First jobs can teach us all kinds of things. It can teach us the value of hard work and putting our heads down. It can teach us the resilience that comes with gritting our teeth and working even when we don’t want to. It can show us personal satisfaction and a sense of self-worth that comes with contributing to the team and getting rewarded financially for the trouble. It can introduce us to any number of marketable skills as well as general life skills. It can also disburden us from some of our illusions and misconceptions.
My first job was not a typical one. I worked as a (poorly) paid intern for a customer marketing agency who taught me that big corporations know they need to listen and respond to their customers. The problem is they’re not always very good about taking effective action in responding to these needs and desires. This marketing company, rDialogue, taught me how to really listen to people.
Some of the meetings we had with our corporate clients were pretty surreal. It was fascinating to hear these marketing professionals explain what I thought were pretty basic terms and concepts. I remember spending something like five minutes just on the idea of the mere exposure effect. Which, in retrospect, I suppose the corporate clients may have already been familiar with the term, but at least a couple of them seemed genuinely curious. These clients had a deep sense of their product and core business model, but had surprisingly little sense of their customers—in terms of their ultimate goals and frustrations. They knew how their customers interacted with their product/service/brand and the direct transactional value the company offered.
And yet, they seemingly had almost no sense at all about their broader concerns. I wish I could think of better specific examples from my time there….It was like the product development team for Q-Tips (not a real story) knew that their customers were using their product for the inside of their ears rather than as a general swab, but they needed to come to our agency to learn that people don’t like having extra wax in their ears. And as a result they needed to focus more of their marketing efforts on ear doctors than skin doctors, for example. But then also how do you do that, considering ear doctors generally tell their patients to avoid using Q-Tips inside their ears?
Taken altogether, working for a customer marketing deepened my understanding of how something could be deceptively simple but also maddeningly complex. Sometimes, the goal seems hard to define until you find a simple path forward. Sometimes, the goal is easy to define but the path you must take is incredibly convoluted. What else I learned at that first job was that the common denominator between these different types of situations is listening to people (customers)…while also paying attention to the circumstances in which that person is communicating.