The Press, August 2005

It is election time again. You could almost hear the collective groan as the date was announced last week. Two months of being subjected to grinning, hand pumping, big promising, baby kissing politicians. The pain is caused because political parties typically focus on selling, rather than marketing, their product. Are you subjecting your customers and potential customers to the same sort of discomfort?

Selling-driven organizations are wholly focused on moving product out the door. Typified by purveyors of unsought products such as encyclopaedias, vacuum cleaners or medical insurance, the company's strategy is based on the assumption that consumers won't buy their product without a huge selling and promotion effort. They just want the transaction, and are unconcerned about customer satisfaction after the event.

"An election is coming. Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of poultry." T S Eliot's wry observation captures the absurdity of elections. Political candidates work hard at photo opportunities, speeches, community events etc. Many thousands of dollars are spent on advertising, billboards, mail outs and other promotions.

Labour's announcement last week to scrap interest on student loans was a classic selling, as opposed to marketing, tactic. By promising something ("free steak knives") they can garner the crucial votes they need. Whether this actually has a beneficial effect on the country and its tertiary education system is secondary.

That is because Labour's primary aim, like any political party, is re-election, not developing a long term, mutually beneficial relationship with their electorate.

Many firms use a selling model at times, particularly when they have an over-supply or over-capacity. That is, they sell what they have rather than make what their market wants. To do so a 'hard sell' approach is typically required. It is difficult to build long-term, profitable customer relationships with this approach.

The selling concept is inside-out. It starts with goods being produced inside a company and then released, using heavy selling and promotion, to 'shove it' onto the market. Just like politicians, who try and force their way into our life at election time, and largely ignore us the rest of the time.

The marketing approach is outside-in. Companies use a well-defined market in which it understands customer needs very well. They control all activities that impact on the customer's experience of their products, focussing on profitable long term partnerships with customers.

"The goal is to build customer satisfaction into the very fabric of the firm," says classic marketing text 'Marketing' by Philip Kotler, Gary Armstrong, Linden Brown and Stewart Adam, "as integrated into a business as information or strategic planning." This doesn't mean doing everything a customer wants though. "Marketers must balance creating more value for customers against making profits for the organisation," say Kotler et al.

Maybe this is something political parties could consider. So committed have they been to garner votes, they have lost view of the importance of ongoing voter satisfaction. The result is a very jaded electorate, which doesn't conceal its contempt for politics and the emptiness of their promises.

People in private companies could reflect on the feeling of distaste a typical election campaign leaves them with. Is that how your customers feel? Are you forcing your product down their throat? Are you wondering why you're not making the progress you anticipated selling your product?

Online trading success story TradeMe is an example of a company who appears to be marketing to, rather than selling to, their customers. By working to understand what their customers want - a cheap way to dispose of second-hand goods - and providing a user-friendly experience, they have attracted many customers. They may have done some promotion, but they haven't had to force their offering down people's throats - they offer something of real value which people recognise quickly.

So how can you sell less and market more?

  • The next sales call you make, try and listen more than you talk. Use the old Stephen Covey maxim of using your two ears and one mouth in equal proportion.
  • Try your sales pitch on yourself - is it really customer focused, does it talk about their problems, their challenges, their needs, or it is all about you and your product?
  • Use the first two exercises to revise the story you use when you promote the company in any environment, from promotion to sales to customer service. You'll find customers a lot more receptive.

US TV show host Jay Leno once called politics 'show business for ugly people,'. The truth of his statement is in the eye of the beholder, but it does reflect people's general dislike of politics. One important contributor, and a salutary lesson to private companies, is the fact that politics is far more concerned about selling than marketing.

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