Friday, August 14, 2009

Sales 101 - A primer for the Salesman in Chief

We've seen and heard President Obama at town halls, press conferences, interviews, Saturday radio chats, industry summit meetings and delivering the keynote speech at medical conferences. All focused on health care reform, all covered breathlessly by the new and traditional media. No one can accuse this president of being AWOL in the health care debate.

Some might suggest that yet another Obama presentation on health care reform is as welcome as watching another Sham-Wow! commercial. Overexposure has its risks as well as rewards.

Yet, despite his popularity, despite his much vaunted communication skills, despite his persuasive logic, despite his ubiquitous presence in the media, when the needle of popular sentiment has moved at all, it has moved in the wrong direction for the President's version of reform. The Salesman in Chief can't seem to close the deal with the American people. Moreover, the pundit class across the political spectrum are assessing the President's sales skills, and finding them wanting:

Sell Me!

Kevin Drum - Mother Jones
"'s all about how it's sold. Everything has to have a constituency if it's going to get passed.... you do have to sell, the same way any salesman anywhere sells stuff. That means understanding your audience, figuring out what they're afraid of, promising them something that will make them better off, overcoming their objections, and then convincing them that they have to call now to take advantage of this one-time offer! Every pitchman on late night TV understands this. Why don't we?"
Obama's sales pitch still needs work
Concord Monitor
"As articulate as he is, Obama nonetheless had a hard time convincing doubters. And doubts are understandable. The president chose not to emulate the Clintons by drafting a reform proposal. Instead, he left it to Congress to craft a health care bill. The result, at this stage, is five competing bills and confusion that's made selling health care reform hard and demonizing it easy. Obama needs to make his case more convincing."
Sales Pitch...
Steve Benen - Washington Monthly
"...when it comes to the success or failure, if the sales pitch were more effective, we'd be talking about how Republicans are trying to figure out how to justify opposing a popular, once-in-a-generation reform package that is obviously, desperately needed. We're not having that conversation at all... For what it's worth, I get the sense the White House recognizes where the administration has come up short on its sales pitch, and is trying to adjust accordingly. Expect a better sales job in August than July. Whether it's too late remains to be seen."
Obama is failing on health reform
Clive Crook - Financial Times
"Mr Obama’s second failure is even more surprising: one of salesmanship. He still pitches for comprehensive reform, but with apparently weakening conviction. In his televised talk on the subject last week, he seemed almost bored. Worse, the president’s message is at odds with the product taking shape in Congress. This is all about controlling costs, he says: without reform, healthcare will bankrupt the country. That would be an excellent line if Congress was seriously trying to build control of costs into its bills, but it is not. Widening coverage is the priority. So it should be, you might argue – but in that case the president has to sell access and health security as things worth paying for, an entirely different proposition."
One More With Feeling
The New Republic
"...more than one commentator came away from Barack Obama's prime-time press conference complaining about the professor-in-chief's tedious explanations...The focus on policy minutiae has crowded out part of the big picture. Health care has become almost entirely a technical discussion, rather than a personal one. It's all about deficit neutrality and bending the curve, instead of making sure every American can get affordable medical care."
In many ways, this is puzzling. The President is justifiably known for his oratorical skills and power to persuade. What is going here? Even the President seems confused. From a Time interview...
"I will say that this has been the most difficult test for me so far in public life, trying to describe in clear, simple terms how important it is that we reform this system. The case is so clear to me...And when you just start hearing the litany of facts, what you say to yourself is this shouldn't be such a hard case to make, because the American consumer is really not getting a good deal." - BHO
Ah... there it is. There's the problem. He's not selling. He's making a case. I guess that should not be surprising. The President has never been in sales. He has never been in business. The president is trained as a lawyer. He is not selling health care reform, he is trying a case on health care reform. Now there are some superficial similarities between a lawyer trying a case and salesman closing a deal - both involve crafting and presenting a persuasive proposition. But there are big differences.

Case in point. If a lawyer overwhelms his opponent with a brilliant, persuasive and unassailable argument in front of a jury, he is going to win the argument, and likely win the case. On the other hand, if a salesman overwhelms a prospect with a brilliant, persuasive and unassailable argument, he is going to win the argument, but lose the sale.

Most people who have never been in sales, do not really understand sales. They think they do, but what they understand is a caricature of sales.

I can help. I was in sales and sales management for a lot of years, selling big complex and expensive enterprise software solutions to large organizations. I can't help much with the policy specifics of the health care reform legislation, but I can help diagnose the sales problems of our president and offer a prescription.

First, by way of disclosure - my current take on the plan itself. I am still trying to get my arms around the various, sundry and generally bad policy permutations presented so far. If I had to put a stake in the ground, I'd lean toward the Wyden-Bennett bill, which is apparently not getting any serious consideration. E.D. Kain offers an effective pitch and the subsequent discussion at Ordinary Gentlemen has been persuasive. The president could learn something about presenting a complex sales from those boys.

