The Conflicted Rhetoric of Marketing and Sales

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We’re bombarded with messages from experts about getting close to customers.

How close? Really close! Lustful words like embrace, love, and passion have migrated from romance novels into business blogs. Marketers freely infuse love as a marketing schtick, with buyers as the intended objects. But when sellers get amorous, I remember the words to Are You With Me Baby? by the LeRoi Brothers: “At least tonight, you know that I’m in love with you.” Explanation, not needed.

Not long ago, buyers and sellers engaged under a more restrained vocabulary. They kept a comfortable distance from one another through “arms-length” transactions. Hugs? No thanks. Passion? No way!



“’Make friends and your friends will make you’ contains a philosophy that if lived, will put many a dollar in your pocket, and greatly increase your own happiness. One must first be a high class human being before he can become a high class salesman or business man,” James Samuel Knox wrote 100 years ago in his book, Salesmanship and Business Efficiency. That was the most lascivious excerpt I could find in the 406 pages of my well-worn edition. How I long for nostalgia!

Today, Jim Knox would be turning in his grave. Executives don’t need moral integrity to succeed, just good software. “Hello, we’re Salesforce. We help make your customers love you,” proclaims the CRM company’s ad that appeared in The Economist. The ad copy underscores the unilateral nature of the company’s love-vision, “When customers love your company, new ones join the flock, leads increase, sales and deals close faster, and your business grows.”

Love and lead flow – there’s a curious juxtaposition! But today’s marketers have little compunction marrying the two. I understand. Both create heart palpitations. What troubles me more is making customers love you. That just seems weird.

“How does your business’ advertising, and for that matter your brand experience, employ these ingredients to draw people into a ‘loving’ relationship with your brand?” Joseph Michelli wrote in a blog, Mystery, Sensuality, and Intimacy: Loving Your Customer and Your Message. That he chose to put loving in quotes says a lot. It suggests that the word has been stretched beyond its intended meaning. If you’re searching for love, you’ll find plenty of it in selling, where it serves as a convenient, overused shorthand for complex ideas requiring more effort to express.

VisionCritical, a software company that helps clients “better engage and understand customers,” offers an e-book, The Four Tenets of Customer Love. Under the banner, “Make the commitment to love your customer,” the book explains, “Empowered customers expect candor and honesty from the companies they deal with. When engaging your customers, be forthcoming about your objectives, give clear directions about the nature of their participation and ensure they understand what you are planning to do with their ideas, comments and suggestions. In short, explain what you want, why you’ve engaged them and how you see them contributing.”

Fine ideas, all of them – once love has been subtracted. The word becomes corrupted and transparently fake in the context of a seller’s most visceral, basic intentions: closing a deal, making a revenue goal, hitting a profit target, or grabbing a market share.

Listen to a title or two on the flip side of the love-your-customer ballads:

• “If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense”
• “Crush your quota”
• “Accelerate your sales”
• “Increase your closing rates”



Selling’s conflicted rhetoric: Slow dance to Love Your Customer, but stoke your sales libido by listening to these other popular, fast-paced hits.

“At least tonight, you know that I’m in love with you.” Refreshing honesty, great candor. But who wants buy from a marketer who has a similar goal? One who says, “At least for the duration of what we expect will be a profitable business relationship, you know that we’re in love with you.”

23 COMMENTS

  1. Andrew, what a thoughtful and thought-provoking article about intimacy and speed to relationship. Long ago I was affected by Jame Autry’s unapologetic look at parallel goals of Love and Profit in his book of the same name. I also have enjoyed the academician and scholar, Peter Senge’s, definition of business love – genuine concern for the growth and development of those one serves. Finally, I hope Graham Robertson ways in on this discussion, his company is Beloved Brands and he has a compelling model of customer relationship development. He, like you, is a truly brilliant thinker. Thanks for mentioning my article in your work. With deepest respect albeit not necessarily “love.”

  2. Joseph – thank you for your comment and for taking the time to read my blog. My impetus in writing this was in recognizing that another important word – in this case, ‘love’ – had become corrupted and devalued. Victimized by marketing exploitation, it joins other words I mentioned here, plus words such as ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, and ‘optimized’ – all of them, overused to the point of meaninglessness.

