Spiral Marketing: The More You Know, The More You Can Know

July 27, 2009

I’m Trying To Sleep Here!

I knew a guy at the University of Colorado who had done a lot of things in his life – been all over the world, fought in Vietnam, done all sorts of things.  I was talking to him one day and he told me a story about working for a rescue mission in the roughest areas of Chicago.

Well, we all know it can get pretty cold in Chicago in winter, particularly when the wind is howling off the lake.  On these cold nights, my friend and his compatriots at the rescue mission would go out in a van, and look for homeless people sleeping on the streets – freezing to death was an all too real and frequent occurrence on nights like those.  So my friend and a partner would prowl the mean streets of Chicago, well off the Miracle Mile, Michigan Ave and the Loop, and look for people in alleys and in doorways.  When they saw someone, they would get out of the van, and my friend would shake the person and say “Hey, are you alright?”  This is the sort of thing we should all take the time to do, right? Look out for our fellow travelers, extend a hand to those who don’t have it as well as we do?

Well, 99 out of 100 times my friend asked if someone was alright (I’ll leave it to you to guess what happened the 100th time), they would yell with a slur “I was until you woke me up, M****r F****r!” and proceed to curse my friend up one side and down the other, and then get to work on his immediate and extended family.  Once my buddy’s family tree had been roundly cursed, most times that person would promptly turn over and go back to sleeping off the effects of their drink or drug of choice or convenience.  My friend was taken aback – he was trying to help these people, and was in many cases literally being spat upon by those he sought to aid.  He was freezing his ass off, rolling through the night down streets you or I wouldn’t walk in daylight, trying to bring some comfort to folks, and his thanks was one serving of abuse after another. After a few days or weeks of this treatment, most people quit; my friend, a most resilient sort and a student of human nature, decided to change his approach.

So when the temperature dropped, the sun set and the cold winds howled through the cold and dark Chicago night, my friend would jump into the van as always, and prowl the back alleys and no-man’s land.  He would search for the huddled forms in corners, behind dumpsters, in doorways.  He’d pull the van up, get out, walk over and shake the person.

And then he’d ask “Hey, are you dead?”

The level of abuse my friend had to take dropped rather remarkably with this subtle shift in his approach.  He probably saved more lives than we will ever know in the time he spent at that rescue mission.

What’s the lesson here for businesses?  I think it is that even when we are trying to help our customers, we often do so in a very self-referential way – I want to converse with my customers, but on my terms.  Do we really want to have the conversation our customers want to have, or do we want a conversation that serves only our needs.  That may seem a bit of a stretch given this scenario, but ask yourselves this (he says optimistically, knowing no one is going to read this): if my buddy is asking folks “Hey, are you alright?” there is only one answer that will make anyone happy, and that person is my buddy.  If the guy wakes up, my buddy is happy, but the guy trying to sleep it off is pissed: “I was until you woke me up – leave me alone!”  The only other answer is no answer – and that’s not a very happy thing for anyone concerned.

My buddy was forcing these people he was trying to help to reinforce his sense of well-being: he wanted them to be alright; they in fact either were or were not, and so therefore had not personal stake in answering this stranger’s question.  But my buddy was out there in the Chicago cold trying to help people, so he changed the question to one in which those he sought to help had a personal stake – “Hey, are you dead?”

If you choose to have a conversation with your customers, ask them the questions they care about – and be ready for the answers.  You might be surprised how clearly their answers will tell you what you really need to know.

Kev

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