By Karen Axelton

87609890Over this holiday season I’ve been trying to be more generous than I normally am. Although times are tight for my family, we’re still more fortunate than most so I’ve been giving more to charity than usual. This week, that extended to something I don’t do often: giving money to a homeless person.

Over the weekend, I encountered two homeless men in my neighborhood.  One (let’s call him Guy #1) was sitting outside 7-Eleven when I took my son there to get a treat after school. The other (Guy #2) approached me and my son in a parking lot. I gave money to  Guy #1, but not Guy #2. Why? I did some hard thinking about what motivated me and found three marketing lessons that every business owner can learn from.

1)    Familiarity matters. Every business knows the power of brands, and it’s a long-standing principle of advertising that it takes several exposures to your brand—via ads, PR or other marketing outreach—before customers trust you enough to buy from you. Guy #1 was familiar—I’d seen him around my neighborhood before, though he’d never actively approached me. I felt a connection that made me happy to give him money. Guy #2, by contrast, was someone I’ve never seen before—a complete unknown quantity.

2)    Be aware of your customer’s comfort level. Today, with so many ways to reach out to your prospects via social media marketing, targeted online ads and e-mail and the like, it’s easy for marketing to feel too intrusive. Many customers worry that marketers know too much about their online shopping habits or are gathering too much personal data. So you need to know how to approach prospects in ways that don’t feel scary. Guy #1 was sitting on the grass next to the 7-Eleven, near enough to be noticed, but not right in front of the door. He didn’t actually approach me, but let me approach him. As a mom with my young son next to me, this made me feel much more comfortable. Guy #2 snuck up on me from behind in a parking lot while I was loading groceries into the trunk of my car. (Commonsense rule #1 for any guy seeking donations: Don’t sneak up on a woman in a parking lot, or she might “donate” a knee to your groin.) Feeling vulnerable and with my son nearby, I was nervous about this unknown man, and just wanted him to get away from me—fast!

3)    Always be selling. All things being equal, people do business with people they like and who make them feel good. Whether it’s your presence online, your live presence in a sales meeting, or your frontline staff’s attitude in the store, you’ve got to work consistently to be someone people want to do business with. Guy #1 was happy, singing to himself, and smiled brightly at my son and me. It kind of put me in a “giving” mood. Guy #2 looked grumpy, seemed altered or unstable, and approached me aggressively. When you’re trying to get the customer to give you money, you can’t afford to turn people off.