For the last several years, there has been a lot of thought leadership around authenticity in sales. Many self-proclaimed “gurus” of sales development and cold e-mailing have railed on and on about the importance of personalization. To be sure, it is important to personalize your outbound communications to every prospect to show them that you actually took the time and effort to learn about them and their potential challenges. Obviously, most people will not be likely to respond if they feel they are receiving an automated marketing message.
In the same course of thought leadership, you hear a lot of the same tips over and over again. “Use catchy subject lines” or “have a call to action at the end” are a couple generic examples of the same repeatable advice you will find out there. All the while, as I predicted in my book “Authentic Selling: How to Use the Principles of Sales in Everyday Life,” artificial intelligence and machine learning have infiltrated the sales world in a way where the aforementioned advice becomes table stakes.
Why do I say that? Well, when you consider the fact that there are technologies out there like Lavender.ai that helps score your emails; tools like Humantic.ai that help you understand the persona of the buyer; and tools like Regie.ai that actually just write personalized emails for you – you start to understand that buyers are getting more and more high-touch, personalized messages every single day. And that trend will only continue as the proliferation of these types of tools continues. This means that personalizing an email and following the tips that used to make people successful are no longer the types of things that help you to stand out from the crowd today.
I have to admit that I have been a bit disappointed as I have watched this all unfold. Maybe it’s just the jealous part of me seeing other people getting the limelight and getting opportunities to teach proficiency in this subject matter to the broader community while I elect to focus instead on my full-time job. Or maybe it’s just that I’m passionate about writing (I majored in English and Creative Writing and lots of people made fun of me for it) and I just want to help others actually see success and not get taken advantage of.
If there is one thing throughout my sales career I have succeeded at, it is lead generation. I’ve been really good in every job I have ever had in doing effective cold outreach and filling the top of my funnel. Most of my career has been focused on enterprise selling, which means that I am generally contacting CEOs and other senior leadership in Fortune 500 companies. In other words, these are the hardest people to get to, and I routinely get to them. How is that?
Throughout my career, I have taken an approach to cold e-mail that hinges not just on personalization, but even more so on shared values. Let me explain what I mean by shared values.
First, let’s start by acknowledging basic biology. Human beings have a preservationist instinct. This means we want to protect ourselves at all costs. This is where our “fight or flight” reflex comes from. But our self-preservationism is also what helps guide our thinking about who we surround ourselves with. The reason we generally stay close to our own families, for example, is that we are hard-wired to care more about them. Whoever made us wanted our families to try to stick together for survival.
But we also extend this privilege to people who share our values. Think about any very good friendship or relationship you have ever had. You might not have had everything in common with the other person, but you probably at least shared the same values (or interests, at a bare minimum). This is where affinity groups are born, for example.
Throughout human history, we have unfortunately done terrible things to one another because of our biological desire to associate with those who share our values. We have waged wars over differences in religion, governing philosophies, land, or even along the lines of race. It’s not good that we have done these things. I’m just stating the truth that it’s happened, and in large part because this instinct we have is stronger than our common sense much of the time.
This tribalism extends to everyday life. Think, for example, about how passionate some sports fans are. Heck, I’m a passionate Boston sports fans, and I hate Philadelphia and New York sports fans. This is a good example of tribalism being stronger than common sense. Is there anything truly different about the average person from New York, Philadelphia, or Boston? Probably not. But we align with teams based solely on where we were born (much of the time) and start to tell ourselves stories about why people from other places are not as good as us. We relish in our victories and sob over our defeats. Simply based on an accident of birth.
I graduated from Princeton University, so when fellow Princeton alumni contact me to ask for something, I always respond. In some ways, that is in part because I often contact alumni myself to ask for help and I want to pay it forward. But in either case, why should I help someone simply because they went to Princeton, or why should someone help me based on the same fact? Are these people better or more worthy than anyone else who might contact me to ask for something? Of course not. But in my mind, I’ve told myself that these people have some sort of shared experience with me and that I should therefore spend some time with them.
