A few years ago I participated in a special event for online marketing. The organizer, a genuinely caring person, wanted to send participants a gift. She sent a box of caramel candy. I appreciated the gesture, but I had to give away the candy. I just don’t eat caramels.
A new connection on LinkedIn sent a personal message to a new contact, with an invitation to a webinar to “meet your soulmate.” The recipient of this message had just celebrated the 30th anniversary of a blissfully happy marriage.
A business coach decided to send Christmas cards to the many people who’d signed up for his high-priced program. The envelopes were addressed by hand, apparently by his children. Inside, the cards held a standard printed message – not even a handwritten note.
A real estate agent sent her client a scratch-and-sniff reward card as a thank you – after representing that client in sale and purchase of his homes.
Each of these stories demonstrates what’s becoming increasingly common: fake personalization. And each of those marketers wasted time and money with these well-meaning gestures that ultimately led to resentment and ill-will.
Fake personalization works like telling a story everyone’s heard before as if it were your own.
One evening, years ago, I attended a dinner where a professional speaker had been hired. He opened with a funny story. Some people laughed. Some remembered where they’d read this story: in a best-selling book of urban legends.
The speaker believed he could get away with a story – any story for any audience. In my book on business storytelling, I argue for the need to choose a story to fit your purpose and your audience. The same holds even more for gestures that you intend to be viewed as “personal.”
We’ve all been encouraged to personalize our interactions with clients.
In particular, a study attributed to Robert Cialdini mailed a survey with 3 different cover letter set-ups: a printed letter; a printed letter with a handwritten message; and a printed letter with a handwritten message on a Post-It note.
Only 36% responded to the plain printed letter; adding a handwritten note raised the response rate to 48%; adding a post-it hit a home run with a 75% response rate.
Was there some magic in the sticky note? Apparently not: a blank post-it note evoked a 42% response rate, not much higher than the printed letter.
Cialdini suspected the respondents were responding to an apparent effort by the sender. Some effort was required to produce a handwritten note, and an even greater effort was required to add the sticky note.
Trying to get personal in an online environment?
When you’re marketing yourself as a professional service, you might believe you need to promote your personal side. Your clients want to know there’s a person. And when someone’s done something special, you might feel impelled to respond with a personal note to communicate your appreciation of specialness.
The truth is, getting personal can become meaningless on the one hand or intrusive on the other.
If everybody does the same thing, recipients will recognize it’s a ploy to grab attention.
Sometimes I get a personal note from someone I met at a networking event, or a thank you from someone whose services I bought.
I know exactly what they’re doing. For all I know, they’ve hired assistants to imitate their handwriting.
But handwritten sticky notes are 100 times better than those printed cards designed to mimic handwriting. Every year, I get a few holiday cards that obviously came from that company.
No time to write all those cards? Send a personal email to your special colleagues and clients.
Sometimes you’re advised to pick up the phone and call people. If you don’t know them, you might not be perceived as personal and friendly. You might be seen as intrusive. It’s usually better to set up a call via email: “I’ll call you at 2 PM Tuesday, if that’s okay,” and send a reminder.
It’s hard to believe, but some of us remember when a long-distance call cost more than a local call. At one time the cost was so great, people held off making those calls!. Holiday phone calls were a very big deal.
Today it’s easy to pick up the phone or hook up to Skype to call New York New Mexico or New Guinea from most places in the world.
As a result, some people don’t realize they’re talking to another time zone. Calling at 3:30 PM seems reasonable … unless you happen to be in Los Angeles and you’re calling me in Philadelphia. At 6:30 I’m thinking about my dinner or my Zumba class.
Phone calls are always an interruption.
Recently I was trying to record a video and forgot to shut off my phone. Suddenly I heard a familiar musical tone and the rest was history.
To be sure, I’ve had a few wonderful experiences with people who called me out of the blue to set up a joint venture or a client relationship. Those people were courteous, friendly, and purposeful.
Most important, they had done their homework and knew exactly what they wanted.
They introduced themselves immediately and. told me what they wanted. They didn’t begin with, “Hi, is this Cathy? How are you today?” They know that opening sounds like a sales pitch.
Even better, they immediately made reference to my website, articles or podcast. There’s nothing worse than getting invited to a call, only to be greeted with, “Hi, Cathy! Just what do you do, exactly?”
Three ways to avoid driving away your clients with personalization
Keep in mind the recommendation from Cialdini. Personalization means effort. Today’s clients know how automation works. Just substituting a name for “first name” won’t be enough.
(1) A well-written email can seem more personal than anything else.
You’ll show you took the dtime to compose your message. You respect the sender’s time.
(2) Make handwritten cards and notes a really big deal.
Save them for special people.The client who just completed a one-to-one program. The podcast host who created a great interview experience. The joint venture partner whose hard work brought you great rewards.
And write them yourself. Fake handwriting can come across as insulting. And most of us can tell if you put your kids to work on this project. No time? Lousy handwriting? No worries…see #1 on this list.
(3) Give gifts only if you know enough about the person to tailor the gifts specifically to them.
A one-size-fits-all gift is, frankly, a dust collector.
(4) Call with care.
There’s rarely a benefit to those “let’s get together and talk about our businesses” calls.
If you think there’s a good possibility for a joint venture, lay the groundwork. Find out if the other person offers this type of joint venture. See if they have a calendar or a yearly plan where you can fit in.
If you’re looking for a resource to refer your own clients, perhaps with a commission, ask the questions you need to know. You can learn a lot from the other person’s website (or lack of a website). Make sure you’ve explored their site before you initiate a call.
I’ve written another post about how to set up LinkedIn connections.
Bottom Line: “Personal” doesn’t always mean “more productive,” whether you’re telling a story or reaching out to a colleague or client. If you choose to go personal, go all in. You’ll find more receptive clients and build stronger, lasting business relationships.