“That does it. I’ve had it.”
That declaration is provoked by someone “stepping over the line.” They’ve “gone too far.” It’s “too difficult.”
All of us – low functioning and high functioning – have these lines, drawn over many years of interacting with others. I have an autistic brother, who is considered “low functioning,” because he has no concept of the danger of traffic, the need for money, or the need to work. I could point to all sorts of areas where Michael is higher functioning than many “normal” people, and he has shown me more than you can imagine about human behavior, but that’s not the subject of this article.
What is important here is that one of Michael’s low-functioning traits is his inability to ignore or move beyond his demarcation lines. In certain situations, even though he’s in his late 40’s, his behavior is similar to that of a three-year-old. Even the most caring person, just helping Michael with a simple task, can unknowingly cross one of those lines. Suddenly that person is facing someone who is very unhappy and very demonstrative about it.
In my experience, the demarcation lines develop early in life. Regardless of where we end up on the “functioning” scale, the lines develop as we begin to discover what pleases us and what upsets us. And, as we interact with more and more people, we start to categorize those people in terms of whether they please us or upset us. What separates the low-functioning folks and the high-functioning folks is how we manage our behavior in spite of those demarcation lines being crossed.
The rubber meets the road when you want to have a positive relationship with another person, and that person is doing something that upsets you. That other person could be a spouse, child, relative, or (and here we get to the “revenue” part) – a customer, employee, or business partner.
In these situations, we will be more successful if we take a new approach to these lines. We can still have the lines. But, we can also choose to let the other person step over them, as an attempt to meet them “more than halfway,” setting an example that the other person will hopefully follow. The goal is to come to agreement, rather than stubbornly sticking to pre-defined lines that will obviously lead to a bad outcome.
If the other person tries to take advantage of your generosity, you’ve just been informed that you are dealing with a jerk. Nothing you try to do with that person is going to lead to a positive outcome.
If the person is willing to play nice, it won’t be difficult to find ways to work together. If you’re working with the person on a project, you will get things done.
What if the person who has just stepped over your lines is a customer?
Let’s say you sell a software product that does most things well, but also makes one common task too difficult. Yes, I know, we’ve just described most of the Microsoft Office products. If you own the market, you can get away with half-baked products. But, if you don’t own the market – and most companies don’t – even one smallish product flaw can hurt your sales.
When a prospective customer asks one of your current customers how they feel about your software, your current customers will say, “Well, overall it’s a good program. But there’s this one irritating flaw. Every single time we go to do X, it’s too difficult. And we do X about twenty times a day. We’ve talked to them about it several times, but it’s still not fixed.”
Guess what. Your smooth sales process just stopped dead in its tracks. Your potential customer has just gotten some very negative and damaging information. Not only does your software have an irritating, 20-times-a-day flaw, but you haven’t fixed it.
The question is, why haven’t you fixed it? Because it’s “over the line.” Your sense of entitlement and those demarcation lines are preventing you from fixing it. Your rationalizing mindset is making it easier for you to minimize the problem and make excuses for yourself. Sure, you have heard “a few” customers bring it up, but “overall, you have a great software program.” And you’re so busy! You have to keep focusing on making sales! Plus, it’s really, really hard to fix that one irritating aspect of the program, because of the way your software is designed.
The situation I’ve just described happens in both product and service companies. I would even say it is one of the most common cause of company deaths, right up there with poor cash flow management and never listening to customers.
How do you make sure you aren’t being killed by your own demarcation lines? Let’s see where they come from – and what can be done to retrain your brain.
Demarcation lines come from a sense of entitlement. We see them quite clearly in marriages: “I’m your [husband/wife], and you shouldn’t treat me that way.” We have an idea of how people should treat us, and we get upset when they don’t treat us that way. In the revenue situations, it’s the feeling that “I’m already working too hard, now you’re asking me to do THIS??!!”
I should note that it’s OK for you to acknowledge this thought when it occurs. It is understandable that you would feel this way.
But it’s what you do in the next moment that will determine how high you go on the success ladder of life. The “stuck on a mediocre rung forever” person will not get beyond this feeling of indignation. In fact, they will wallow in it, and may even throw a full-blown hissy fit.
The “moving on up” person will calmly note that a personal demarcation line has just been crossed. OK, noted. Then, they will look at the situation without paying any attention to the demarcation line or the associated sense of entitlement. This allows them to stay on good terms with the other person, no matter how aggrieved they may feel, and work towards a mutually agreeable solution.
If you were the CEO of the software company whose product had that irritating flaw, and you were a high-functioning type of person, you wouldn’t get angry and start making excuses. Instead, you’d say, “This really is stopping our sales in their tracks. It’s a really tough problem, but it looks like we have to fix it, if we want our sales to go up.”
Then you’d get to work. You’d focus on fixing the problem. To start with, maybe you could come up with some simple documentation – a little half-page tutorial – on how to get around the irritation. You’d send it to all of your current customers, and put it up on your website in a special place just for them.
You would also set to work on the long-term solution, creating a work plan for solving the problem programmatically. Within three months, the problem would be solved, and what was once a product flaw would become a product feature.
Your current customers would be pleased that you “heard” them, and they’d start using the workaround. Next time a potential customer called, the current customer would say, “It’s a great program. There was this one irritating flaw, but they’ve helped us work around it, and they are working on a permanent solution.”
The potential customers would think, “Wow. Look at this. A CEO who listened to his customers and is responding. Time to schedule a demo.”
When it comes to demarcation lines, technologists can be the worst offenders. Brilliant technologists who start companies often believe that the industry owes them something. They are wrong. Even if they have played a major role in the development of a technology, once they develop a product and put it out into the market, they are playing on a level field. They must serve customer needs. We have seen these technologists literally go into shock when they realized that customers weren’t impressed with all the bells and whistles on their products. “It’s the most advanced product on the planet! And now you want it to be easy to use?!”
There is no such thing as entitlement. You are only entitled to the money you earn by treating your customers with respect and doing everything you can to make it easy for them to find you, buy from you, use your products, and tell others about you.
Next time you think, “That’s it! That’s the last straw!” Or, “How dare you…!” – make a mental note. You’ve just encountered one of your demarcation lines. Do yourself an enormous favor. Step beyond it. See what happens. You’ll be very pleasantly surprised. And you’ll start movin’ on up – out of the Entitlement Trap.