If you’ve ever doubted how responsible we are for what’s happening in our personal and work lives – and how much power we have to change the things we don’t like – then remember this: We train and condition our customers to treat us the way we want to be treated.

At a recent Engage Seminar,

Maria, a public relations consultant, took issue with this idea. She explained that her husband, Raymond, was building a shed in their backyard when, for no apparent reason, he suddenly decided to just stop.

Maria said that she repeatedly complained that it was an eyesore, asked Raymond to finish the project, and even eventually gave him a deadline to do it. When the deadline came and went, Maria first yelled at her husband, and then gave him a new deadline.

When Raymond ignored that deadline, too, Maria was even more incensed, going so far as to demand that he get it done. She gave him another, final deadline, which he also promptly ignored.

Maria’s conclusion was that it was clearly impossible to train and condition someone to do what you want them to. My response was that Maria had, in fact, trained and conditioned her husband with great success. The problem was, she had trained and conditioned him to believe that her word meant nothing.

Recognize the real messages you send

Of course, Maria hadn’t intended to condition this response. But in the course of my career, I’ve seen countless companies and salespeople make this exact same mistake with their prospects and customers.

Take sales and discounts as an example. How often do you hold true to your word when you offer a limited-time discount?

Many salespeople offer their customers special discounts if they’ll place an order before the month-end. They threaten their customers with statements like: I can only offer you this discount if you buy before April 30. After that, it’s back to full price!

But the truth is, if the customer calls on May 5 with a nice, big order and wants the discounted price, nine out of ten companies will give it to them. What they don’t realize is that, by going back on their word regarding the time limit, they’re also training their customers to expect that they’re always going to sell at the lower price, and that those “”limited time offers”” are available any time they ask.

The fact of the matter is, we all train the people around us how to relate to us all the time, whether we like it or not. But if, like Maria, we fail to recognize the messages we’re sending through our actions or inactions, we will often find ourselves faced with responses we hadn’t expected – and probably didn’t want.

Silence is consent

The best way to counter these mixed messages in sales, is to never say anything you don’t mean, or don’t plan to carry out.

If you say a report is due by 3 p.m. and your rep turns it in at 5 p.m., and you don’t say anything about it, then you’ve trained this person that your deadlines aren’t real, and you don’t really mean what you say.

In fact, silence can be one of the most powerful ways we train others to respond to us with undesirable behaviors. This was precisely the problem that John, a banker who attended one of our seminars, was having at his branch.

Whenever his employees did something he didn’t like, John made a point of not saying anything, hoping this silent treatment would let them know how he felt about it. Unfortunately for John, his silence instead had the opposite effect, as his employees kept repeating the undesirable behavior.

This cause-effect relationship is just as true with customers as it is with employees. If a customer yells at you and you say nothing, you’ve just told them that it’s perfectly all right for them to treat you this way. And believe me, they will begin to repeat that behavior with increasing frequency.

Customers generally interpret silence as agreement, even if the intention was just the opposite. That’s why so many people who hate conflict and avoid addressing troublesome issues often end up creating major conflicts anyway. If we say something is “”no big deal” when in fact it is a big deal, the result is that we train ourselves as well as others to deny the truth.

Mean what you say, and say what you mean

Meetings are another great example of the power of our actions to condition those around us.

Laurie, a government sales rep for a major software company, was responsible for overseeing the implementation of a new software system at her client’s site. This project required weekly meetings, which would only be effective if the entire project team from both the client and her own company attended.

At almost every meeting, someone showed up late. At first, Laurie accommodated this problem by waiting to start the meeting until everyone had arrived. This put a serious strain on both productivity and client relations. Even more importantly, it trained the other attendees to expect that Laurie’s meetings would always start late, prompting more and more of them to show up behind schedule.

Here’s how Laurie was able to solve this problem. First, she told her customer that she was responsible for the meetings always starting late. Second, she promised that, in the future, the meetings would always start on time, regardless of who was or wasn’t there. Third, she kept her word, starting all meetings at the exact designated time even if hardly anyone was present, and continuing through the agenda without any backtracking for those who came late.

When the late arrivals requested a review of the information they’d missed, Laurie politely refused, and simply continued on with the agenda as scheduled. In other words, she retrained them to believe that the meetings would start on time – and that she meant what she said.

Sure enough, it took only a handful of meetings before everyone began showing up on time.

So the next time you find yourself faced with responses that strike you as either surprising or unreasonable, ask yourself: How are you training your colleagues and customers to deal with you?

By realizing how much we train and condition other people how to deal with us, we can gain control of difficult situations, and regain control of our careers – and our success.

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