And The Winners Are...

Edition: September 1999 - Vol 7 Number 09
Article#: 480
Author: John R. Graham

There's nothing better than a booming economy for business. Unfortunately, it often encourages faulty thinking and spawns erroneous ideas. When sales are strong and profits meet projections, we are quick to take the credit. It's different when things go sour; then external forces get the blame.

A good economy tends to mask distorted thinking and inappropriate ideas. For example, PC sales have been drifting downward, even while prices have been dropping. Manufacturers are petrified. Out of near desperation, they jack up power to a sizzling 500 MHz to try to capture customer attention. Just as this happens, the free PCs appears, In the midst of all this, one company rediscovers itself. To IBM's credit, it figured out what business it is in: solutions. Old Tom Watson would be proud because that's what the original punch cards were all about.

The point is simply that it's easy to make major mistakes in good times and not even know it. This is particularly true in marketing and sales. Here are eleven of the top mistakes:

1. Being seduced by the simple. ‘Quick and easy’ is the curse of marketing and sales. For example, ‘junk mail’ earned its name from companies literally dumping millions of pieces into the postal stream. Then came ‘junk fax’ which is creating immense resentment because it steals the recipient's toner and paper. Now there's ‘junk email,’ along with perhaps the most derisive term in Internet language: ‘spamming.’ It's popular because it's quick and easy. The unavoidable fact that junk email is invasive doesn't deter those who send it. Unfortunately, even unsolicited email of quality and substance are received with the same resentment as the junk messages. The success of the Internet has created a lust that knows no bounds. However, many who are rushing to the Internet fail to understand what customers want. Instead of making sales, they may be making enemies.

2. Lying to customers. Call it misrepresentation, massaging the facts or a scam, but it's all about lying. The developer of a new but untested Web site asked vendors for advertising dollars. In his letter, he made the claim that they had proven their ability to deliver products to customers. Unfortunately, it simply wasn't true. How would he respond to a sophisticated advertising exeuctive asking about hits and sales figures?

It's easy to shrug our shoulders and say, ‘What's a little hyperbole? Everyone does it.’ Perhaps. But they also get caught. One major manufacturer of quality office equipment made the claim that a piece of equipment had a desktop fax log. It didn't. Company claims and those made by salespeople are often exaggerated to the point where many customers don't believe much of what they are told. To allow this to happen today is a major mistake. Customers go to the Internet to obtain information so they can make comparisons. Only the na•ve salesperson will even hint at misrepresenting the facts. While the Internet allows anyone to say anything, true or false, it also quickly uncovers misrepresentation. When there appeared to be a problem with some sellers on, the news spread instantly. In response, the company immediately responded to solve the problem. It knew that a delay would be potentially devastating. As a result of its quick action,'s credibility was enhanced.

3. Being blinded by the myth of personal service. Marketing and sales myths are falling faster than a lovesick adolescent's grades. Dell Computers,, Fidelity Investments and others have shattered the belief that customer relationships must be personal to be successful. One element of their success is eliminating personal issues and focusing 100% on what the customer wants. Big deals may be done on the 10th tee today, but that's temporary. Whatever the transaction, it's potentially clearer, cleaner, more accurate and faster via the Internet. The decline in business travel attests to the dramatic change that's quickly taking place. Why go if it can be done better and faster by not going? While many early users of reported that they still enjoyed going to bookstores, it appears that they are going less and less. In the same way, shopping malls should be looking for revenue sources other than leasing retail space. Through the Internet, we are learning to ‘create’ time. The only type of service that counts today is that which gives you what you want, how you want it and when you want it. A pat on the back, a cocktail or a game of golf have less and less appeal.

4. Focusing on the easiest prospects. Sales management is to blame for allowing their salespeople to look for only the ripest fruit. Every company needs current sales, of course. Every sales department must meet quotas. At the same time, the cycle, as salespeople know, only creates the conditions for perpetuating itself. After a trade show, the race is on to go through the leads to get the ‘hot ones,’ All others are ignored. Then, three months later, these ‘hot’ leads are found and telemarketing goes to work with pitifully painful results. What can be expected? This isn't selling. It's bottom fishing at best. It's going for the crumbs or snatching a bite from the table. It's also outdated because it doesn't work. Fewer customers are attending trade shows. Buying decisions take longer and longer. Customers feel more confident doing their own research.

Continuing a selling strategy based on ‘who you can find to talk to today’ is fostering failure.

5. Following the wrong agenda. The president of a company selling dietary supplements through healthcare professionals wrote a monthly research newsletter for customers. Thoughtful, informative and filled with beneficial information, he made a discovery that changed his thinking. Conducting an interview with a health care expert, he sent out 700 audio tapes. ‘We received more positive responses from the tapes than anything we've done,’ he reported. With that information, he issued taped versions of his newsletter. The buyer sets the agenda, not the seller. Pleasing the customer is all that's worth doing.

