Business Advice

Pet-food lickers and changing-room strippers: Why you’ll never sell to people you don’t understand

Ian Whitworth /

employee monitoring

Scene Change co-founder and Motivation for Sceptics blogger Ian Whitworth. Source: Supplied.

The worst thing about being trapped in a business bubble is that you don’t know it.

You’ll often be right. But sometimes you won’t. The citizens of customerland aren’t you. Their lives are different. They will do things you wouldn’t have dreamed of without powerful hallucinogens.

The hair dryer incident

Consider my gym, which was renovated a few years back. It used to be a classic old sports club gym, full of retired football players with hairy necks. Then they updated it with gleaming machines, buffed trainers and deluxe hotel-style change rooms. In those change rooms, next to each basin, are hairdryers attached to the bench.

Not long after the renovation, I noticed one of the older chaps at the mirror clutching a dryer, drying his armpits. Nude. Really, sir, isn’t towel-drying enough? Things escalated. Moving into a deadlift-style semi-squat, he dropped the dryer to knee level, pointed it upward, and dried his ancient dangling genitalia, eyes shut, a faint smile on his face.

I’m fairly sure that when the architect designed the new facilities, they didn’t imagine that application. And old mate wasn’t the only one doing it. It’s A Thing with old men, along with talcum powder. Apparently, as you get older, you get a strong hankering for extreme dryness. If you’re a younger person marketing to older people — and that’s where the money is, kids, they all own homes — you need to know these peculiarities. Even if you’re personally okay with a bit of moisture in your crevices post-shower.

The exact moment you become old

Most people think growing old is a gradual phase, a decades-long slowing of vital functions as the youthful chemicals fizzle out, replaced by an urge to move to places you can wear shorts all year and eat at 6pm. It’s not.

Old is a binary, yes or no state that happens in an instant transformation — like becoming a werewolf. All your life you refer to air moving with terms like wind, breeze, ventilation and similarly pleasant words. That’s a refreshing afternoon breeze’, you think, enjoying the light tingle of air on skin. Then one day it happens. You use the word draft’. Can I feel a draft?’ Pow! You’ve become an old person right there.

From that moment life becomes a mission to block off the air movement of the outside world. Shut that damn door!’ It’s like the medieval belief that illness comes from bad vapours. You’ll catch your death.’ I watched my dad become a sort of land-locked submarine commander, locking the doors and windows of his intensely humid, flat-iron-roofed home in the subtropics, keeping the demon drafts at bay.

Break out of your own tribe

As a business person, if you don’t understand different perspectives to your own, you’re doomed to sell to your own tribe only. Even in the way you sell ideas to your own staff in meetings.

I often wonder how any woman who has been through childbirth feels when asked to man up for some modest business challenge. Or how ex-military people who have actually been shot at enjoy hearing sales managers declaring it’s a war out there.

After seeing the hair dryer thing for the fifth time, I couldn’t resist asking the woman at the gym front desk if there was anything they could do. I described the scene and watched the colour drain from her face.

“He’s doing … WHAT!?”

It would be an interesting agenda item for their next staff meeting, as a gang of fit, perky 20-somethings came to grips with behaviour lightyears outside their universe.

Your customers do stuff you can’t comprehend. People taste pet food to make sure it’s good enough for their precious fur baby. They use sports betting apps at the table when they’re out to dinner with their partner.

Exercise equipment makers should visit hotel gyms, bizarre workout circuses where people sit on machines backwards and use free-weight techniques they saw in Popeye cartoons.

Inspiration is not in your office

The more you get out of your office and observe people, the more amazing, and useful, stuff you will learn. And the more you’ll learn to speak their language, which is essential, because that’s the best way to win their trust. When I was writing TV ads for my tyre client, I’d go to an outer suburban shopping mall and sit in the food court for an hour or so, just listening and tuning into conversations. Then I’d pull out the notebook and start writing. It was always productive. These people aren’t interested in your hipster ad-writer wordplay. They have bills to pay and screaming kids to wrangle. It clarifies your thinking and teaches you not to waste their precious time.

Likewise, if you’re in sales, listen to the words your clients use. Every industry has code words and acronyms. Learn them and use them on prospects. They’ll subconsciously think ‘you’re literally speaking our language’ and trust you.

Can your customers understand your internal jargon?

On the flip side, beware of inflicting your own industry jargon on outsiders.

For example, consider the industry that moves things from one place to another in trucks. It used to be called freight’. Everyone knew what freight was. Then marketing people got involved and it became logistics’, because that sounded more MBA-ish. Then, over many brainstorming meetings, it got broadened to ‘Integrated Logistics’. It may involve some extra stock-checking, but it’s still basically trucking stuff around.

Next brainstorming meeting: I know! What about Total Integrated Logistics Solutions! That’s what we really offer! Not services. Solutions! says some keen middle manager. That’s gold! Take a photo of the whiteboard in case we forget!

So the trucks outside my local supermarket say Total Integrated Logistics Solutions. That’s a lot of words so it shrinks to the acronym TILS, pronounced tills. Everyone in meetings now says tills, until tills sounds normal … to them. Then they start saying it to customers and people at barbecues. Then come marketing masterstrokes like ‘TILS without the spills, as if that makes sense to anyone outside their oxygen-starved PowerPoint bunker.

This lack of awareness can lead you to say some strange stuff. I had a visit from a mailing house rep. Mailing houses call themselves ‘fulfilment’ now. Their man was a classicly confident young sales guy with the electric blue suit, European Football League haircut, and a general sense that you could catch herpes just by clicking on his LinkedIn invitation.

His company offered two services: classic automated bulk letters, or sending larger marketing packages that needed hand-assembly. He was particularly proud of their manual work.

“Hand fulfilment is our specialty,” he said with a winning smile.

Uh … I’ll pass on that thank you.

Every so often, you have to step back and consider how your patter sounds to normal humans.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics. Read the original article.

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Ian Whitworth

Ian Whitworth is a reformed branding and advertising creative director turned entrepreneur, who co-founded corporate audiovisual company Scene Change.

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