Sales 101 – A primer for the Salesman in Chief

Sales 101 – A primer for the Salesman in Chief


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We’ve seen and heard President Obama at town halls, press conferences, interviews, Saturday radio chats, industry summit meetings and delivering the keynote speech at medical conferences. All focused on health care reform, all covered breathlessly by the new and traditional media. No one can accuse this president of being AWOL in the health care debate.

Some might suggest that yet another Obama presentation on health care reform is as welcome as watching another Sham-Wow! commercial. Exposure has its risks as well as rewards.

Yet, despite his popularity, despite his much vaunted communication skills, despite his persuasive logic, despite his ubiquitous presence in the media, when the needle of popular sentiment has moved at all, it has moved in the wrong direction for the President’s version of reform. The Salesman in Chief can’t seem to close the deal with the American people. Moreover, the pundit class across the political spectrum are assessing the President’s sales skills, and finding them wanting:

Presidential Sales Job on Health Care Falling Short
Doug Bandow – Cato

It’s not working. The president enjoys the use of the executive branch’s bountiful resources, control of Congress by his party, and aid of a sympathetic media. Yet support for expanding government control over health care is falling the more people learn about it.

Sell Me!

Kevin Drum – Mother Jones

“…it’s all about how it’s sold. Everything has to have a constituency if it’s going to get passed…. you do have to sell, the same way any salesman anywhere sells stuff. That means understanding your audience, figuring out what they’re afraid of, promising them something that will make them better off, overcoming their objections, and then convincing them that they have to call now to take advantage of this one-time offer! Every pitchman on late night TV understands this. Why don’t we?”

Obama’s sales pitch still needs work
Concord Monitor

“As articulate as he is, Obama nonetheless had a hard time convincing doubters. And doubts are understandable. The president chose not to emulate the Clintons by drafting a reform proposal. Instead, he left it to Congress to craft a health care bill. The result, at this stage, is five competing bills and confusion that’s made selling health care reform hard and demonizing it easy. Obama needs to make his case more convincing.”

Sales Pitch…
Steve Benen – Washington Monthly

“…when it comes to the success or failure, if the sales pitch were more effective, we’d be talking about how Republicans are trying to figure out how to justify opposing a popular, once-in-a-generation reform package that is obviously, desperately needed. We’re not having that conversation at all… For what it’s worth, I get the sense the White House recognizes where the administration has come up short on its sales pitch, and is trying to adjust accordingly. Expect a better sales job in August than July. Whether it’s too late remains to be seen.”

Obama is failing on health reform
Clive Crook – Financial Times

Mr Obama’s second failure is even more surprising: one of salesmanship. He still pitches for comprehensive reform, but with apparently weakening conviction. In his televised talk on the subject last week, he seemed almost bored. Worse, the president’s message is at odds with the product taking shape in Congress. This is all about controlling costs, he says: without reform, healthcare will bankrupt the country. That would be an excellent line if Congress was seriously trying to build control of costs into its bills, but it is not. Widening coverage is the priority. So it should be, you might argue – but in that case the president has to sell access and health security as things worth paying for, an entirely different proposition.”

One More With Feeling
The New Republic

“…more than one commentator came away from Barack Obama’s prime-time press conference complaining about the professor-in-chief’s tedious explanations…The focus on policy minutiae has crowded out part of the big picture. Health care has become almost entirely a technical discussion, rather than a personal one. It’s all about deficit neutrality and bending the curve, instead of making sure every American can get affordable medical care.”

In many ways, this is puzzling. The President is justifiably known for his oratorical skills and power to persuade. What is going on here? Even the President seems confused. From a Time interview…

“I will say that this has been the most difficult test for me so far in public life, trying to describe in clear, simple terms how important it is that we reform this system. The case is so clear to me…And when you just start hearing the litany of facts, what you say to yourself is this shouldn’t be such a hard case to make, because the American consumer is really not getting a good deal.” – Barack Obama

Ah… there it is. There’s the problem. He’s not selling. He’s making a case. I guess that should not be surprising. The President has never been in sales. He has never been in business. The president is trained as a lawyer. He is not selling health care reform, he is trying a case on health care reform. Now there are some superficial similarities between a lawyer trying a case and salesman closing a deal – both involve crafting and presenting a persuasive proposition. But there are big differences.

