Go from Buyers to Customers, Embrace Your Feminine Side

John Hagel's conversation at TEDxBayArea [12:59] uses examples to illustrate how male archetypes need to be replaced by female archetypes to go from diminishing to increasing returns. Here are some highlights of the talk.

We'll then open a dialogue about why they matter to transform buyers (one transaction) into customers (relationship).

The premise

While we can all agree that technology has improved many things in our lives, making access to information easier, Hagel shares his thoughts on the challenges, or its dark side. The broader proposition is that technology intensifies competitive pressure on all of us and it will continue to intensify pressure for the foreseeable future.

One of the pieces of evidence Deloitte's Center for the Edge looked at was a basic question — how are companies doing? They looked at all public companies over a reasonably long period of time — since 1965 — at the return on assets (ROA), which has declined steadily by 75%.

There is no sign of it leveling off or turning around. Businesses are running faster and faster and falling further and further behind. In moments of intense economic pressure, bias tends to intensify. There is evidence of this everywhere — in the news and inside public and private organizations.

Jumping to conclusions

The image that emerges among male executives in a time of increased economic pressure is that of war — this is a zero-sum game, if we win, somebody else needs to lose. Does it sound familiar? "We'll rip their kidneys out" is what I heard being uttered by a CEO. It means we can't afford to lose.

When thinking about a zero-sum game, it shows up, as what Hagel defines, for lack of a better word, as the male archetype:

  • putting emotions to the side, we're in war
  • projecting strength at all times, you cannot show vulnerability
  • being deeply analytical and pulling things apart/analyzing them in great detail
  • and, based on that analysis, moving aggressively and ruthlessly into the marketplace to win

In that kind of mindset, the natural conclusion becomes "what we need is a few good men" and if women want to succeed, they need to adopt this masculine archetype. Hagel maintains that is exactly the wrong kind of conclusion to draw from the pressure we're in.

Understanding the question

Is fundamental if you want to move from challenge to opportunity. The right question to ask is why has this pressure been intensifying? Something more fundamental has occurred. During the time frame in which the change has happened, there has been a long term, big shift in that competition.

We have moved from a world where to succeed you developed proprietary knowledge stocks, aggressively protected that stock, and mined it to extract value from it. Organizations did that, got big, and generated enormous amount of wealth.

The problem is a world of increasingly more rapid change, the knowledge stocks you have today are depreciating at an accelerating rate. The only way you succeed in this kind of world is to move to a focus on knowledge flows.

The key is trust-based relationships

Participating into new flows of knowledge, more numerous and richer flows of knowledge. The paradox is at times when we have more and more information, what has more value is tacit knowledge. This is knowledge people have in their heads.

You just had an experience, you're not quite sure yet of what it means, and haven't categorized it into neat buckets of information. The challenge is tacit knowledge doesn't flow very easily. In fact, it is sticky, we have a very hard time expressing it even to ourselves.

It's very hard to engage in the effort, and the potential embarrassment of trying to articulate that tacit knowledge to somebody else. And we're only going to do that if we're in a trust-based relationship. If there is deep trust between two people, or a group of people, you will start to see tacit knowledge being shared.

In the absence of that trust, you will not get access to that tacit knowledge. The challenge then is having lots and lots of trust-based relationships that provide you access to that tacit knowledge and scale.

Zero-sum games will get you nowhere fast

Going back to the notion of a masculine archetype that thinks in terms of zero-sum games — we are at war. Hagel suggests this is not the kind of archetype that will gain access to those knowledge flows. In fact, it will deeply undermine those knowledge flows.

He suggests, what we need is what we call, for the sake of convenience, feminine archetypes. They start with the notion that the world is about relationships, not transactions. Masculine archetypes are about transactions, you know "buy low, sell high, squeeze as much as you can, move on".

In this new world, it's about relationships, not transactions. it's about the notion of these relationships being long term, sustainable relationships. Where the kind of communication that takes place is not about data charts, it's about stories, images, visual kinds of communication.

People come together to tell stories, and learn from those stories. Those feminine archetype qualities then are:

  • showing emotions
  • expressing vulnerability in relationships, or you won't build trust
  • communicating on the basis of stories and visuals
  • and developing long-term, sustained relationships

We're on the cusp of the opportunity to move from a diminishing return performance curve to one where by changing archetypes, practices, institutions, the more people participate, the faster everyone learns, the more rapidly the curve improves. The future belongs to the feminine archetype.

Those of us who adopt the feminine archetype will be those who will create enormous wealth and enjoy success.

Creating customers from buyers

I suggest therefore that in order to move from transactions or buyers to relationships or customers, you need to adopt the feminine archetype. Relationships form the basis for people to become customers — whether they are

  • loyal customers who spend more with you, or buy more than one time, or
  • social customers, who may not buy as much or at all, yet will recommend you, not once, many times, to their circle of friends because they believe in what you offer

Social networks and interactions are not the mechanism to squeeze more than you can out of people through transactions. They are opportunities to create an environment where relationships of trust start to occur and tacit knowledge is shared. Which in turn makes a customer out of a buyer.

(we'll get into idea-sharing sites, co-creation, and innovation another time)

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0 responses to “Go from Buyers to Customers, Embrace Your Feminine Side”

  1. Thanks, Valeria. These are good points with an insightful perspective. However, I think emphasizing gender roles as a way of turning buyers into customers may further divide people and create more sexism in the workplace. The point of the matter is that businesses just need to focus on building relationships instead of counting transactions, regardless of if we’re men or women.

