Studying Person-to-Product relationships

What person-product relationships tell us about exceptional leaders and sellers

Donald Norman is a leading authority on the relationships people form with products. He has spent decades pursuing research and insights into product design, finding himself along the way working with many of the world’s greatest design experts, participating on government commissions, and even receiving an audience with Pope John Paul II.

Norman makes two interesting points about person-to-product relationships that intrigue me when applied to person-to-person relationships.

Vision

The first is that merely good products result from a careful process of design, test, revise and retest, but great products, those which ignite emotional relationships beyond their functional benefits, require the vision of designer which cannot be replicated by committees or standardized design processes.

I’m going to stick my neck out a little here and apply this conclusion to person-to-person relationships. I would suggest that no amount of obedience to “best practices”, 360 reviews, satisfaction surveys, or other routine means will transmute a good leader into a great leader or a good seller into a great seller. That level will only be reached by those who communicate an inspiring vision of their leadership or sales persona to the people around them.

This is, of course, a good deal more difficult to do compared to any standardized 360 feedback or customer survey process. The ability to project one’s vision relates to the concepts of emotional intelligence and resonance, and consequently to the need to be self-aware and aware of how others respond to you, then make choices and act correspondingly. It requires periodic soul searching, and for many, a struggle to achieve. You will also need to be fairly stable and consistent in your projection of good vibes, because noticeable lapses into more self-involved ways of communicating will tend to discredit you and your vision.

The point here is that to be a great leader, in addition to self-awareness (including feedback about how you impact others), you have to be an inventor. You must recognize in yourself an inspired potential self which fits both you and your circumstances. You must walk the walk of this self — and use feedback (360 reviews, customer surveys, coaching) to see how it works. Lather, rinse, repeat…. You have a lifetime to push the envelope of your ability to form valuable relationships.

Impact on Decisions

The second of Norman’s points that I want to share is that how people feel about a product impacts how they use the product. If they feel good about the product they are using, they are able to be more creative; if they feel anxious about a product, they tend to be more literal and focused on getting every detail right.

When applied to person-to-person relationships, this suggests that a leader or seller who wants to facilitate creative decisions, which is to say, to help people consider choices not previously made, could choose to develop their likeability (being “a fan” of the people you are working with is one way my clients describe this). Or, where leaders or sellers who want to facilitate literal, coloring-inside-the-lines decisions could choose to promote anxiety (“a little fear” is how another client described this).

Product-person relationships have three levels

In Norman’s sophisticated realm products take on many human characteristics. Norman’s model for relationships between users and products has three basic levels, which I will attempt to apply to leaders and sellers.

First is the level of appearances, sound and feel. This level is a gut level reaction — or absence thereof — that could be strong enough to make a user love or hate a product without knowing how useful it is or how much it costs. (I’d liken this to a person’s charisma or ability to establish rapport — more on this in a later blog entry.)

The second level is functionality, which has to do with how well a product does its job and how easy it is to use. (I’ll suggest that the “usability” equivalent for a leader or seller is the combination of their availability, clarity of communication and understanding, and consistency.)

Third is the level of association or personal identification, which is what the user thinks the product adds to their status or self-image. (I’ve noticed that customers and team members can take pride in — and brag about — the people they are working with, too: testimonials for sellers and “appreciative inquiry” stories for teams come to mind.)

Let’s try this out on a real person. Meet my client “D”, a computer-imaging artist who is both a manager and the lead salesperson for his own small business in Seattle.

Appearance: D is casually hip, exuding confidence without arrogance. He has a firm but not forced handshake, flashes a natural smile, and makes good eye contact. He is an excellent listener and actively shows attention to what others say without taking over before he understands what they want to say.

Functionality (in this case, the “user-friendliness” of a seller): D makes every effort to find out what his clients’ expectations are of him and to let them know what he needs from them in order to complete projects in a timely fashion. As time passes and projects proceed he gently but unequivocally reminds his clients of their joint deadlines and keeps them informed about his progress.

Association: D’s clients are an excellent referral source for him — they are proud to be identified with him and give him their personal recommendation whether or not he asks them to.

I’d say that in addition to the fine quality of the work he produces, D’s customers rave about the quality of attention (respect plus consistency in meeting standards) they get from him.

If these ideas extracted from Donald Norman’s work seemed relevant to your own work, try asking yourself the following questions.

1. How do you rate yourself on the three relationship levels of appearance, functionality, and association — as a leader, as a seller?

2. Is your business personality encouraging creative decisions (comfort), or color-inside-the-boxes decisions (anxiety)?

3. Do you have a handle on your own “resonance” — do you have a vision of yourself backed up by facts, and do you communicate it successfully?

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