Case in point. If a lawyer overwhelms his opponent with a brilliant, persuasive and unassailable argument in front of a jury, he is going to win the argument, and likely win the case. On the other hand, if a salesman overwhelms a prospect with a brilliant, persuasive and unassailable argument, he is going to win the argument, but lose the sale.

Most people who have never been in sales, do not really understand sales. They think they do, but what they understand is a caricature of sales.

I can help. I was in sales and sales management for a lot of years, selling big complex and expensive enterprise software solutions to large organizations. I can’t help much with the policy specifics of the health care reform legislation, but I can help diagnose the sales problems of our president and offer a prescription.

First, by way of disclosure – my current take on the plan itself. I am still trying to get my arms around the various, sundry and generally bad policy permutations presented so far. If I had to put a stake in the ground, I’d lean toward the Wyden-Bennett bill, which is apparently not getting any serious consideration. E.D. Kain offers an effective pitch and the subsequent discussion at Ordinary Gentlemen has been persuasive. The president could learn something about presenting a complex sales from those boys.

I am dead-set against the H.R. 3200 hairball that is apparently the bill of choice being pitched by the President. Partially because I don’t understand it all (not for lack of trying), partially because I do understand it and don’t like it, and partially because it is clear the President does not fully understand it and is selling smoke. I am seeing a used car salesman pitching a Shelby Cobra Mustang, but when I ask for test drive, he puts me in a car seat mounted in a frame without an engine, tires or steering wheel. And it’s wildly expensive. And I think he is offering predatory financing. Guess what? I’m not buying.

Let’s get back to salesmanship.

This is a teachable moment Mr. President.

Welcome to Sales 101.

Lesson One – Selling is a lot easier if you have the right product.

There are some other choices in the legislature besides H.R. 3200. You may want to reconsider which product will have the best chance of selling to the American people. As you found out, it is possible to be successful selling a lemon (like the stimulus porkfest), but it hurts your credibility and makes the next sale a lot tougher. If the prospect is not buying the Lincoln Town Car you are selling, you have two choices. You can keep pitching that Lincoln, convinced that you know better than the prospect what they really need. That always ends badly. They’ll just leave the showroom never to return. Alternatively, you can forget the Lincoln, start pitching the Fiesta, and you might have a sale by the end of the day.

Lesson #2 – There is a difference between Salesmanship and Hucksterism.

A professional salesperson works to match a product pitch to a prospect’s requirements and budgets. A huckster only cares about the features of the product, and will pitch those features endlessly, regardless of whether the prospect has a need for the features or can afford them. When I look at Axelrod’s talking points, I can’t help but think of the penultimate huckster pitch, the Ginsu steak knife:

Tired of dealing with Insurance Companies? Fed up with forms? Paying too much for doctor visits? Have we got something for you… Obamacare! Just look at what the amazing Obamacare does! Obamacare eliminates expensive co-pays! Obamacare covers your children, no matter how old they are! You can never run out of coverage with Obamacare. What would you pay for this kind of security? But wait! There’s more! Pre-existing conditions? No Problem! Your coverage can never be denied! And there is even more! All your preventive care is FREE FREE FREE! Now what would you pay? Would you pay $2 trillion? $3 trillion? $4 trillion for this peace of mind? STOP! You won’t have to pay any of that!! For a limited time only you can have Obamacare for the low low price of ONE TRILLION DOLLARS! Send no money now! If you act in the next 30 days we will borrow it all from the Chinese and then make your kids and rich neighbor pay it back! This is a limited time offer. Don’t wait! Act now!!

This approach works well with Ginsu knives on late night TV. For selling a comprehensive solution to Health Care reform? Not so much.

Lesson #3 – What you are selling is not as important as what your prospect is buying.

Enterprise software is a malleable product. It does a lot of stuff and can be customized to meet the specific needs of the client. Generally, it does much more than a client needs, with a large percentage of enterprise software features not needed at all. If a salesperson focuses on the small percentage of features that actually solves the client business problem, they can usually get the sale. If they spend their time extolling all the wonderful features of the software, whether relevant to the client or not… they don’t get the sale.

