Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Lipstick on a Pig" and selling Print

"Lipstick on a pig" are the words that are appropriate in public or professional conversations that communicate the same thing as "bullshit" in personal conversations. In the world of finance, either words can describe bad loans, packaged into securities that then are "valued" at much more than they are worth. It might be said that it's a business model based on bullshit.

In the world of governance - either corporate or public, it points to the problem that is supposed to be solved with "transparency" and "accountability." In everyday life, it is the problem that is supposed to be solved by "not lying." In the world of brand building it is solved by delivering "a consistently good customer experience." In the world of professional selling it is the problem that is solved by a "code of professional behavior."

But actually in all of these worlds, it is as simple and difficult as "don't bullshit."

This may seem to be counterintuitive to those who grew up in the legacy printing business of the 20th century. I spent 30 years as a printing broker in New York City. You can imagine that I have seen the power of bs. When a customer asked, "Can you?" I quickly said "Yes" and then went back to figure out "how." When a customer said "when am I going to get that proof?" I quickly said, "should be this afternoon." Then I would go through some drama to make it happen.

When the customer said "When am I going to get my estimate?" I would often say "they are working on it." While that was true, it was bs because it didn't answer the question. The question was "when?" The only no-bs answer had to be either in the form of "You will get it on X day, at Y time" or "Let me find out, and I'll call you back with the answer."

Luckily my firm was pretty good at figuring out "how", and getting people estimates and proofs and quotes. In retrospect that was the real value we created that allowed us to not compete on price.

But, that was then, and this is now. If I were still in the game and a customer emailed me to ask "Can you?" I would now email back within 15 minutes with either "Yes" or "It depends on x,y,z." or "I think so. Let me get back to you as soon as I figure it out." "Can you" is not an essay question. It's multiple choice. There are three choices. Any other answer is some form of bs.

Post internet we live in an information rich world. Any hint of bs will be discovered in real time. Email stores bs. It's not like a face to face conversation that is open to interpretation. Once you have written it, it can come back to keep you on the straight and narrow.

The real danger is that these days customers have much more finely tuned bs detectors. As soon as a potential customer gets even a tiny hint of "spinning," it can destroy your credibility. Once you've lost your credibility, you are relegated to competing only on price.

If you are the lowest cost provider in your market, it's a little less dangerous. The problem is that there is always someone who will have a lower price. Another problem is that your book of business can be primarily bargain hunters. A still other problem is that even the lowest price doesn't overcome the hassle factor. If a competitor prices the same as you, and makes it more convenient and pleasant to buy, then you're back in the soup.

If you are trying to compete on service rather than price, it's a much more serious problem. At that level, you are really selling "failure insurance." Selling insurance, like buying and selling financial instruments, is about trust. If you've damaged that trust, your customer becomes more and more sensitive to price. In finance, the consequences can be much worse. In printing, chances are they will find the right mix for them from some else.

So if you are selling print for a living, what should you do?

The short story is keep the bs to an absolute minimum.
The longer story depends on who you are, who your customers are, who the production people in your firm are, what kind of hardware you have, how much money you want to earn and how you want to earn it. Because each situation is by definition completely different, the long story can't be done in a blog post.

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