March 2000

Selling in the new century

By David Lewis
By Harry Beckwith
By Jeff Cox Stevens
By Jordan D. Lewis
By Francis McInerney
By Jim Motavalli
By Dan Baum
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My granddaddy could sell anything. When the shoe company pensioned him off after 50 years, he went straight to work for a little outfit selling customized pens and plaques. He couldn't stand not to sell. And I can't sell to save my life.

Journalists tend to make lousy salespeople and un-promising sales prospects because we don't take any claim at face value. Come to think of it, though, nobody else does either anymore. Granddaddy's go-getter sales style might not be so effective in today's jaded and mistrustful marketplace.

Winning over a cynical public, whether you're selling products to consumers or selling the idea of strategic alliance to another company, requires innovative approaches to the art of persuasion. This month's featured books explore some of those approaches.

In The Soul of the New Consumer: What We Buy and Why, consultants David Lewis and Darren Bridger probe the hearts and minds of the economic organisms who populate modern society. The new consumer, in their view, is motivated by three scarcities: lack of time, attention, and trust. Marketing successfully to this rushed, scattered, and skeptical buyer is all about addressing those scarcities, or at least not making them any worse. It's also about establishing the authenticity of whatever you're hawking. Everyone is on the lookout for snake oil these days.

The authors offer lucid analyses of a wide range of sales-related issues, incorporating and building on the insights of a dizzying array of thinkers from psychologist B.F. Skinner and cultural critic Christopher Lasch to management theorist Peter Drucker and permission marketing guru Seth Godin. From those sources and their own research they draw sometimes surprising conclusions about how factors like aisle width in a store and a rapid cutting rate in a TV commercial can influence the new consumer's buying behavior.

The Soul of the New Consumer is likely to shape the marketing messages you see, hear, and read in the first years of the new century. For anyone in the business of sending those messages, it's an enlightening and compelling guide.

There's no denying the growing dominance of service industries in our economy, nor the fact that convincing someone to buy a service is fundamentally different from convincing him or her to buy a sack of flour. In 1997, service-industry expert Harry Beckwith published the best-selling Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing. His follow-up effort, The Invisible Touch: The Four Keys to Modern Marketing, is an eye-opening compendium of lessons in service marketing. The book draws on Beckwith's wide-ranging experience inside company walls to offer trenchant examples of things done right and wrong by people selling the invisible quantity of their own expertise. In short, pithy mini-essays that often have the resonance of motivational speeches, Beckwith dispenses sometimes counterintuitive wisdom about his four key concepts of marketing: price, brand, packaging, and relationships. He explains, for instance, how a survey of 13 consumers can yield better research than a detailed study involving 350 people, and why your company probably shouldn't bother responding to formal requests for proposals from prospective customers.

Beckwith echoes a theme from The Soul of the New Consumer in arguing that mere customer satisfaction is not good enough. To win over today's demanding clients, a service provider must wow them. (Lewis and Bridger call this phenomenon supersatisfaction. ) Even among the supersatisfied, Beckwith points out, there's no such thing as permanent loyalty to any brand or business. The new consumers are savvy and self-centered; if you don't keep on adding value to their lives, they'll find someone else who will. The new consumer has raised the bar for today's marketers. Beckwith shows how to clear it.

A smorgasbord for the Oracle, a pie fight at the sales conference, and the mysteries of the millstone market such are the ingredients of a highly entertaining tale by Jeff Cox and Howard Stevens, entitled Selling the Wheel: Choosing the Best Way to Sell for You, Your Company, and Your Customers. This parable tells the story of Max and Minnie, family business operators in the time of the Pharaohs, and how they brought to market Max's big idea, the wheel.

There's more going on here than just a cute conceit. Co-author Stevens runs a company that assesses the effectiveness of sales personnel and prospective sales hires, working from over 25 years of research involving thousands of salespeople and customers. Much of the story that he and Cox weave is based on his observation that there is no perfect way to sell rather, there is a right way to sell in a given situation, and selling the wrong way can be catastrophic.

As Max and his growing sales force persevere through early rejection (by the purchasing agent for the Pyramid project), the introduction of competing technologies (wooden instead of stone wheels), a price war with foreign producers (cheap wheels brought in by caravan from China) and other strategic challenges, it becomes clear that different stages of the wheel company's growth call for different talents in the sales force. The sales rep who achieves good results when clients require a specialized product can become excess baggage when the product becomes a commodity.

To cope with the obstacles before them, Max and Minnie take their most vexing questions to the Oracle in his mountain cave. The old guy sets them straight, sagely advising them on the marketing steps that will keep their wheel business alive and prospering as times and technologies change.

We could all benefit from a visit to the Oracle now and again. For those of us who don't have a nearby Oracle to turn to, Selling the Wheel is the next best thing: a strategic resource to help navigate through a menacing marketplace.

There is a unique type of sale that takes place in the upper echelons of corporations. More and more corporations are depending on this sale: the negotiation of strategic alliances between companies. In Trusted Partners: How Companies Build Mutual Trust and Win Together, Jordan D. Lewis shows what it takes for firms that may be competitors to come together in mutually beneficial collaborations. Lewis should know, since his business is facilitating joint ventures between major corporations. He mines that experience and other research to provide vivid glimpses of the process of combining two companies' efforts for a shared purpose.

As is so often the case in business books (and life in general), the stories of troubled relationships in Trusted Partners are often more illuminating than those of happy relationships. Lewis offers a fly-on-the-wall view of the catfight that nearly ruined the marriage of Northwest Airlines and KLM, as well as keen observations on what's wrong with the leadership of the Sprint/Deutsche Telekom/France Telecom alliance. The author does just as lively a job of narrating things gone right the hard-won alliances that have allowed partners to build trust in each other and, in turn, to build profitable new enterprises.

This is not just a book for senior execs at Fortune 500 companies. More and more companies of all sizes are referring to their relationships with key vendors as alliances, and Lewis explains how such partners can build relationships that live up to the name. He devotes the last third of his work to a deep and thorough how-to guide for business people involved in implementing alliances. There is enough carefully crafted advice here on the theory and practice of corporate alliances to make Trusted Partners a lasting resource for companies of all sizes.

Briefly noted: The easy pickings among technology stocks may all be plucked by now, but Francis McInerney and Sean White argue that there are still fortunes to be made in that volatile sector. In FutureWealth: Investing in the Second Great Wave of Technology, the authors explain not which stocks to buy that would be a silly exercise, if you think about it but how to pick the winners that will emerge in coming years.

To the entire generation of Americans that has come of age since the oil embargo and gasoline shortages of the 1970s, it may be hard to fathom why government and industry would be making Herculean efforts to develop a car powered by something other than gasoline. But the fact is, we may need one someday. Jim Motavalli's Forward Drive: The Race to Build "Clean" Cars for the Future chronicles the painstaking progress of efforts to build alternative vehicles and their even slower progress toward acceptance by the SUV-dazzled public.

And finally: The double-edged legacy of ingenuity and muleheadedness that Adolph Coors bequeathed to his beer-brewing heirs is the subject of journalist Dan Baum's Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty. This account of the Colorado clan's varying business fortunes, its rise to prominence in right-wing politics, and its histories of erratic behavior and personal tragedy, is not likely to get a friendly reception from the Coors family, but Baum's research appears authoritative, and he tells a vivid story.

Journalist E. Thomas Wood is product-development director for the family of European language-and-culture products.

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