Mr. President, you and the Democratic party believe you have a mandate from the American people to reform health care. I believe you are correct, and said as much before the election. However, a mandate is not a blank check. Expressed in sales terminology, it is far more important to understand what the client wants to buy vs. hammering them with a pitch of what you want to sell them. The continuing erosion of support for H.R.H. 3200 (House of Representatives Hairball 3200), clearly shows that what you are selling, is not what the American people are buying.

I could be wrong, but if I were to guess what the American people are looking to buy, it would be something that can be articulated pretty simply and emerges from some basic American values of fairness and common sense. I’d say it is really about these three things:

  1. Every American gets a baseline level of solid health care. No one is left behind.
  2. No American need be at risk of financial ruin or bankruptcy because they get sick.
  3. The program is manageable and fiscally responsible. Americans want to feel reasonably certain we won’t see mushrooming costs like with Medicare and the prescription drug plan.

That’s it, Mr. President. We don’t need “Free! Free! Free! Preventive Care!” or a set of Ginsu steak knives to sweeten the deal. Put together a package that does these three things, pitch them clearly and simply, and you’ll close the sale.

Interestingly, Wyden-Bennett S391 accomplishes all three. HRH 3200 at best accomplishes one of the three. Just sayin…

Class dismissed.

X-posted from Divided We Stand United We Fall

  • Papa Ray

    You lost about 35 percent of Americans when you said “Every American”. About that percentage don’t believe health care is a right.

    You lost about 40 percent of Americans when you said the government health plan would protect Americans from going broke from medical bills. About that percentage believe that it is the individuals responsibility to either have medical coverage or the assets to cover catastrophic health events.

    You lost about 50 percent of Americans when you used the words “manageable and fiscally responsible” in conjunction with anything that the U.S. Government is involved with/runs/manages or in some cases even oversees.

    But other than that you pointed out the real reasons everybody is up in arms. Thank you for that.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

  • Papa Ray

    Oh, I forgot to add this. But I think the author of this piece has his hopes up way to high.

    “What we want from the Republicans.”

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

  • Trescml

    If 40% of Amercians think you should have enough saved up to cover for catastrophic illness, 40% of Americans have no clue how much money a major illness costs. If you are making 30K a year, you won’t make that much money in your entire life. Even shelling out 3-4 K a year for a catastrophic policy is a stretch. If you are lucky enough to have health insurance at work, then you are in luck.

    Obama does need to do a better job selling this because you have to convince the majority that does have some sort of coverage that either: A. They are closer to not having coverage than they think. B. It is better for society in general for people to have medical coverage.

  • Mike A.

    “About that percentage believe that it is the individuals responsibility to either have medical coverage or the assets to cover catastrophic health events.”
    Ridiculous considering the cost structure of medical care in the US. I can guarantee that most people making this claim would rescind it once a major illness forces them into bankruptcy.

  • Papa Ray

    I can tell neither of you read the link I provided or if you did, your ingrained opinions were not affected. OK, that is your decision.

    You both don’t agree or believe that it is the individuals responsibility to either have medical coverage or the assets to cover catastrophic health events. That is fine, that just means that you are somewhere in the other percentage. But that also includes you in the group that wants the government to take care of you and your family. That is also your decision but one that I think you will long regret.

    I for one don’t want someone else dictating what and what kind of health care my family will receive. Also, bankruptcy doesn’t frighten me (or millions of others). I’ve started over many times in my life and succeeded where before I had failed. That is why I’m proud to be an American, a Texan, because failure has made me stronger and taught me how to succeed. And in my sucess I have helped others make a good living and be sucessful. That my friends is how it is supposed to work.

    Not, making minorities or the poorer class permanent victims where that all they can do is hold their hands out for more and more government assistance. People have to be allowed to fail and to assume personal responsibility or they will forever remain victims and never be allowed to succeed.

    Soon if some (I will let you guess who) have their way, Americans will never succeed, but will just work for the betterment of their fellow man and the state.

