You’re In The People Business

by Nathan Greenberg, CEO

This may have been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn in my career. I spent my early professional years focusing on mastering my craft, expanding my opportunities, and gaining prominence within the industry. But I was more than a decade in before I began learning the complexity and necessity of a fundamental truth: no matter how much I knew or how much money I made, I was and always would be in “the people business”.

Hopefully, a few of you thinking something akin to, “how did you miss that?”. If so, that means you already understand this lesson – or you are aware of its importance even if you are still learning it yourself. My fundamental belief rested upon the notion that my intellect and insight would carry me. It was hard to understand why someone wouldn’t want to work with me if I had the right answers. Call it hubris. Call it ignorance. Call it whatever you want, but it should be synonymous with mistake.

And it took time for me to correct the mistake. I would pick up hints from friends, colleagues, and managers. The pieces came together over time. But eventually I understood something critical to success. Relationships are the basis for business. There is a difference between what people buy and why people buy it. People fundamentally buy things from companies they don’t object to. People do business with people. If the customer likes the salesperson, they might overlook some of the objectionable actions of the manufacturer. Customers may choose to do business with a friend who charges more than the stranger with a discount. This is what I didn’t understand. It wasn’t about what I sold, but rather how I sold it. Was there a relationship with my customer?

Then I had to learn the key principles of the relationship. I said earlier, “People fundamentally buy things from companies they don’t object to.” You may have heard that phrased differently: “People buy from people they like” or something like that. Unfortunately, I no longer believe that is most accurate. In today’s economy of polarization, moral alignment, and behavioral transparency, there can always be something that a customer doesn’t like about a company. And yet you will still find atheists who eat at Chick-fil-A. You will find Republicans who voted for Joe Biden. The information firehose being blasted into our consciousness about companies and employees every second of the day has exceeded its value proposition. Consumers now choose from the options they dislike least.

Years of research shows that customers do business with those they “know, like, and trust”. Sometimes those quantities need not be very high, but they must be higher than the competition. Sales managers have been giving the “sell the benefits, not the features” speech for a long time. It now applies to more than the product. It applies to the relationship.

In recent years, the definition of “benefits” has changed. Customers now include ethics and personal satisfaction in their purchasing decision. This changes the relationship. Customers want to know the people and organizations from which they buy. They want to feel good about doing business with them. At first I viewed these adjustments as a minefield that made sales more difficult. But I later learned that these were opportunities. I had all new ways to connect with customers than ever before based on their personal interests. My slowness to grasp relationship value suddenly shot forward by understanding how I could foster them. This is why no matter what you sell, you are in the people business. The necessity now to demonstrate ethical behavior, get to know the customer, and be a resource for them is more important than ever. They aren’t buying what you’re selling. They’re buying their personal pleasure of being able to tell someone, “I bought from that company because they’re a good company.” Ethical street cred is a vital component to today’s consumer shopping – and every consumer is a person. You’re in the people business.

(Originally published in IE Business Edge magazine, March 2022)

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