Reminder: Salespeople are Biased

In 2010, it’s easy to convince ourselves that our modern media and business savvy enables us to differentiate help from hype. Nobody wants to self-identify as a “dupe,” and salespeople know this. Which is why many of today’s salespeople often cloak their underlying goal (making sales) under a thick veneer they dub “expertise,” “coaching,” “consulting,” and the like. Buyer beware.

This is particularly true of what are for many nebulous notions like branding, social media, or customer service. All of which are real concerns in need of real attention and action. All of which really are difficult for individuals and organizations to wrap their heads around–much less their arms–in a manner that enables them to take effective control and implement effective strategies. Add to this the fact that many organizations simply do not, or feel they do not, have the time and personnel to devote to such areas. Despite the fact that they know these are important considerations for the advancement of their overall operation, other, more urgent priorities take precedence. So when, for instance, a “higher education marketing expert” walks through the door, many are less likely to question his or her motivation and more likely to see the salesperson as even more than the expert they claim to be, but as something of a savior as well.

What are the potential consequences?

Buying a product or service that undermines other efforts by other units within an organization

Are you sure the web-based product you were sold is compatible with the organization’s existing hardware and software? Is the content you had an outside firm create inline with previously defined brand and messaging points? Will the product or service require your staff, or maybe the IT department, to devote additional time and effort to its proper function and maintenance? How much time and effort? Is your department equipped to handle that? Is the IT department?

While “best practices” are important to be aware of, they  do not always factor in an organization’s specific characteristics, goals, needs, etc.

What works best for international corporations may not work at all for state universities. What works best for San Diego State University may not work at all at the University of Michigan-Flint. Cramming such “universal” pegs into “specific” holes just may not fit at all. Moreover, outside firms that create products and services based on best practices are frequently unable, or unwilling, to customize a product or service to fit an organization’s specific needs. They’ll argue that you can’t best a best practice. If they are successful in convincing enough organizations within a given sector to go with their solution, the result can mean customers cannot differentiate you from your competitors. Meaning, nobody is “best.”

• Locking yourself into a contract and/or product that doesn’t live up to the pitch

Many of the products and services sold by “experts” come with long-term commitments. Given the speed of change, especially in business and communication technology, today’s best practice can be tomorrow’s worst. You would think an “expert” would know this, and build flexibility, customization, and upgradability into whatever they sell – or at least acknowledge it in their pitch. If a contract is involved and the purchase does end up being obsolete or ineffective, you haven’t just wasted money this budget cycle, but have potentially wasted a large chunk of future budgets as well. This sidelines resources that could go to a solutions that work, and often leads an organization to simply “live with” the bad decision. Unfortunately, their customers must live with it too – but aren’t contractually obligated to.

What can you do to avoid such negative consequences?

Discuss the problem you are seeking to resolve with others within the organization first

Another unit may have already faced the same problem. Perhaps a solution already exists. Maybe a customized solution is being developed and your needs could be factored in as well. The IT department might be able to tell you right away that what a salesperson is selling is incompatible with existing infrastructure and know-how. The marketing department might be able to tell you right away that the campaign an outside agency is pitching to you is the same one that agency just sold your competitor. Staying abreast of the initiatives and solutions other departments are enacting may help your department avoid needless redundancy. When in doubt, ask around.

Challenge the salesperson/consultant to tailor their product or service to your specific needs

I don’t want to give the impression that all consultants and all salespeople are out to swindle or torpedo your organization. Independent insights can be invaluable. Many products and services are enormously effective. Yet probably the best gauge of whether or not a purchase will be positive is by asking tough questions. Those questions should endeavor to discover the level of personalized, serious, and honest examination that will be given to identifying your specific needs. What will be their methodology? How, exactly, will your unique needs be addressed? With unique solutions? Or with stock ones?

Remember how their bread is buttered

This brings us back to the original point. While there are very smart, very talented consultants, consulting firms, higher education marketing specialists, etc., there are also plenty who will always care more about making the deal than what the deal means for you. If the conversation reminds you of the old line, “What do I have to tell you to get you in this car?”, red flags should fly. Clearly, this is not advice. It’s pandering. So be discriminating. Be suspicious. Don’t let your knowledge, skills, and expertise be intimidated into subservience just because a salesperson’s business card says “expert” or “guru” and yours doesn’t.

Bob Mabbitt