Winning new customers is just like dating: you need passion, integrity & authenticity

My daughter Katie, Princess of the Universe, is living with Conor. They’ve been together just over five years now, meeting as students in Sheffield. He seems a decent and caring chap, although maybe my ‘first meeting handshake strategy’ – crushing fingers if possible, cracking knuckles at minimum – did scare him a little, as I eye balled him for 30 seconds. And squeezed. I didn’t let go.

Making an earnest effort to be open-minded, when I had him on my own at the bar in the pub I asked him, What do you like about my daughter? There is only one response, and to be fair, he nailed it: Sir, I worship the ground your daughter walks on. She is the beacon of light in my otherwise horrible, miserable existence. Ok, he didn’t say that, but it was in his eyes. I resisted the temptation to attach a GPS tracker to him.  Five years on and Conor is part of the family. Decent fella.

Now my son James is courting, so we’re about to go through the same emotional cycle and rollercoaster once again. He’s a Big Catch that’s for sure, a man of good humour, a capable chef who would do well on Bake Off, and owner of a substantial lawn mower. He doesn’t wear jeans with holes in the knee and owns just one stuffed squirrel – a taxidermy mount, which he won in a rugby club raffle. He’s a 10/10 in anyone’s book.

Ah, the art of courtship, it’s a challenge, isn’t it? How do you get your desired to notice you, to be willing to give their attention to you, to be interested in you, and to spare their valuable time for you?  For a startup seeking early customers, with demand generation and lead nurturing at the forefront of activity, these questions about dating sound like what we ask about prospective clients. Attracting new customers is indeed a lot like dating, where you have to strike a balance between spontaneity and good planning.

When it comes to looking for a partner, there’s an order to things. You don’t make a commitment to just anyone. Before you do, there’s a series of stages to determine if a romantic candidate is actually right for you. Relationships with potential customers aren’t much different, they progress through certain milestones before dollars or diamond rings are exchanged. I mean there’s cost of acquisition to consider before we start thinking about life time value.

So, what are the similarities between the way you should develop your startup sales strategy and dating? What tactics can a startup employ to help turn strangers into happy customers? It’s analogous to how one might go about courting a special someone.  The methodology goes a little something like this: research*prospect*lead qualification*pitch* objection handling*close*nurturing.

Now, if we switch to the world of dating, let’s explore how to develop a budding romantic relationship compares to the startup sales process.

1. Scanning the market: do some casual cyber-stalking Before you can make any changes to your relationship status on Facebook, you need to do some outbound prospecting to find a special buddy. Maybe you opt for a friend-recommended blind date or use some of the online dating apps. Who’s out there for you? 

Salespeople and prospects both go through a similar process. Both want to do business together, they just don’t know about one another yet. The prospect does some googling to find what they’re looking for and the seller is on the lookout for people who are actively searching for what they offer.

Some dating folks wear their hearts on their sleeves. some barely have to go looking because others are all over ‘em and there is a stampede. Make sure you’re noticed and memorable, but a relationship is based on openness, authenticity and trust, so show your true colours and be transparent up front.

2. Attraction: when you like what you see You’ve found someone you’re attracted to and excited about. You’re pumped about them. You’re just hoping they’re equally keen on you. You’re hopeful the timing is right, that nothing’s too good to be true, and you’re both willing to explore the possibility of a relationship.

Dates are plentiful. Cinema. Bowling. Jokes are cracked. Laughter is laughed. Butterflies. You’re a big giddy. Texts fly back and forth. If your desired one has a horse, buy some carrots, she’ll love the gesture and the horse will stop being jealous. Things are going well, and the future looks bright. You still don’t know each other all that well yet, though. You need to find out more about this person to determine if they are a prospective soulmate. Here are two key tips for both personal dating and business sales perspectives to keep the attraction hot:

  • Spend more time listening than talking Build understanding and engagement, and find out what makes your date tick, or in the case of a customer, what they are truly looking for. That means listening first, asking questions where necessary but letting them talk. Spend time understanding their problems from their perspective, showing the value you bring before you even start to think about pushing yourself.
  • Make a good first impression We all want to make the best first impression on a date, a little flirting and being cheeky, before revealing the real person we are. It’s the same for business decision makers. With competitors challenging for your customer’s attention, you need to invest time and creativity engaging and ‘flirting’ with customers, with knowledge, expertise and content to show you can help them and get on their radar.

3. Uncertainty: seeking reassurances to commit This is the stage where potential deal-breakers have surfaced. You might discover that your little honey muffin comes with some previously unseen baggage or has seriously odd foibles, but perhaps in an endearing kind of way. Maybe you’ve been to their house to find out they have an unhealthy squirrel taxidermy addiction. All of a sudden, you’re no longer so sure about things.