    The basic meaning of love – ‘an intense feeling of deep affection’ – simply doesn’t belong in a business context, at least not in a normal one. I’ve participated in too many marketing and sales meetings to believe otherwise. In an internal operations meeting, who would be bold enough to insist on retaining a mercurial customer who was unable to pay, causing a vendor financial hardship. “We LOVE our customers, warts and all!” Yeah, right. Not with those warts!

    Thanks for your references to these other writers who have tackled this same challenge, and to Peter Senge, who notably developed a hybrid, business definition for ‘love’ – I’m assuming because people would find its use less absurd. I’m all for coining a new word, ‘blove’ so that we can readily distinguish the meaning that complies with his intent.

    True – in personal relationships, there are strings attached to love, but in business, I’ve never found relationship strings to be anything but very, very short (i.e. as long as the checks clear). Only a fool would call that ‘love.’

    I call that ‘like.’

  3. Andy, I agree with you that ‘love’ is overused in a marketing/sales context.

    But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. What other word would you suggest to mean ‘an intense feeling of deep affection’ ?

    Words mean different things in different contexts. I love my wife, but not the same way I love my mother or my son or close friends. Or my cat.

    When I say I love my customers — and I do say that — it means something different. But it’s still love.

    Check out the full definition of love at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/love and you’ll find there is plenty of room for usage in a business-customer context:
    “affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests”
    “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another”
    “the object of attachment, devotion, or admiration”

    So, I say it’s possible for a business person to love his/her customers, and for customers to share that love right back. Just ask iPhone customers what they think about Apple.

    My issue with how business people talk about loving their customers is different. In many cases, what they really love is their customers money, which is not the same thing. It’s easy to ‘love’ a big customer. Top customer-centric brands have a culture of truly caring about their customers success, and spread that love to all (with the notable exception of customers that abuse their employees.)

    Yes, marketers abuse the term ‘love’. And yes, sales people ‘love’ their customers (or at least their customers’ order). I can live that, because the context makes it clear — to me at least — that they don’t mean it in a personal way.

    For me, ‘like’ just doesn’t cut it.

  4. What’s love got to do with it? In Jeanne Bliss’ great book, “I Love You More Than My Dog”, she makes the strong, and highly supportable, case for shared belief.between vendor and customer that is more than just a passive transactional relationship. As she states in the description of the first chapter of her book, “When customers love you, they won’t be able to stop talking about you. But you need to earn the right to their story first.”

    As Bob notes, love speaks to something considerably more intimate and personal than ‘like’. On the vendor side, in addition to just providing tangible and functional elements of value, love means being there, and having respect, for the customer. It means being honest, being seen as having integrity, apologizing when a mistake is made (unlike Erich Segal’s famous line in ‘Love Story’), and proactively communicating with the customer, At the core of the connection is an emotional relationship which creates positive memories, built on mutual trust.

  5. Well written article Andrew. I used to believe that sellers applying terms such as ‘love’ in business communications are at best marketing puffery and aspirational. However, the power of messaging that resonates should not be under-estimated. Consider customers who claim to ‘love’ products from companies like Apple or Harley Davidson. Do they really love these products like they love their spouses? Probably not. I hope not. But their repeating the vendor messaging shows a powerful connection.

  6. This is an interesting point! Thanks for making it, Andrew.

    Love doesn’t strike me as a curse word in sales and marketing. To me, it implies a building relationship between the customer and business–a committed back-and-forth, rather than a quid pro quo.

    Perhaps it’s the superlative and free nature of language and usage that’s your enemy. Or maybe the fact that mediocre sales and marketing efforts are void of imagination and rife with lazy copywriters.

    As a communicator, I’m not averse to any word if it gets me closer to my point. So there’s a measure of consciousness in my word choice. To me, love is an interesting and expansive concept. It offers many shades and interpretations.

    I love my wife. I love my car. I love how the world turns green right before a thunderstorm. Each usage puts you firmly in a space, but they’re decidedly different spaces. But the shades of each space are interesting and compelling.