I am dead-set against the H.R. 3200 hairball that is apparently the bill of choice being pitched by the President. Partially because I don't understand it all (not for lack of trying), partially because I do understand it and don't like it, and partially because it is clear the President does not fully understand it and is selling smoke. I am seeing a used car salesman pitching a Shelby Cobra Mustang, but when I ask for test drive, he puts me in a car seat mounted in a frame without an engine, tires or steering wheel. And it's wildly expensive. And I think he is offering predatory financing. Guess what? I'm not buying.

Let's get back to salesmanship.

This is a teachable moment Mr. President.

Welcome to sales 101.

Lesson One - Selling is a lot easier if you have the right product.

There are some other choices in the legislature besides H.R. 3200. You may want to reconsider which product will have the best chance of selling to the American people. As you found out, it is possible to be successful selling a lemon (like the stimulus porkfest), but it hurts your credibility and makes the next sale a lot tougher. If the prospect is not buying the Lincoln Town Car you are selling, you have two choices. You can keep pitching that Lincoln, convinced that you know better than the prospect what they really need. That always ends badly. They'll just leave the showroom never to return. Alternatively, you can forget the Lincoln, start pitching the Fiesta, and you might have a sale by the end of the day.

Lesson #2 - There is a difference between Salesmanship and Hucksterism.

A professional salesperson works to match a product pitch to a prospect's requirements and budgets. A huckster only cares about the features of the product, and will pitch those features endlessly, regardless of whether the prospect has a need for the features or can afford them. When I look at Axelrod's talking points, I can't help but think of the penultimate huckster pitch, the Ginsu steak knife:
Tired of dealing with Insurance Companies? Fed up with forms? Paying too much for doctor visits? Have we got something for you... Obamacare! Just look at what the amazing Obamacare does! Obamacare eliminates expensive co-pays! Obamacare covers your children, no matter how old they are! You can never run out of coverage with Obamacare. What would you pay for this kind of security? But wait! There's more! Pre-existing conditions? No Problem! Your coverage can never be denied! And there is even more! All your preventive care is FREE FREE FREE! Now what would you pay? Would you pay $2 trillion? $3 trillion? $4 trillion for this peace of mind? STOP! You won't have to pay any of that!! For a limited time only you can have Obamacare for the low low price of ONE TRILLION DOLLARS! Send no money now! If you act in the next 30 days we will borrow it all from the Chinese and then make your kids and rich neighbor pay it back! This is a limited time offer. Don't wait! Act now!!
This approach works well with Ginsu knives on late night TV. For selling a comprehensive solution to Health Care reform? Not so much.

Lesson #3 - What you are selling is not as important as what your prospect is buying.

Enterprise software is a malleable product. It does a lot of stuff and can be customized to meet the specific needs of the client. Generally, it does much more than a client needs, with a large percentage of Enterprise software features not needed at all. If a salesperson focuses on the small percentage of features that actually solves the client business problem, they can usually get the sale. If they spend their time extolling all the wonderful features of the software, whether relevant to the client or not... they don't get the sale.

Mr. President, you and the Democratic party believe you have a mandate from the American people to reform healthcare. I believe you are correct, and said as much before the election. However, a mandate is not a blank check. It behooves you as the mandate grantee to have some appreciation of what the granter is offering.

Expressed in sales terminology, it is far more important to understand what the client wants to buy, vs. hammering them with a pitch of what you want to sell them. The continuing erosion of support for H.R.H. 3200 (House of Representatives Hairball 3200), clearly shows that what you are selling, is not what the American people are buying.

I could be wrong, but if I were to guess what the American people are looking to buy, it would be something that can be articulated pretty simply and emerges from some basic American values of fairness and common sense. I'd say it is really about these three things:
  1. Every American gets a baseline level of solid health care. No one is left behind.
  2. No American need be at risk of financial ruin or bankrupt because they get sick.
  3. The program is manageable (not transformational) and fiscally responsible. Americans want to feel reasonably certain we won't see mushrooming costs like with Medicare and the prescription drug plan.
That's it, Mr. President. We don't need "Free! Free! Free! Preventive Care!" or a set of Ginsu steak knives to sweeten the deal. Put together a package that does these three things, pitch them clearly and simply, and you'll close the sale.

Interestingly, Wyden-Bennett S391 accomplishes all three. HRH 3200 at best accomplishes one of the three. Just sayin...

Class dismissed. Check back Mr. President. We'll be continuing your sales education in a future post.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

1 comment:

Brad Templeman said...

It didn't help that he's afraid to sell the product the way he sees it, which results in it being sold as a cost savings device.

It's a little hard to sell a cost savings device when you tell people it will cost a trillion dollars.

That strategy didn't work, so now it might be more of about the morality of helping the uninsured. Since most of them are afraid of being honest about new taxes, they have to say all the savings are in the system, which gets them in trouble, too. Obama did not estimate the mood of the people correctly, and it will end up costing him. It just goes to show much different campaigning is from governing.