No more hard sell

Customers come naturally when you have what they want, writes William A Cohen

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More than 50 years ago Peter Drucker proved that marketing and selling are not the same thing. Drucker may have made as much as $10,000 an hour as a consultant, yet he did no selling or advertising of his services. He also argued that perfect marketing would make selling unnecessary.

Marketing trumps selling

Marketing is about having the products or services desired by your prospective customer. If you have such a product or service, you have a much easier job in presenting the product to prospects and convincing them to buy it – both important steps in selling – without advertising. Impossible? No. For 70 years, The Hershey Company did no selling or advertising for its famous candy bar. According to an ad executive, it didn’t need to: “This was a brand that was an American staple, had been passed down for generations, and that people could remember enjoying as a kid.” The Hershey people had a product that was desired and could get it to distributors. These are all marketing – not selling – functions. Selling was no longer required. Of course, it is necessary to get to that point. To do that, companies still need first to focus on the customer and what the customer values – and that’s true in both marketing and selling.

Think customer!

No matter how smart we are, we don’t get to decide what the customer wants and values. Sometimes this can result in sales that we never thought were possible. Years ago, Joe Cossman introduced to the gardening market the flexible garden hose with holes as an alternative to the water sprinkler. Practically everyone that owned a lawn or garden bought at least one. Cossman tracked all the wholesale orders of his product. It was a wise move. He found that farmer supply and feed stores were ordering his product in large quantities. Since homeowners seemed to fall outside the regular customers of feed stores, he contacted the stores to inquire about the reason for the unexpected sales. He learned that chicken farmers had discovered that his garden hose with holes made an excellent – and less expensive – air conditioner for lowering the temperature of chicken coups during the hot summer months.

Cossman had unearthed a large – but unsuspected – market. Drucker was not surprised: once-hidden markets were frequently unmasked in the course of business. What did surprise the great management consultant was how frequently some marketers ignored – or even intentionally avoided – unexpected sales. He decided the problem was that suppliers frequently made incorrect assumptions about what certain prospects wanted. Yet it was always the customer who defined the product or service, not the supplier.

Soldiers are using tyres for headwear

DuPont introduced Kevlar in the early 1970s. Kevlar is a super-cloth with fibres five times the tensile strength of steel. The engineers thought it would make an excellent substitute for the steel reinforcement in heavy-duty tyres. It did. In addition, when impregnated with rigidity to protect against blunt trauma, it could be used as the basic component in protective helmets. An impregnated super-cloth originally intended for automobile wheels soon replaced the US Army’s ‘steel pot’ helmet of World War II fame. The Kevlar folks made even more money.

Even so, Drucker was shocked to find that some marketers even discouraged sales when someone used a product other than how it was intended. Pharmacologist Alfred Einhorn became so distressed when dentists began using his anaesthetic drug Novocain that he toured Germany trying to get them to stop. He angrily insisted that his invention was intended for use by MDs, not dentists.

Legendary US retailer RH Macy tried to stop appliance sales because – by the established norms of the time – appliance sales were supposed to be significantly lower in a department store, where the emphasis previously was strictly on clothes. Macy’s tried to stop sales, even though it was in its own and its customers’ best interests to exploit the unplanned and unexpected increase in sales via the appliance market. Ultimately, appliances proved to be a much larger market – one that complemented fashion sales in Macy’s department stores.

Drucker warned that marketers introducing new products or services should begin with the assumption that their products or services might find uses and markets that they never imagined. If you want to make $10,000 an hour in consulting (or in any business), ensure you know what the customer wants. Consultants spend a lot of money doing research, analysis and presentations on what and how they think about their customers’ operations. Drucker was in high demand because he asked questions of his clients to uncover what his clients thought.

Rather than claiming expertise, he said that he made his money not from his knowledge and experience in an industry, but from his ignorance. When clients gave him solutions to their problems based on their own knowledge, he simply asked: “What are you going to do about it?”

His expertise was based on asking his clients the right questions. As one wrote: “He knew how to ask the right questions so that through our knowledge and experience, we came up with right answers to solve our own problems. He was expensive and an unconventional consultant, but he was worth every penny.”

Marketing indirectly

Drucker neither sold nor advertised his consulting. Yet he found a way to attract customers to come to him. He had a background in writing. He wrote articles and books about subjects that his potential clients were interested in, such as a consulting engagement with General Motors. It is said that particular automotive client did not even agree with Drucker’s conclusions. Never mind, others were intrigued by his analysis. He didn’t sell his services to build his practice – clients went to him.

Be like Drucker

You can do the same. It certainly fits Drucker’s principle that marketing is primary over other business functions. Moreover, it almost automatically ensured Drucker had a product that prospects desired and valued.

Every part of the Drucker business was involved in this marketing effort – from his books and articles in Harvard Business Review, to tapes, videos, seminars and workshops. In time, Drucker no longer needed to use his writing abilities to get clients. They just kept coming. I’m sure he even received consulting queries when he was in his nineties, long after he had officially retired. He had what his prospects wanted. And that is a lesson for us all.

— William A Cohen’s new book Peter Drucker’s Way to the Top is due to be published by LID Publishing in 2018

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