget even about listening. Think instead about being quiet. You can’t really listen if you are parallel processing, trying to compare what you are hearing to your own reality or views. Become quietly receptive and the listening, the understanding and—finally—the communication will follow.

A man stood outside a grocery store one day, minding a baby in a pram. The baby was making a horrible racket, screaming and crying and carrying on about whatever babies carry on about. The man was saying, over and over, “Now, Rutherford, this is not the time to get overwrought. Try to remain calm. Don’t be upset.” Almost immediately, the baby quieted.

An observer approached, very impressed.

“That was really something, the way you quieted Baby Rutherford,” he said.

“Thanks,” replied the man. “But the baby’s not Rutherford. Rutherford’s me.”

 

Rule 2: Ask Questions

Nobody wants a sales pitch from an alien, but there is something welcoming about being encouraged to talk about ourselves, our ideas, our concerns. The best, most powerful impressions of any company, products or services will be the ones people form themselves, that are specific and relevant to their situations. The best way you can prompt such impressions is not by telling them anything, but by asking.

It matters what kind of questions you ask. Avoid aggressive questions such as, “What is going wrong at your manufacturing plant?” or, “Do you know about all the ways in which we can help businesses like yours?” Think instead of questions that will help people’s own thinking, that relate to their concerns. “How do you see the market for navigation systems?” or “What are your views on HR outsourcing?” Encourage more details. Offer additional information. Ask their opinion.

Gradually, you will begin to understand the aliens, and they will feel that they understand you. Maybe even want to work with you.

 

Rule 3: Use Feelings

People remember emotional events. When you use feelings, you become less alien. I am surprised at how often others think this is a culturally-dependent rule—that somehow, the people of some cultures do not use feelings or cherish or rely on feelings. I have yet to encounter a culture where feelings do not reign in communications and in relationships. Use feelings. Don’t be bashful—unless that is a feeling you want to use.

Recognizing that people regard me as an alien has helped me, I have found. I don’t assume as much as I used to. I don’t pretend to know what others want. I don’t imagine that my services or solutions are necessarily the right ones for them.

Ironically, perhaps, this enables me to build relationships faster, to make contact, to build trust. Without that, even with a good brand, you can’t give away five pounds.

 

 

 

PAUL BASILE has served as chief marketing officer of four companies and has led five business units, in seven countries on three continents. He is author of Seeing I-to-I: Industry to Industry and Individual to Individual Marketing.