The Fuller Brush Man knew what he was doing. In the old days, Fuller's door-to-door salesmen learned a basic rule: After you ring the bell, take a step or two backward. That way, the woman of the house won't feel intimidated opening the door for a stranger.
It wasn't just a tactic, though. It was a strategy — one designed to help the company grow by treating people with respect, in contrast to rival salesmen who were taught to jam a foot in the door.
Imagine the Fuller Brush Man trying to make a living today as a telemarketer or a spammer or any of the high-pressure salespeople who jam their electronic feet in people's doors. He'd last about three minutes. He's not selfish enough, not eager enough to steal the customer's time. It's a shame, but in the battle to make our businesses grow, we've forgotten how to respect the people who pay our bills.
We're making those people — our customers — angry. In our race to make as much money as possible (as fast as possible), we take time and resources and esteem and careers and use them up as fast as we can. We've lost sight of what it means to treat customers with respect. We also disrespect our shareholders, our employees, and our government — but it's all part of the same problem.
And we're running out of time to do something about it. Ironically, the obsolete tactics of the Fuller Brush Man may be exactly what we need.
The amazing thing is that respect doesn't cost anything. Taking two steps back after you ring the bell isn't just free, it's profitable. Instead of spamming the globe, market to people who want to hear from you. It's not just good manners, it's profitable. Everyone wants to be treated with respect — all the time. In fact, when we treat people with respect, they're more likely to do what we want.
Some will tell you that treating people with respect is just an old-fashioned notion. Business ethics may be an oxymoron — is respectful marketing the same? Don't we need to call people at home during dinner or trick them with fine print in order to make a profit?
In fact, I believe that the only way to make a long-term profit is by respecting people. There's growing evidence that the old, shortsighted ways of making a profit are getting less effective. People are fending off marketing assaults with TiVo and Telezappers. More than 12 people a second signed up for the Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call list on its first day. Consumers are voting with their pocketbooks, choosing to visit the retailers that treat them with respect, not avarice.
Some marketers may understand how strip-mining consumer trust is costing them, but most don't want to take two steps back to the good old days. Instead, they're fighting the wrong fights. They're getting ready to sue TiVo, because the device makes it too easy to skip commercials. They're faking the headers on the spam that they send out to get past filters. They're lobbying Congress to stop the Do Not Call list.
But when a business spams, it has made its lack of respect clear. When an airline puts the "gotcha" into the fine print of a full-page ad, it's disrespecting consumers' intelligence. Running a business that can survive only by deception and disrespect is not our right — our right is to realize our dead-end path and pick a better, more respectful business.
I believe that it's all about to come crashing down on slash-and-burn marketers. Consumers (especially the business-to-business buyers) are getting ever smarter, cagier, and more sophisticated. They won't sit quietly as marketers steal their time and attention and money. Ask yourself a simple question: If all of our customers were well-informed, would we do better — or worse? For many companies, the answer is grim. McDonald's was stung when it was caught slipping beef flavoring into its supposedly all-vegetable french fries. And Kmart went bankrupt for committing contempt of consumer — telling its shoppers, "Hey, it's cheap. What do you expect?"
Karl Marx (probably being quoted for the first time ever in Fast Company) asked a simple question. "Who benefits?" It is, I think, the key question. Companies that work to benefit their customers will have no trouble treating the newly picky consumer with respect. It's a natural by-product for marketers who aim to serve. Those who work to trick and coerce their customers, on the other hand, have everything to lose and very little to gain.
Seth Godin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an author based outside New York. Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (Portfolio, 2003) is his latest book.