• Sarah Hegland

Pouting is Not Attractive: Cultivating Healthy Relationships with Your Customers

Dear Small-Business Owner,

Needy dog
Okay, pouting is kind of cute in dogs.

You know I love you. You know I appreciate how much time and effort you put into your business, and how courageous you are in taking on so much responsibility. I know how challenging and stressful things can feel at times.

We need to talk about something, though. I just turned 40 last year, and I’m moving away from needy relationships. You know, the ones where pouts and guilt-trips substitute for clear and respectful communication. The ones where I try to get my partner to give me all the love that I haven’t learned how to give myself. The ones that bring up my childhood fears of abandonment. We’ve all been there, on both the giving and receiving end.

Lately I’ve noticed how business relationships can replicate the same dynamics as romantic relationships. Last month I went to get a massage---a gift from my sister---at a place I’d never been to before. I hit every red light on the way there, and showed up two minutes late, ready to be impressively efficient in stripping off my outer layers and lying down on the massage table. The masseuse at the front desk handed me a clipboard and asked me to fill out a two-page form with my personal and medical information. I looked at it, a little dejected about its length.

“What’s the minimum I can get away with here?” I asked.

He stared at me and didn’t answer.

“I just don’t like giving my personal information to companies when it’s not necessary,” I said.

“All of this is so that we can better help you,” he said.

That’s a lie, I thought. I quickly filled out the information that was remotely relevant to a one-hour massage---tense muscles in these areas, no medical conditions, skip the sections asking for my home address and phone number---and handed it back.

He looked at it and gave me a disappointed look before leading me to the massage room. The massage itself was lovely and relaxing, though I noticed myself making small efforts to soothe his disappointment in me.

As I was leaving, I apologized, saying, “I’m sorry I was short with you earlier. I just feel like I’m being bombarded by companies asking for my personal information, and sometimes it gets to be too much.” He said, “That’s okay.” Notable lack of apology or reflection on his part.

The next day I received a text message from him, thanking me for coming in. I immediately tensed up, knowing that I hadn’t written down my phone number on the form. Then I remembered that I’d had to provide my phone number when I made the appointment online, and he must have grabbed it from there. I felt uncomfortable that he’d used my number for what looked like marketing purposes, and replied with a short, “Thanks, Chris:)”

Why am I writing this blog post? Because a month later I got another text message from him, saying it had been a month since my previous massage, and maybe it was time to make another appointment. Reader, I didn’t like it.

I replied, “Can you unsubscribe me from text messages, please? I didn’t sign up for these.” He replied, “You’ve been unsubscribed.” Notable lack of apology or reflection on his part.

What kind of emotional vibes was I feeling from his marketing strategy? Pushiness, neediness, and disappointment. He was following all the rules of traditional marketing around collecting contact information and following up diligently in order to persuade customers to buy from him again, and he didn’t understand why it wasn’t working.

Remind you of any former romantic relationships? Yup.

What am I, as a lover and a consumer, looking for instead?

  • Inspiration: Don’t try to persuade me; inspire me! “Here’s some great content that you might enjoy! These are the gifts we’re offering to the world! Here's how we love to help people!”

  • Freedom: Be happy regardless of whether I choose to be with you/buy from you. We're maturing beyond codependent relationships where you need me to act a certain way in order for you to be happy.

  • Empathy: “I hear what you’re saying. I’ve experienced that, too, and it can feel frustrating.”

  • Self-reflection: Are you being reflective about the part you’re playing in the dynamic between us? Or are you casting yourself as the victim and me as the perpetrator?

  • Trustworthiness: Do you have my best interests at heart? Or just your own?

Friends, marketing is changing. We can’t play by the old rules anymore. We’ve got to shift our strategy from objectifying consumers to really, genuinely loving them:

  • listening to them and empathizing with them

  • reflecting on our intentions toward them

  • wanting them to thrive and be free

  • being trustworthy and supportive

The writer Seth Godin calls this permission marketing; Mark Schaefer calls it human-centered marketing. I call it healthy relationships. May we build and enjoy healthy relationships in all areas of our lives.

Love, Sarah