If “markets are conversations” as The Cluetrain Manifesto asserts, there are an awful lot of intensely important conversations that aren’t even being whispered about in the presence of business. (Have you really listened to what your customers' stories reveal? For innovation's sake, I'd turn Cluetrain on its head: Conversations are Markets. And thus there are plenty of markets being entirely ignored.)
I’m not speaking of the “let’s tiptoe around the elephant in the room” issues that plague all companies in regards to internal issues and debating appropriate strategies. More precisely, I’m talking about the conversations that get to the heart of the matter for your customers. Even if those conversations appear completely (debatable, but I’ll humor you…) irrelevant to the tangible product at hand – they are where the symbol, the brand reside. At the end of the day, no matter what industry you are in or what you are selling, the bottom line is your customer is ultimately…a person.
We are embarrassed by sex. We’d rather not think about death. And if we bring up God (or god or gods), noses will get out of joint. Yet sex, death, and God are the most profound considerations of mankind. How can companies hope to remain relevant if they won’t discuss them? – “Breakthrough Ideas for 2005: A Taboo on Taboo”, from Harvard Business Review, February 2005
It’s impossible to really hear your customer’s burning issues and their stories if they sense that there are taboos - conversations where they’d be judged for even considering the content matter much less expressing their authentic feelings and viewpoints.
Lest you think I live in an alternate touchy-feely universe, most of my friends and astonishingly every single romantic relationship - from that high school beau turned mechanical engineer and on - is an engineer or scientist by training. Unbeknownst to me at the initial meeting – whether at a ski shop or running club, no matter - they’ll later announce themselves to be, surprise, nerds too. (I stumbled onto marketing through the backdoor of product development and management. Yup, I too have a degree in electrical engineering). The most ‘rational’, ‘analytical’ people in your workplace – yes, even the guy whom has a couple of patents in digital encryption or the one that runs the strict quality assurance for the lab or the physicist in the high energy accelerator - yes, even they think and talk about these subjects. A lot.
These are the deepest aspirations of human beings, aspirations for immortality – that is, for an experience beyond time and space, for we are the only beings that are aware that we shall die. Even if we are good scientists, we know we are going to die. The diversions we create for ourselves cannot prevent us from thinking of the fact that sooner or later we shall die. No diversion can prevent us from that truth. – Seyyid Hossein Nasr, “In the Beginning Was Consciousness”, from Harvard Divinity Review
Your blog is the “deepest” one I read, recount two different readers recently. (I have plenty of friends to keep my ego in check, fortunately.) At a lunch meeting the aforementioned QA manager shares, “You haven’t written anything profound in quite a while.” He's the same one who muses that if he had his own business he didn’t see much need for consultants, nor executive coaches – ah, but a spiritual advisor, that’s different. He’s comparing our face-to-face conversations with what I’m writing. Yes, I hold back in public. And the most sublime and intense thoughts would be too much to share.
The truth is we are all holding back more than we can bear. The dam is bursting at the seams – people are yearning to talk and share and hear more about what truly matters. And there’s hardly anyone around willing to listen.
This is not the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time of loaves
People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand. - David Whyte, from Loaves and Fishes
The conversations we most want to have are hushed behind closed doors – or they’re not happening at all. A Croatian woman I met in Italy was convinced that the United States was the hotbed of spiritual discussions. She made that assumptive leap based on the fact that many New Age and spiritual bestsellers come from American authors. For instance, what about the Celestine Prophecy? I said I had no idea where those purportedly millions of readers were – perhaps they're all closet readers. We don’t discuss these matters in polite company. Or that is to say, in business.
We read to know we are not alone. – C.S. Lewis
Companies scramble to find out what “matters” to their customers and what makes them “tick” all the better to sell to them. But business folks are typically entirely left out of any of these vital conversations. And why is that?
If I sense that it’s not ok to talk about any litany of taboos – well then, I’m not going to broach any of those subjects. We’ll only chat about what’s deemed acceptable by you. You will never even know I’m self-censoring myself. None of us go out of our way to be judged and condemned.
After a one-day writers workshop I went out to dinner with a few of the attendees – all complete strangers, as they say. We delved with intensity into the amazingly intricately interwoven topics of sex, death and God. What started out as a breezy comic discussion on writing erotica quickly went to the bone. Two sisters shared their father’s last words: “I’m ready to come to you” and how they’ve grappled with death and God since. Another woman’s voice quivers as she shares the ups and downs as they take one day at a time while she and the husband she clearly loves very much cope with his Parkinson’s disease. Yet another reveals how her own buried grief rose up when a best friend lost his wife.
Buddha chose for his sannysins [his disciples – the monks] the yellow robe. Yellow represents death, the yellow leaf. Yellow represents the setting sun, the evening. Buddha emphasized death, and it helps in a way. People become more and more aware of life in contrast to death… Three months’ meditation on death, then coming back – that was the beginning of sannyas. – Osho, from Buddha: His Life and Teachings
I don’t bring up death now from a sense of overriding grief or morbidity. But death has a particular way bringing a stark focus on life. A friend recently shared that her marriage separation was precipitated after her sister’s unexpected death at the age of 38. “I looked at my life pretty closely after that.” Are we living life with gusto? Are we settling? That’s the appeal of mega-bestsellers like Tuesdays with Morrie and The Purpose-Driven Life. The message: Life is precious. Life may be short. And questions we may have buried rear up again: What on earth am I here for anyway?
These conversations would all seem to be an anomaly. But I can assure you they are not. I’m surrounded by these kinds of conversations all the time. And I’m just a marketer - not a clergy member, not a nurse or a doctor, not a counselor, not a therapist, not a masseuse, not a psychiatrist, not a social worker, not a coach. Simply another human being willing to listen without judgment, with compassion – and that’s enough.