Friday, August 22, 2008
It's Whose Election to Lose?
Politicians hate to admit it, but campaigning is a sales process.
MORE REASONS. You know how it is when you hear something a hundred times without really listening and then, suddenly, on the hundred-and-first repetition you go, "No. Wait a minute. That's total nonsense."?
That's how I'm feeling right now about the meme that "This is Obama's election to lose." No, it isn't. It's McCain's. And I think I can prove it. So bear with me for a bit of background exposition and I'll make it all clear.
When I finally realized I had a gut-level objection to this meme, I found myself remembering a great salesman I knew in the computer business twenty-some years ago. He was hugely successful selling against the most powerful sales force in American industry at the time, the blue-suited army of IBM. Those were the days when the truism that best characterized IBM's hegemony went like this: "Of the Fortune 500 companies, 492 have IBM mainframes, and the other eight are computer companies." Yet Bert, as I will call him, consistently sold large-scale software products into IBM environments against directly competitive IBM products. Eventually he quit the rat race to become a Miami-based sales consultant offering very expensive sales training courses to the companies who couldn't figure out how to beat IBM. I worked for such a company. Time after time, our sales reps got our offering onto the buyer's short lists and then lost, without any reasonable explanation, to IBM. Our product was clearly superior, slicker, faster, more flexible, and competitively priced. But we lost. Almost always. Company executives were tearing their hair out.
If you're a Democrat, this is a scenario that should sound familiar -- remember Dukakis, Gore, Kerry...? Way up in the polls until late in the day, and then a grinding, disappointing, downward course to electoral defeat. Why?
Bert introduced our sales force to something he called the Sales Cycle Matrix. It looks like this:
The nine boxes show everything that's relevant to the purchase of a large-scale computer system. He taught our people to fill each of the boxes with the advantages and disadvantages our products offered to individual major accounts. He also used the matrix to teach them why they lost so frequently:
The blue X's indicate the emphasis of most sales efforts. Our products perform brilliantly in operation. They have all kinds of neat bells and whistles. They make the competition look sick. And we're reasonably priced, too. When they get an enthusiastic reception, the reps schedule glamorous demos, which make everyone feel good, and before you know it, they've made the short list.
You'll note that the matrix also works pretty well for consumer decisions like buying a new car. It's beautiful, it's got dozens of dazzling features, it makes me feel good to drive it, I can just see myself behind the wheel, and I can afford to buy or lease it.... Hurray.
BUT. As the actual moment of decision approaches, the buyers begin to shift their focus to other boxes in the matrix:
It's an attractive product and they like it, but as they get closer to a personal commitment, they begin to worry about their own personal exposures and vulnerabilities. A computer system is at its most visible and potentially destructive of individual careers when it's being implemented and when it breaks. This is when the unknowns begin to supercede the feature bells and whistles in importance. CHANGE IS RISK. Who are you? We don't know your company. We've never done business with you before. How do we know you won't leave us in the lurch and put all our careers in peril for having taken the risk of buying your product? But the sales reps tend not to recognize the shift. They've gotten such great feedback from their product presentations and demos that they keep talking about the same things that succeeded in getting them on the short list in the first place. And the real underlying sales process passes right over their heads and under their radar until, inevitably, they lose.
Again, the new car analogy is useful. People fall hopelessly in love with Jaguars during test drives. But, statistically speaking, they rarely buy them. Because Jaguars break. They aren't reliable. They have no resale value. The test drive is a doomed infatuation. Unless you're so rich a Jaguar isn't transportation but fashion, it's simply not a viable choice. You buy the Lincoln or the Cadillac instead. Not as deep-down sexy, perhaps, but at least it's an automobile that can get you to and from work every day.
Bert made his sales by anticipating the risk factors and addressing them before his customers did. He carried an implementation plan in his briefcase, specific, detailed, thorough in its capacity to relieve the decision makers of any sense of personal risk. That's why he topped out every sales compensation plan for every company he ever sold for. IBM didn't have the implementation plan, Usually they didn't need it. They were IBM. They would muddle though, somehow, and nobody would get fired in the process. They were consistently mediocre, perhaps, but they still posed little to no risk. And that's why they won so often.
In terms of the current election, McCain is IBM. He's MicroSoft Windows versus an incredibly slick, high-tech freeware Linux tweak, a Cadillac Fleetwood versus a hybrid Jaguar-Bugatti stretch limo. He's the stolid, unexciting, known quantity that definitely won't transform your sex life, but he also won't leave you helpless and confused on the shoulder of some dangerous back road.
Obama has all the bells and whistles, automatically and continuously adjustable leather orthopedic seats, 2,000 horsepower, spinner wheels, the lowest profile tires ever engineered, a billion terrabytes of computing and graphics memory, next-generation 3D multimedia showmanship, and absolutely no track record for dealer maintenance, parts availability, or certified mpg or crashworthiness testing.
God, how people loved the demos and test drives. Their hearts were singing. They were in love with the features and functions. But now we're on the threshhold of the shift to the risk boxes. What happens if the product just isn't, finally, viable? What if it crashes with all of us on board? What then?
That's the point at which voters will begin to ask all the questions the sales force -- i.e., the MSM -- hasn't bothered to address. Who knows this guy? Who can really vouch for him? Is he NHTSA or IEEE tested? Does the promised product actually exist in some form other than a cobbled together prototype? Is he a visionary genius or just a sorry coked-up loon like Delorean? What if it's all really an elaborate con job? Because if he isn't more substantial than all the glitzy bells and whistles, we could all pay for it in very real terms -- a broken economy, porous national security, corrupt government, spiraling taxes and inflation, a lot of failed fantastic schemes that don't mean a damn thing when you're trying to pay the bills every month and raise a family in a stable, steady community. Nobody likes a McCain but it always starts on a cold morning and the air-conditioner works in August.
Since the Vietnam War, Democrat presidential candidates have never produced a detailed implementation plan in advance of the election -- how voters will be protected from the failures of their most exotic ambitions -- and they have never even kept their most basic promises to customers when they were elected. Their early campaign promises are always bewitching, but they never recognize the moment when people start to get real and ponder the odds that pie-in-the-sky really can be had at low cost with little risk.
That's why the Democrats generally enjoy a huge lead right before the conventions and then -- in utter bewilderment -- watch it vanish before the first Tuesday in November. A Jaguar is its own kind of Utopia. Beautiful to dream about, but ultimately amost impossible to believe in. For all the people who know that rubber does meet the road sooner or later.
This election is McCain's to lose. It has been since he won the nomination. He may yet accomplish that improbability. But if Obama thinks he's defending an insuperable lead, we'll see him four years from now, two hundred pounds heavier, hawking his apocalyptic videos of "The Global Cooling Crisis."
But he won't be alone. That's pretty much the fate of most of the companies that believed they were about to beat IBM or MicroSoft at their own game.