    How do I love thee? I love thee very much, thank you. [Bad Poetry]
    How do I love thee? Let me count the ways… [Good poem]

  7. Great discussion. I agree with Bob, the word “love” has many meanings depending on the context and the relationship. Perhaps we need a new word. Without it we cling to the one that best characterizes that strong, heart pounding, delightful emotion we feel about our customer or client and hope he or she feels about us. We clearly use the label on a lot of other things in our lives from phones, to music to athletic teams. When I think of perfectly prepared Mexican food with lots of jalapeños and shot of chilled Don Julio 1942 tequila on the side, somehow “really like” just totally misses the mark. And my affinity for such culinary delights is certainly not “just for tonight!’

    LIke you, I find the label offensive when used as a cheap marketing ploy or a superficial moniker. But, what better context for the use of this special label than the emotional connection between a service provider and a customer. Great tequila cannot love me back like my financial advisor who toils late into the night with no remuneration in mind, only his devotion to the health of our long-term relationship. Or, my dry cleaner who bought my breakfast when we happened to be in the same diner…solely because he cares about my welfare, not just my wallet! So, despite my concerns for the misuse or overuse of this popular word, until a better one comes along, I plan to continue to use it for the highest level of affection.

  8. I totally hear you on the abuse of language in marketing. George’s comment about loving his car reminded me of my mother’s frequent correction when I was a kid and said I hated a bully or loved a particular food. In her mind, love and hate were reserved for intense emotional relationships. (Which, I would argue, I had with the bullies!)

    That said, love in the business context implies a depth of mutual concern and openness. It is certainly abused as a term in marketing jargon, but the point it is trying to make when companies are told to “love” their customers is that they should go beyond just wanting to offer a good service or product, instead trying to create an emotional connection with the customer.

    I think, though, that there’s also a difference between being a fan of, say, Apple products, and loving them. (Though a lot of people do take their iPhones to bed, so maybe…!)

  9. I love this article. There you go, I used the word “love.” While marketing/sales campaigns are using the word “love” – or perhaps I should say that some over use it – I think that it’s good. It is a word of passion. It resonates with a certain audience, and if that audience is your audience, use the word.

    Now, here is what I think is most important about the word “love.” If you use it, you better mean it. That means you care about the customer more than you care about the sale. I’ve been taught that (assuming you have a good product) if you care about the customer first and foremost, the money will follow. Don’t chase the dollar. Chase the customer. Prove that you care – and love – them!

  10. HI Team,

    When a customer “loves” a business, what does that really mean, how can they love a business? Isn’t it nothing more than their needs/wants/desires are satisfied, even if it is to the fullest extent and a little more?

    If a customer loves a business wouldn’t they be more forgiving when something goes wrong and their service is less than expected before stopping by Facebook, TripAdvisor or Yelp to complain? I hope so.

    In a “loving relationship” people don’t gravitate toward social media to broadcast the failures of the one they love. But a customer will.

    On the same thought, how can a business “love” their customers? Should we be as less forgiving as our lovely customers can be?

    Food for thought…

  11. Great topic. “Love” the discussion. Love might have a role in B2C, but I’m not persuaded that love has any proper place in B2B selling. I’d much rather be a giver and a receiver of Trust, Respect, Enthusiasm and Advocacy.

  12. Hi Andy,

    I love your article! I don’t love you and don’t expect I ever will.

    There isn’t anything wrong with using the word “love”, as long as we use it correctly. As in:

    I love what he brings to the table
    I love his creative thinking
    I love how responsive he is
    I love how attentive she is
    I love how dependable she is
    I love how their product works
    I love the questions she asks
    I love how helpful his team is
    I love how she handles herself
    I love how respectful he is
    I love how much he took the time to get to know us.

    I don’t believe there is anything wrong with using love in those contexts. However, when anyone begins to use love without those qualifiers, they are talking about something else altogether and that something else does not belong in either sales or marketing unless you are selling a dating site.

