"Business is all about relationships."
"It's not what you know, it's who you know."
As someone who started his career as a techie during the rise of the web, quotes like these always used to strike me as the worst kind of "old economy" platitudes. Tired advice from baby boomers whose AOL email addresses were only marginally less embarrassing than their fondness for comic sans.
"Clearly, these oldsters don't understand the geometric power of dot com thinking!" I'd smirk. "Why would I waste time on an individual relationship when I could write a Perl script to automatically hit 10,000 prospects in half the time?"
Looking back, it's a miracle I didn't choke on my own cloud of smug.
People? We Don't Need No Stinking People
There was a lot of that sentiment in the late 90's. Strategy consultants, process analysts, and software engineers alike, we Gen X'ers built our early careers on what was, in hindsight, a pretty simple premise: Replace People with Process.
Why pay old Ted to drink martinis with clients over lunch when we can pay young Trevor here half as much to mind the newfangled CRM dashboard over ramen? Why send Ron to the marketing conference when we can put the money into Ryan's A/B testing app?
Mind you: These changes all made total sense at the time. The companies that made early moves into sales force automation enjoyed decisive first mover advantages. Trevor vs. Ted might as well have been Navy Seals vs. Mall Cops.
And thus my fellow Bicentennial Babies and I built an internet, and eventually a global economy, that prioritized transactional resilience over trusted relationships.
The New Normal
Now that sales and marketing automation have become the new normal, I'd guesstimate that in any given day, approximately, oh, 1/3 of my email is spam.
(You, Reader, Thinking: "Spam protection is built-in to Gmail, you AOL-bashing hypocrite!")
No, no: I'm speaking neither of 'Hot Singles in My Area' nor of time-limited opportunities to 'S@V3 0N V!@GR@'.
Rather, I'm talking about the new and improved "Son-of-Spam": Sales and marketing communications from legitimate, reputable businesses that are perfectly automated, templated, sequenced, and tracked to stainless-steel perfection. Like the characters from The Polar Express, these notes look to be human upon first glance, but if you let your gaze linger, you start to see them for what they really are: Eerie, soulless, digital zombies.
To wit, here's a pre-written "Breakup email" sales template from a popular CRM tool:
"Dear Contact First Name,
I've tried to reach you a few times to go over suggestions on improving low-performing-business-capability, but haven't heard back which tells me one of three things:
1) You're all set with low-performing-business-capability and I should stop bothering you.
2) You're still interested but haven't had the time to get back to meet yet.
3) You've fallen and can't get up and in that case let me know and I'll call someone to help you ...
Please let me know which one as I'm starting to worry!
Your Name Goes Here"
Like a modern Top 40 pop single, these pre-written notes aren't "written" so much as grown in a lab to optimally grab our attention, elicit a momentary dopamine response, and, if the product placement is on point, pick our pocket.
It's bad enough feeling "sold to" by a pushy human, let alone a pushy robot.
How to Conduct Business Like A Human (In an Age of Machines)
A full 20 years after my generation and I traded martini-fueled lunches for ramen-fueled apps, what's old is becoming new again. Specifically, I'm seeing evidence all around me that people who dare to act like humans again are starting to find they enjoy a real edge. Here are some tips (reminders, really) that might help you too.
1. Be Introduced
In an age of ever-more-nuanced spam, cold calls and emails are increasingly suspicious.
The best way to slip through the skepticism shields? A warm introduction from a trusted mutual acquaintance. An intro from a trusted connection might not earn you trust, but it earns you transitive trust, which is the next best thing. Better to start a conversation as a friend-of-a-friend who's presumed innocent than as a stranger who's presumed guilty.
2. Be Yourself
In an age of canned language and antiseptic jargon, do your own thing.
Write with your own voice, from your own heart, using your own authentic turns of phrase. Don't feel compelled to end emails with "Cheers" if you're not British. Don't open emails with "Dear" if your target isn't yet beloved. If you're excited about something, dare to use exclamation marks at work, or, gasp, emoji. Or go ahead break any of these rules if you want. Point is: Whatever you choose to do, resist the lazy allure of mindless defaults and operate with intentionality. My friend Danielle says it best: "A charming, harmless eccentricity is the new shoeshine." You do you.
3. Listen Up
In an age of omnipresent pitches, stop talking, take a breath, and start listening.
It's staggering how much more productive you'll find your business interactions if you stop banging your own drum for a hot second and take in others' music. If you find yourself in a monologue, stop immediately and create a dialogue by giving the other person time to contribute. Talk with people, not at people. The most successful folks I know tend to speak the least. Their silence comes across as a mix of confidence, thoughtfulness, and cool. Their words, well-chosen, carry that much more gravity.
4. Think Straight; Talk Straight.
In an age of ever-more-contorted business models, keep it simple.
When I was starting my career, my nervous middle managers would warn us new analysts that their boss, was "super busy" and "didn't have much time". It took me a good decade to realize that, generally speaking, senior executives aren't "short on time" so much as they're short on patience for the tentative, rambling, jargon-laced flights of fancy so common among junior folks on their teams. Say your piece clearly, directly, and without pretense. Leaders typically have a high radar, and low tolerance, for bovine excrement. As one of my early mentors, Glover Ferguson taught me: "Think straight; Talk straight."
5. Say What you Do; Do What You Say.
In an age of diffuse and diluted accountability, keep your promises and own your mistakes.
The last 20 years has seen no shortage of clever cost-saving business models (Outsourcing, offshoring, crowdsourcing) and technologies (Automation, augmentation, and AI). An unfortunate side-effect of these new(ish) delivery models? It's much easier to pass the buck when things go south. If you expect to credibly accept the accolades for your massively distributed, technology-driven successes, you need to be willing to accept the blame for their inevitable failures. Don't blame the robot help. It's unbecoming of a human.
6. Pay it Forward
In an age of impersonal transactions, your empathy and generosity will set you apart.
Your most important professional asset is your reputation. Yup: Another piece of "Dad Advice" that, despite the eye-roll-inducing language, is spot on. Develop a positive professional reputation as a "giver" as opposed to a "taker". Show up as the person who creates possibilities for others, not the person who seizes them all for herself. Being compassionate doesn't make you a bad capitalist. It makes you a good leader that others will want to follow. A human. And for the time being anyway, we humans are still in charge.