6. Faking an understanding of customer needs. The ‘I can sell anything to anybody’ attitude is a myth, although there are those who still believe it. Some salespeople think that knowing an industry's buzzwords is all the expertise they need. The ‘I can sell anything’ school has been closed because the graduates failed.

It's knowledge that pulls customers to salespeople. It's the sales rep with a breadth of experience and who adds value. Everything else is useless. The salesperson calls and says, ‘I want to meet with you because I can save you money.’ The business executive responds, ‘OK, now tell me about my business?’ ‘That's why I want to meet with you,’ replies the salesperson. Finally, the executive says, ‘If you don't know my business then how do you know you are going to save me money?’ If this conversation weren't so incredibly common, it would be humorous. Demonstrating that the salesperson knows and understands the customer's business or needs is the beginning of successful selling today.

7. Acting without a strategy or plan. Specific marketing and sales tactics are useful only if they are part of an overall strategy. One time, the president of a company said, ‘We've done that’ each time the marketing people discussed specific initiatives. As the discussion continued, it became obvious that the company had indeed tried just about everything----poorly and without a plan. It had written a couple of by-lined articles but the one trade periodical they appeared in lacked credibility. Yes, they tried direct mail, but digging deeper, it was discovered that the pieces had been addressed to companies because there were no names of individuals. There was no strategy or plan.

As a result, everything failed. In reviewing the firm's collateral materials, it was obvious that there was no customer focus: everything was about the company. If there had been a clear strategy, there would have been a mechanism for evaluation and many of these unnecessary mistakes would have been avoided.

8. Failing to follow through. In marketing and sales, the greatest failure is a lack of follow-through. There are two reasons why this happens. First, what is tried is so poorly conceived and executed that it doesn't work. The second is ‘juicing sales.’ The lure of the quick fix is insatiable. Following an industry meeting, the sales manager comes back with an array of new ideas. For six weeks, everyone hustles. When the results are less than exciting, all is abandoned--until the next time. Marketing strategies require time today. Everyone in business prioritizes issues. You may be selling voluntary employee benefits programs but that may not be at the top of the prospect's list for six months. You don't know this for every prospect. After receiving a few responses, you abandon the initiative and move on to something else. What a big mistake!

A company that is consistent in its marketing efforts receives calls regularly from prospects who say something like this, ‘I've been receiving your...’ When the right moment arrived, they turned to this supplier.

9. Being guided by the wrong objectives. Only the right sales are worth making. Many smaller banks give customers free checking accounts, particularly as the big banks have increased service and activity charges. But most ‘free’ checking accounts come with a caveat: If you ‘break the rules,’ free checking becomes fee checking. In fact, banks embrace free checking because of the potential of the fee income.

On the surface, it appears that ‘free’ is compelling when it comes to attracting customers. However, there are indications that certain customers know how to work a good deal. They open a ‘free checking account’ and squeeze all the benefits out of it but fail to use other banking services. What about the customers who are charged with high fees (overdrafts, for example)? How do they feel about the bank?

While ‘free checking’ programs attract customers who are motivated by something for nothing, do they produce higher profits and customers who use a variety of banking products and services? The goal is not to get thousands of new customers; it's to make money.

10. Cutting corners. Effective marketing designs tactics so the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The elements work together to produce the desired results. Unfortunately, companies often try to save money and work by doing only the minimum. Special offers are reduced and sometimes eliminated. Telemarketing replaces an overall campaign. A two-color insert replaces a full-color piece in the direct mail package. The ad campaign is cut back. Taken together, the tactics form an integrated whole that enhances overall impact. Once this process occurs, the effectiveness of the overall program is threatened. Forgetting what happened, managers often blame the program when sales lag, forgetting how their actions harmed the effort.

11. Practicing improper prospecting. Prospecting isn't considered successful because you've found a customer. Excellent prospecting leads to the customer finding you. If this concept appears to be at odds with accepted thought, it is. There's a reason why this is important: when the customers find you, they are motivated to buy. But when you are looking for them, you're the aggressor and they're ‘cornered.’ This is not a congenial environment for buying.

For prospecting to create a stream of solid leads, it must permit people to respond in ways that make sense to them, at times when they have a need, and in ways that make them feel comfortable. This is why prospecting must be continuous, highly controlled and designed to increase the recipients' understanding of what the company offers.

Prospecting is a strategic function involving the precise identification of appropriate customers, cultivating their interest and trust and allowing them to step forward with ease. Avoiding these 11 common marketing and sales mistakes takes commitment. At the same time, the results are worth the effort.

About the Author: John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm founded in 1976. He is the author of ‘The New Magnet Marketing’ (Chandler House Press, Nov. 1998), the revised and updated version of his original book, ‘Magnet Marketing,’ and ‘203 Ways To Be Supremely Successful In The New World Of Selling’ (Macmillan Spectrum, 1996). He also writes for a variety of publications and speaks on business, marketing and sales topics for company and association meetings. He is the recipient of an APEX'98 Grand Award in writing. Mr. Graham can be contacted at: 617-328-0069; fax 617-471-1504; His company's web site is located at