Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Need for the Hard Sell

In a conference session about marketing, there was rather a long digression on the difference between selling and offering that seemed to be belaboring the difference in the hard-sell and soft-sell approaches, in favor of the latter.   In the presenter’s mind, the days of hard selling are over and it’s time that all industries switch to a soft sales process.    I cannot disagree more.

Soft selling is a tool, a good tool, and the right tool for most jobs – most, but not all.   The soft sell works when there is a motivated and informed customer, who has accurately recognized and diagnosed his problem, correctly identified the solution (product) he needs to achieve his desired goals.   And while customers today are more informed than the information starved masses prior to digital media, there is a significant difference between “having access” to information and actually “accessing” it – and then understanding and applying it.

For the customer who does not recognize that he has a problem, who has not accurately diagnosed it, who does not feel empowered to solve it, or who does not know the correct way to solve it, hard selling is still necessary.   You cannot simply sit back and wait for the customer to come to you, but must convince the customer that he can and should leverage your product to solve a real problem.   You have to go to him, help him recognize the problem, show him the solution, and make him feel empowered and motivated to act.

All of this can be snake-oil in the wrong hands: making people believe they have problems when they really do not, suggesting your product is a solution when it really is not, and stirring people to action that they really don’t need to take.   It depends on the situation.   And the soft-seller is not immune to unethical selling – when he passively allows a deluded person to purchase his product and shrugs off any responsibility for the negative consequences because he played no active role in helping the customer make the appropriate decision. He is the proverbial “good” man who does nothing when action would prevent harm, which is not a very good man at all.

Ethics in salesmanship means matching customer problems to commercial solutions – regardless of the sales tactic – a prerequisite to which is accurately recognizing the level of sales assistance that is needed.   Where customers accurately recognize and diagnose problems and identify and employ solutions, stay out of the way and give them what they ask for.   Where the cannot do all of those things, provide assistance – and whether it is ethical assistance or unethical pressure depends on the customer, the product, and the situation.

It is no more correct to soft-sell in all circumstances than it is to hard-sell in all circumstances – and to suggest otherwise is an act of ignorance and immorality unto itself.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Slow Pace of Technology Today

Something I recently read stuck in my mind: that the pace of technology has slowed considerably in recent years.  The author pointed out that the twenty-year period from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s brought a whirlwind of change, and every couple of years there was some revolutionary new capability: the personal computer, networked computing, the Internet, cellular phones, mobile computing, and so on.   But in the past fifteen years or so, nothing of that magnitude has happened.

While progress has not ceased, its has been limited to making minor efficiency improvements: processor speeds are getting a little faster each year, display resolution a little better, network speed a little faster, components a little smaller, etc.  But no new device has come out that has changed the way that people interact with technology in any significant way, or extend it into any aspect of life in which it didn’t previously exist. That is, technology hasn’t delivered anything truly impressive or impactful in more than a decade now.

It may be that we have reached a point where the core technology – the computer – has been fully extended.  It is as fast, as small, as portable, as connected, etc. as it needs to be for any functional purpose.  Engineers are out of ideas for new ways to apply it – or at least, new ways that are meaningful to the market, or at least valuable enough for the majority of people to see it as a must-have device or capability.

And in daily life, there does seem to be a certain ennui and even distaste for technology – the tendency of people to question the value of technological advances and even seek to moderate their technology consumption, questioning if it is really worth the money, time, and attention to adopt the latest fads, or even continue using previous fads once their novelty has worn off.

I’ve looked for examples to the contrary, and have thus far been unable to find anything that has been as impactful.   The only thing that comes close is wearables – the Apple Watch, Google Glass, and FitBit – but even these technologies failed to have much of an impact.  They certainly haven’t become a must-have technology that makes their predecessor (the smartphone) obsolete, or even extended the capabilities in any meaningful way.