Similarly, deal-breakers can arise when you’re in talks with a customer. Both parties are getting comfortable such that they begin to divulge more information. All of a sudden, something new is on the table, and it jars. Ouch! Is it negotiable, or does the phone go down and you’re back to square one?

However, if through the relationship building process you’re willing to compromise on a few things, the pros and cons of committing is like a seesaw until you make a judgment call on whether it’s worth it. We do this with the people we date all the time: His collection of Burnley FC shirts on the wall of his living room is over the top, BUT he’s a great cook AND he always smells nice.

So how do you give reassurances?

  • Give them what they want but don’t set unreasonable expectations Prospects come to you for specific reasons. Make sure you have absolute clarity on this. Don’t try and change unnecessarily and try to be something that you are not. Bear in mind prospects are being wooed by potential suppliers all the time, and may well be involved in multiple relationships. But don’t be disheartened, stay true to your values, focus on the customer, build a two-way relationship and you’ll win their hearts for the long term. 
  • It’s not what you say, but how you say it Albert Mehrabian, Professor of Psychology at UCLA showed the importance of verbal and non-verbal messages. His 7%-38%-55% rule of words, tone of voice, body language applies here. These three elements account differently for our liking for the person who we are talking to: Verbal liking: words account for 7% of the engagement; Vocal liking: tone of voice accounts for 38%; Visual liking: facial expressions and body language accounts for 55%. Note this framework.
  • Prove that you’re actually worth it You’ve been on a few dates, staying attentive and delighting your customers with high-value content. Now be the person your dog wants you to be when you get home. Ok, wet noses aside, the unconditional love of a dog is the simplest and most uncomplicated love you’ll ever experience. The greeting you get from your dog when you get home at night is often the highlight of the day. It’s simply about being you, being authentic, they want the person that is you, so take that ‘you’ to your customers, and simply be yourself.

Dealing with a prospective customer in the stage of uncertainty masters the art of anticipating this dislocated dance, and proactively chips away at any insecurities by providing helpful, reassuring information at just the right time. If you’re a smart thinking salesperson, you can overcome objections and what you thought were total deal-breakers with creative solutions, and your relationship is strengthened. Next, you move on to an exclusive relationship – commitment, going steady. Which means she’ll wear one of your Burnley FC shirts.

4. Commitment: You’re ready to take the leap At this stage, you’ve become acquainted with the quirks and not-so-flattering sides of one another. All stuffed squirrels are out of the bag and you’re still interested enough that you can gaze into each other’s eyes and say, I only want to do the business with you, honeybee. 

Both the courter and courted are happy they each got what they hoped and dreamed for all along. But before we step into and they lived happily ever after, there’s more work to do to keep the love alive, just as there’s more to do after you’ve made a sale. Just because someone has already written you a cheque doesn’t mean you can forget about them. Likewise, you don’t just stop saying and doing sweet things to your partner because you figure you did that already when you committed to each other.

The commitment stage isn’t just when the sale happens when the lead becomes a customer, it’s more intimate than that. The relationship is mutually beneficial, and both people are relying on one another to help them become the best version of themselves, but now it’s as much about retention, and keeping your partner or customer aroused about being with you.

It’s like how Apple loyalists know the iPhone is pricey, that Siri is useless, and that the new lightning charger is annoyingly incompatible with older Apple devices, but neither flaw is enough to warrant the switch to a Samsung. Loyalists stick around. Apple listens to loyal user feedback because they know that they’re better off working it out with their existing customers rather than only going after new ones.

Life’s too short. You don’t want to put the wrong moves on the wrong person at the wrong time. There are no guarantees in life unless you buy a toaster from Argos and you can take it back. As a salesperson, you’re courting your prospects. It takes some time and research to figure out if commitment is meant to be. If you’re too forward and ask for the sale before the prospect’s ready, you’ll scare love away. Transparency, trust, and good timing are essential if you want any business relationship to evolve from nothing to something meaningful.

For me, in personal and business relationships it’s all about passion, trust, integrity and authenticity. It’s about being thoughtful and having the right mindset. It’s about creating romance, and putting energy into the relationship. It’s never about a one-night-stand or simply a transaction and a price – price is the value of the relationship, it is not the metric to focus on. It’s romance, not just for today, think lifetime value. The aim is to find, win and keep customers, develop a horizon for future, ongoing work, and not simply an immediate invoice. Remember, it’s seduction, not speed dating.

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