  13. Hi Andrew, as everyone has mentioned, thanks for writing a great article that has attracted much deserved attention. Too many companies treat the customer experience as one transaction at a time, without regard to the entire relationship. To me, the customer experience needs to be configured as a romance and not just a date. My father taught me when I was in my early teens that customers are people first, customer second. Everyone might not want to have a relationship with an associate or a company, but for sure they do appreciate when the associates listen to not only what they are saying, but how they feel. And that can’t be accomplished by a robotic, non human experience. From marketing to sales to the customer experience, people want to deal with companies who can fulfill their hope. Hope is actually a stronger emotion than even love. Great stuff! Richard

  14. Hi Andrew,

    Like many things, the meaning lies within each individual’s interpretation. Does it convey passion for whatever it is you’re communicating? It can. But, is it appropriate? It depends. If you think it’s OK, then it’s OK. If not. It’s not.

    As evidenced in everyone’s replies, love has many meanings. As a former “ad guy”, I think it’s overused in business which dilutes its purest meaning and value. It just becomes another word, one which has become superficial in usage. As in the love one has for their refrigerator. Or coffee maker.

    All I know is my goal in business has always been to serve clients well. To meet their needs, to provide value. And hopefully, in the process, have them think well enough of me to want to build a relationship.

    Do they like me or love me? See my first sentence.

    Thanks for raising the subject Andrew.

    Bob

  15. Hi Andrew

    I do not love your article. That would be inappropriate and ought to lead me to having an appointment with a clinical psychiatrist. But I do like it a lot.

    I vehemently disagree with those who have responded to your post with the suggestion that the word ‘love’ has many meanings, including, mere liking. We all know what love is. And the uncomfortable, tingly feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you see the person of your affections. We should reserve the word for just that feeling. To suggest that we should expect, or even want our customers to love our companies is frankly ridiculous. (And to all intents and purposes unachievable).

    Although the English language is a malleable one, (particularly if you are a speaker of American English), it serves absolutely no purpose to give words inappropriate meanings, particularly where there are perfectly good words available with those exact meanings. Just think how ridiculous Henry Reed’s poem, ‘Naming of Parts’, would have been if every part of the gun he so lucidly describes had a multitude of interchangeable meanings.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  16. Based on all the great comments, this topic has obviously touched a nerve.

    Since folks appear to be riffing on music, my thought is that this is all about RESPECT, as in Aretha’s song.

    Respect and commitment to doing things which satisfy the needs of customers and hence deliver on the brand promise are the right and scalable goals for businesses.
    Do these things and you will succeed.

    People who “love everybody” use the lowest common denominator of “love” and are either hookers or hucksters!

  17. All: thanks for your comments, and for creating a spirited discussion. I have learned much from reading your perspectives. Plenty to cogitate on for a follow-on article just in time for Valentine’s Day!

    One central issue Shep pointed out about the word love – and as others have stated similarly – “If you use it, you better mean it.” If people put that recommendation into practice, nearly every ‘love’ reference in business would vanish. Many love advocates would be forced to backpedal, and to caveat their claims: “What we really mean is . . .” That would not only be healthy, but a huge relief for customers. It would encourage greater transparency, and not let companies off the hook for hijacking other subsumed feelings: rapport, trust, and kindness.

    Whatever one’s interpretation of ‘love’ might be (and I accept that there’s wide latitude), love toward a person or customer cannot be claimed without disclosing intent, and demonstrating benign purposes. And that’s what’s lacking in business. It’s drop-dead simple to trumpet customer love without expressing intent. As Bob mentioned, is it customers that are loved, or their money?

  18. Graham, thanks for weighing in on the proper usage of the English language. Apparently this is a huge problem with this community, since the word “love” is mentioned 10,623 times in the 48,000 posts published. I found “love” another 750 times in 16,000 comments.

    Here are a few examples that I really love… oops, sorry:

    “Everyone loves a disaster story with a dumb company that gets its come-uppance.”

    “A lot of businesses use analytical marketing as a key marketing tool. It is scientifically based, it is relatively easy to do and it delivers measurable results. CMOs love it and CFOs love it too.”

    “Businesses and their captive ad agencies seem reluctant to recognise that we are social animals and that we will talk to others about the products we love, and particularly, about the products we love to hate.”

    “I remember being told by a PwC Consulting colleague who had been a stewardess in a previous life, that most airlines just couldn’t find enough customer service naturals to be aircrew. People who just loved helping passeners and one another.”