So I’m left without grounds to dispute – the pace of technology really has slowed, the really has been nothing new and revolutionary – and likely the next step, societally, is to find a more sensible integration of technology into life – which means questioning the value that technology affords.   That, at least, seems a refreshing notion.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Brand Unawareness

A fellow shopping for auto insurance asked an unusual question: what repair shop would we use in his location for body work.   Some years ago, he had an accident and was sent to a shop that did rather a poor job, leaving him so displeased that he changed insurance companies.   And then, when he had another claim, the new insurance company sent his car to the very same body shop for repairs, and he was again disappointed.  He wanted to change insurers again, but wanted to make sure that the new company would not send him back to the same shop.

In the years I spent in the insurance business, I had listened in on many phone calls – a few hundred or so – and this is the only one I can recall in which a shopper took this level of interest in our suppliers.   Everyone cared about the price, and to a lesser degree about the kinds of coverage that price included, but nobody seemed particularly curious about exactly how the benefit of the product would be delivered: what company is really going to do the work that they are paying for in advance?

There are many buying situations in which consumers are unaware of the brands they are purchasing when the company with which they are directly transacting is merely passing on the product of another firm.   No insurance company, to my knowledge, has a nationwide network of repair centers that it owns and controls, but sends claimants to a local provider.   And where the product is a good rather than a service, the invisibility of its providers is clear: you have no idea what brands you are consuming when you order a meal in a restaurant, nor what company refined the copper in your computer.  You are only aware of the brand of the seller, not the maker.

And in the present day, where most firms are vertically dis-integrated and business operations are outsourced, chances are that when you consume any product, you are consuming dozens or hundreds of brands that you are not aware of.   The more complex the product, the more hidden brands you are consuming without being aware.  I would venture a guess that no-one, ever, has investigated the full supply chain of every product they use – there simply isn’t enough time in the day.

That’s not to say that the brand of a supplier is of no value – it is of great value to their direct customer, the reseller, though invisible to the ultimate consumer.  And in this space, the values of the reseller are significantly different: is the supplier reliable, will delivery be timely, is the quality of goods consistent, and so on.   These are entirely different to the values that customers espouse, or pretend to espouse, in evaluating the brand of the reseller.   They are generally concerned only with the last link in the supply chain.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Targeting the Gullible Market

A brand is trusted by its existing customers because of its past behavior: if the brand kept the promises it made, then it is trusted to repeat the same behavior in the future, and this trust extends to any new promises that the brand makes to the customer that has already experienced its reliability.  But when approaching a prospect, who has not interacted with the brand, earning trust is difficult – the brand has not had the opportunity to keep its promises to the prospect, and the promise itself is not trustworthy because it comes from an unknown brand.

Granted, some level of trust depends upon the trustor – whether or not the prospect has a trusting nature.   In general, a brand that approaches any market can depend upon the trust of the most gullible members of that segment – but a more measured approach would consider the qualities of an individual who will trust without experience and seek to define a target market in which gullibility is baked in.

The inherent problem is that gullible people are not respected people – their peers and acquaintances know them to be exceptionally gullible and do not put much credit in their endorsements.    In that way, a brand that targets the gullible may have some success in gaining the initial trust of people whose recommendation carries little weight with the rest of the market.   Hence the short-term and unsustainable success of many new products.

And even the gullible market segment is not sustainable: the most gullible individuals can be fooled once into putting trust in a brand – but if the brand fails to keep its promise to them, then it will be difficult to make a second sale even to the same individual.   They are likely to extend credit to brands once, but not a second time once their trust has been violated.

One notable exception are individuals in whom there is an unfortunate coincidence of gullibility and narcissism: the person who has been tricked, but whose ego will not allow them to admit that they have been tricked.  These individuals will give rave reviews of horrible products, pretending to be satisfied so as to avoid admitting having made a mistake.  Going by the number of five-start product reviews on websites, there are quite a few of them, who feel compelled to repurchase and advocated for a bad product to maintain their self-esteem.

But, again, this leads to the problem of second-hand trustworthiness: it is not only the brand, but its users and advocates, that must be regarded as trustworthy in order for the brand  to gain acceptance in the broader market.  The testimony of dupes and fools is no more convincing that first-hand promises made by a brand, and it may in fact be more damaging to have the wrong kind of brand advocates.