  2. Courtney,
    A valid observation if I or John Hagel had talked about roles. The conversation is about archetypes, or characteristics, not roles.
    Which means, learning to see broadly, being empathetic and collaborative, etc.

  3. If we are to change organizations culturally, from within, so as to interact more with customers rather than buyers… then it’s worthwhile to address the very real problem of that masculine archetype taking advantage of “weak” feminine archetypes. I have personally experienced this — from women as well as men — and although I have also experienced the feminine archetype prevailing, it was a long and rather scary haul. So, any discussion of these points should help organizations prepare for the long term, riding out and responding to problems arising from competitors who still “think masculine.”

  4. I like to think of this notion of the female archetype as ‘co-opitition’, the combination of co-operation and competition. Even though companies may ultimately be competing for market share, customers etc. through collaboration they’re more likely to grow and gain trust from all stakeholders.
    From what I’ve seen, building relationships and working together leads to more success than “ripping kidneys” has ever done. I can only hope that businesses will realize this and adapt the feminine archetype.
    Great post, very insightful.

  5. “Businesses just need to focus on building relationships instead of counting transactions” + nurture diversity (incl. balancing male and female leadership) = a winning formula.

  6. Valeria, regardless of what word you use to describe it-archetype, characteristic, etc.-my point is that this male/female approach to marketing may be encouraging genderism. Building relationships versus having buyers for one’s business does not need to be attributed to masculine or feminine characteristics.

  7. @Christa — in fewer words, as long as organizations reward the scarcity mindset, they will not see abundance.
    @Lisa — indeed many organizations don’t see that is what they are promoting and spiral into a lose/lose situation.
    @Anna — differing opinions and points of view help teams uncover innovative opportunities, which narrow mindsets miss.
    @Courtney — we are talking about attitudes of collaboration, mindsets of abundance. Your comments signal a very literal interpretation of the material and discussion at hand.

  8. Do you think the success of social media in business comes from exactly this concept, that business have realized this “female archetype” is the only good way to push forward after the previous “male archetype” bubble burst?

  9. I understand that Valeria — my point was more that, organizations that choose to reward abundance will still (at least in the short term) face external threats from those that reward scarcity. It would take a very strong and secure organization (and leadership) not to abandon the move toward abundance when competitors are trying to take advantage of it.

  10. @Gabriele — I do think success comes from turning things on their head. With social, this means less talk, more walk of the collaborative kind; making the pie bigger, instead of fighting over the crumbs.
    @Christa — it is exactly the fear to do differently that is keeping everyone into a headlock, blindfolded and deaf, while customers are quietly going elsewhere. Engaging people inside and outside is more about inspiring them to join in that beating them over the head. If leaders cannot cut it, they should not hold the top spot. I’ve experience both, luckily, and I can tell you that the ones who most ruin wealth are those who go in with fists. Ironically, they’re sent packing by investors eventually, but not without having done havoc on people and resources, in fact pillaging the future of the organization and its communities.

  11. Hi Valeria,
    I’m not convinced that there is a masculine/feminine thing going on.
    Great commercial leaders ( male and female) have always known that until a person returns they’re just running a project and not a business.
    Sure they look the same from the outside, but a project ends when the buyers are exhausted, a business continuously recycles its customers.
    Technology has long been weighted to projects – broad scale traditional media is the tool of choice for converting prospects into buyers.
    Arguably, the emergence of social shifts the balance of technology to business who can now use tools to reach from beyond the shop floor to develop the intimacy that marks the conversion from “short” buyer to “long” customer.
    Not that there isn’t room for both. But, I know where I’d prefer to work/spend my money.
    For me, It’s starts by calling out the “projects” masquerading as businesses. The rest will follow.

  12. Peter:
    And that is the difficulty. Today we’re not talking about great commercial leaders, we’re talking about cultural environment where a specific kind of pattern or behavior is encouraged vs. another. On the record, I met some women who were “at war” with anyone and everyone who got in the way, and men who have been quite supporting, open, empathetic. So here we’re really discussing prevailing winds, and how in social contexts, like an organization and a competitive environment, those traits that bubble up in conditions of stress increase the bias issue.
    There are exceptions to everything. I agree with you about projects vs. business, and we are indeed seeing too many projects. Like solutions in search of problems…
    I’m thinking that the main issue is most people, especially in the financial svcs industry, don’t actually create anything — it’s 30% of the US business, by the way, that’s insane. Probably why the infrastructure is crumbling… everyone wants to lead, direct, manage, tell others what to do. Few actually do. Technology needs to dig quite deep to reach those people inside organizations who have developed that intimacy with the product to transmit/convert.

  13. Hi,
    I can understand the war thing in projects, it’s a kind of desperation to get as much as you can before jumping to another project and hoping you jump at the right time. Not condoning it but think its motivated by fear more than greed leads to bias.
    I haven’t thought about whether you can convert a project into a business.
    Personally, I think social technologies are better suited to helping businesses compete against projects. In any event because social is coded in the language of business, its likely to crash when loaded on a project O/S.
    And that is the opportunity. To sell social to businesses to “win” the good war against projects by starving them of buyers.

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