    “The Clever Coder isn’t actually interested in business at all. He is interested in computation, particularly in Java programming. He even has his own mini-computer at home in the basement, salvaged when a friend’s business was closed. That way he can keep contact with his first real love, Fortran 77.”

    This is one of my favorites:

    “The key to success is always starting with a detailed understanding of what customers value, developing the right value creating capabilities (combinations of processes, systems, people, work routines, culture, performance measures, and other assets and resources), selecting the right business partners and implementing it all so that the most value is created. It is from these humble beginnings that great customer experiences evolve. And ultimately, much loved service brands like Southwest Airlines develop.”

    You might recognize these quotes, because they are your words. Or do you really think some programmers have an “uncomfortable, tingly feeling” with Fortran?

    Interested readers can find these misguided lovers via https://www.google.com/#q=site:customerthink.com+love.

  19. Hi Bob

    I am very happy for your to have pointed out the error of my ways and my sloppy use of English. I will amend them immediately.

    I will continue to reserve my love for my family and a different kind for my dogs, but I will have no truck with love of any kind for any company or its products. It would be a pale and unworthy imitation of the real thing.

    Graham Hill
    @grahamhill

  20. Andrew – I really enjoyed this!

    Right or wrong, it’s a great plea for us to step back and think about the relationship we want with our customers – and that our customers want with us.

    I vividly recall a conversation several years ago with a long-time client, who was gently scolding me for referring to him as a ‘friend.’ “We aren’t friends,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’ve never invited you to my cottage for the weekend.”

    The truth is though, after a decade of having worked closely together, that is exactly how I thought about him – and most of our long-term clients. But he defined friendship very differently. I suspect if I had used the word love he would have passed coffee through his nose.

    As much as I am passionate about building close relationships with clients, and as much as I agree with Bob’s take that the definition of “love” certainly could fit, I’m not sure it is terminology I would ever use.

    Thanks again!

  21. All of this feedback was great! When I reflect back on the many relationships I have had with customers, I don’t recall me ever telling a external customer that I “love” them. If I would ever refer to “love” in the context of customers, it would involve me talking to internal customers about my relationship with “my” customers, or with other colleagues. I think that I knew that using “love” when speaking to my customers would cross a line I was not prepared to cross. Having said that, I have used the word “love” to and with my internal customers…even my some of my direct reports. You know what? I meant it when using it in that context. I truly enjoyed reading through the comments. In the end, I believe that if we keep our customers’ wants and needs close to our hearts, and they know it, they are much more likely to forget our mistakes and see us as more than a vendor who wants a sale. Thanks all!

  22. Lots of rhetoric here. Lots of confusion over one simple word.

    That’s because the word has so many different meanings. I love everyone and everything. That is NOT sales copy, it’s a universal love I have and want to express to all.

    The “overuse” you speak of is marketing people using it as copy. That’s not love. That’s copywriting. If you can’t be authentic, the words really loose any positive meaning.

    I love the prospects and clients I sell. I’m not selling them out of spite, or trying to win by having them lose. I reject zero sum in business and life. There’s always room for me to add love.

    Love is the answer. It’s the power that runs the universe. My internal tests show that authentic love for mankind is good for sales. Best of all, I don’t need a blog post’s validation to know it 🙂

    I love that you brought it up though. “All you need is love” -Lennon/McCarthy

  23. Thanks to all for the conversation, and to Heather and Warren who just joined. The ‘conflicted part of the article’s title was my initial inspiration in writing. I observed a stark difference between how marketers want customers to perceive them (loving, benevolent, kind, adoring), and the utterly self-serving thoughts they propagate to their marketing and sales employees. It’s one thing to overuse a word, and quite another to be solidly fake when sending messages to customers. Especially with a word as important as love.

    I’m all for honesty in advertising, but I think it would be unfortunate if the FTC stepped in to regulate love’s use in commercial communication. Perhaps that’s why marketers feel immunity, and give themselves license to say love anywhere, and everywhere. Were they to be as casual about using guaranteed in sales content, they could be held to an actual standard.

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