A friend of mine, recently widowed, finally opened up to the possibility of another relationship. Co-workers, friends, and even her own children tried matchmaking, with mixed results.

She looked forward to meeting a man she had connected with online who seemed like the perfect package—”retired medical professional with vacation home who likes to travel.” But when he called, he talked for two straight hours about himself, never once inquiring about her interests, likes, or dislikes. At the end of the conversation, he told her he needed a couple of weeks to take care of some business and would call her for lunch when he was free.

“OK,” she responded, not nearly as excited as before the call. He said goodbye, and that was that.

Two hours of “conversation” and he still didn’t know a thing about her that he hadn’t known before. Was he a “loser,” a “bad egg,” a hopelessly self-centered person? Maybe he just lacked a perspective essential to marketing.

I routinely serve on committees where complex issues are reduced to simplistic equations with limited variables, and actual people are replaced by files, statistics, and graphs. They are faceless, and their real voices are not heard. That process doesn’t just happen in committees. It’s human nature to “solve problems” that way. It spills over into teaching, preaching, parenting, governing, healthcare-giving, and, of course, marketing.

At some point, we come to view people and all their complexities as objectives, issues, problems, and agenda items.

We’re anxious to present our ideas, products, and services as solutions to those “problems.” We can talk for two solid hours and more about what we have to offer, and we’re sure all the polite nodding and “mhmm’s” indicate interest, need, and a perfect fit. We convert them into targets (as in target markets). We do expensive marketing research and implement customer relationship management programs to break down barriers of sand while at the same time building walls of concrete between us and members of our target markets through stunted, impersonal interactions. After all, they are they, and we are we. It’s our prerogative to speak; it’s their privilege to listen.

What’s wrong with that? Just about everything if your goal is to create, capture, deliver, or communicate value, which translates to the four P’s of the marketing mix (product, price, place, and promotion). We forget the most important P—people.

My mom taught me the most about treating people as people.
My mom taught me the most about treating people as people.

Marketing isn’t really about products and services.

It’s not even about providing benefits and solving problems. (Did automobiles, calculators, blow dryers, and smartphones really solve any significant issues in the civilized world?) Marketing is about living, breathing humans and their dynamic perceptions. The market isn’t out there somewhere. It’s in here–in our minds and in the minds of those we serve and with whom we interact and do business. As nicely as the communication model breaks down into sender, encoder, channel, decoder, receiver, noise, and feedback, the actual process of communication is organic—just like the people who communicate.

If you want to effectively understand and reach a target market, start by assessing your own perceptions of people in general. How do you view them? As opportunities—when they represent a potential job offer? As interruptions—when they drop by to talk while you’re in the middle of a project? As problems—when they act illogically or hold alternate views?

My best advice to anyone who has valuable ideas, products, or services to share is this:

Treat people as people and not as hurdles to be cleared or arguments to be refuted.

That includes anyone and everyone—authority figures, peers, co-workers, employees, customers, teachers, students, spouses, and even that teenage boy next door who skateboards in your driveway and refuses to look you in the eye. How we view others shapes how we treat them, and how we treat them shapes how they perceive us and all that wonderful value we claim to offer. They aren’t accurately represented by survey responses and social trends or even by just one two-sided conversation. They are individuals with individual needs, wants, and perspectives, and they’re anxious to communicate and to be heard.

That “retired medical professional with vacation home who likes to travel” may not get a second chance with my widowed friend, but I’d like to think he could change his ways by changing his perspective.

He might not get that opportunity this time around, but there’s almost always a next time.

Epilogue:  He got his second chance. Apparently sensing his misstep, he called her back the very same day and gave it a better shot.