I share all these examples to hammer home the point that shared values matter. There are plenty of people who personalize messages to me but who do not share my values and I ignore those people. I would guess that every single day, someone contacts me on LinkedIn and mentions my book or my online course or my coaching but clearly cannot identify anything about my philosophy, nor can they tie it back to anything about them and why it matters to them. These messages are usually spammy despite the “personalization.”
If you want to succeed in selling anything, you need to understand what values you share with your prospective buyer. Period. There is a saying that people do business with people they trust (and not necessarily people they like). Well guess what? You trust people who share your values. It’s biology.
When I do outreach to a potential client, my first goal is to help them see how we are very much aligned in the way we think. A recent example would be when I contacted a leader in a top 10 bank who was mentioned in a recent article for being a top woman in banking. This is a meaningful subject matter to me as my fiancee is also a strong woman in the world of banking, which is a male-dominated industry, and she often deals with certain repercussions of being one of the few women in her firm. My mother was the first woman in her law firm, and I can remember sometimes going to her office with her and remarking that the only other women were secretaries. And then there is my grandmother, who is probably the strongest voice in my entire family and the bedrock of our family. All this to say, I genuinely appreciated what this potential prospect had to say about her career in this article.
The mistake most people would make here is just to congratulate the person on the article. That’s all well and good and quite nice and sure, it still may result in success. But what is missing is about how it aligns her with you. That is where my personal story comes in. I shared my personal story with this person and explained to her through that context why her story was so interesting to me. This showed her that we shared a specific value about uplifting female voices in male-dominated industries, and my experience working in programs for under-represented individuals looking to break into tech was a pretty strong example to show that I walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
Anyway, the individual was thrilled to get the message and it led to conversations that could end up being pretty meaningful for me and my company. But the most important thing about all of this is that I meant what I said. I didn’t make anything up and try to be gimmicky. And sometimes there are just going to be cases where you don’t share the values of your buyer. Whatever you do in that scenario, don’t be a liar.
One of the examples of this that I mentioned in my book was a story about how I once booked a meeting with American Airlines. I have had a cat for ten years, and about a decade ago when I first got her, I created a Twitter account for her (as a joke, obviously, I’m not that crazy). My cat, Zoe, would “tweet” with American Airlines about whether they had Fancy Feast on their planes because she wanted to travel with me. The tweets went viral because American Airlines enjoyed interacting with “Zoe” on Twitter. It even caught the attention of Fancy Feast, who sent us a bunch of free cat food.
Anyway, a couple years later, I sent an executive at American an email with the subject line “American Airlines tweets with my cat.” The e-mail was about my personal experience with their brand. At the time, I was selling a customer experience product, so the message was all about how much I learned firsthand how much they value customer experience through my own personal experience with their brand in which they really went above and beyond to show how much they valued me as a customer. The shared value here was around customer experience.
So many people feel like this type of storytelling is inappropriate or unprofessional. I think the exact opposite. I think it’s inappropriate and unprofessional to send people shitty emails all day. If from the moment you wake up to the moment you arrive at your desk to work every day you are “putting on a different hat” in terms of how you talk to people, you are fundamentally not doing your job authentically and you are lying to your customers with every word you say. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. If you have to adopt a different persona with the people you talk to everyday, you may want to re-think whether or not your career is truly fulfilling.
I take great pleasure in connecting with people on a personal level, even if the stories I tell are unique or out-of-the-ordinary. Are there people now and then who don’t like it or think that it’s weird? Yes, but it’s like one in every ten thousand messages or something ridiculous. I would venture to say that most of these people are not very receptive to much of anything anyway, because if someone going out of their way to put a smile on their face makes them angry, they must be awfully unpleasant customers for anyone to have.
I’ve documented many more examples of how to adopt shared values effectively in my online course at https://www.kirchickcollege.com/. Feel free to learn more there or drop me a line any time and I am happy to collaborate on other effective ways to break down barriers.