    That my friends will be the end of this once great Republic and mark the beginning of an America that will be no better than the countries that Chavez, Castro and others have destroyed.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

  • Paul

    Methinks BHO had better do a better job of getting his plan out there and have it be transparent. I hear people say that he is trying to do an end run on health care. And the media (in large part) are trying to help him.

  • Mike A.

    “I for one don’t want someone else dictating what and what kind of health care my family will receive. ”
    Do you have data in the current proposals to support this?

    “Also, bankruptcy doesn’t frighten me (or millions of others). I’ve started over many times in my life and succeeded where before I had failed.”
    So Papa, were you thrown in jail when you declared bankruptcy and defaulted on your obligations or did the government regulations prevent this and help you (and millions of others) to rebound? And who do you think pays for you (and millions of others) failures? Look around at the citizens willing to pay taxes to provide you a safety net through your failures. Of course you’re not afraid of bankruptcy. Maybe you should be or it wouldn’t be so popular.

    I have never defaulted on any obligations in my 48 years of life and have given back to the government much, much, much more than it has given me. Guess that’s your definition of “the group that wants the government to take care of you and your family. ” I succeed, I support other’s failures, and I’m the irresponsible one.

    I am in the other percentage of people that believe the government has a role in the lives of it’s citizens. That role includes national defense, local defense, general safety (laws, regulations, building codes, etc) and some level of temporary safety net for those in need. Of course your opinion of what the government’s role in our lives will differ. Regardless our great nation has had some form of this for generations.

    Although I am sure you know your state’s history, but Texas was procured through a war which was successfully run by our military. Land was given away free to early settlers by the government to accelerate migration there. Probably the biggest government redistribution of wealth through land transfers ever…and the people of your state benefited. How ironic.

  • mw

    I’m not sure how your percentages add up, but in some permutation they need to sum to a convincing 53%-46% majority for a candidate who made no bones about “reforming” health care as a primary plank in his campaign.

    I didn’t vote for Obama, for reasons I made clear at the time. That does not prevent me from recognizing that there is a majority that want to see Heath Care reformed – a fact that was supported by the polling until recently. That the polls have eroded just tells me that Obama’s problem is not with Health Care reform, it is with the specific HR 3200 hairball that he has chosen to peddle.

    I am not defending the 3 points in the post on ideological grounds. In fact, my inner libertarian disagrees with the whole concept. I am just trying to understand what a majority of Americans actually want out of Health Care reform and I think these three items are as good a guess as any. HR 3200 falls short on two of the three and people are figuring it out.

    The real mystery is why Obama is choosing to peddle this particular piece of crap. It does not satisfy the left. It clearly does not satisfy the right. Polls show it is quickly losing support from independents and the elderly. I am wondering who is actually supporting this thing? If Obama stays on this path, all that are going to be left supporting it will be the hard-core kool-aid sipping Obama cult and Big Pharma – who bought and paid for this bill.

    Now I know that it is a common rationale to offer the fact that both the right and left oppose a bill as evidence that it is really a good compromise and “centrist”. That is one possibility. Another possibility is that it is a really really bad bill.

  • Nick Benjamin

    The real mystery is why Obama is choosing to peddle this particular piece of crap. It does not satisfy the left. It clearly does not satisfy the right. Polls show it is quickly losing support from independents and the elderly. I am wondering who is actually supporting this thing? If Obama stays on this path, all that are going to be left supporting it will be the hard-core kool-aid sipping Obama cult and Big Pharma – who bought and paid for this bill.

    Most leftists see this bill as a starting point, thus they’ll support it as long as it doesn’t get too watered down. It is nowhere near what we want, or what we think the country needs, but it’s a gigantic improvement on what we’ve got.

    The people Obama’s targeting are the stakeholders (aka: pharma, hospitals, Doctors, patient groups, etc) moderate Dems in the Senate and House. The stakeholders support it largely because it doesn’t go out of it’s way to screw any one of them. Before the Congressional break the moderates were behind it, too. They were negotiating hard, but they were behind it.

    Obama only cares about the polls because Congressman care about polls. He knows that once this gets passed most people will like it. The nightmare scenarios that give them cold feet will not come to pass, and it’ll help a lot of folks.

    The only question in my mind is how Congressman will react to the firestorm. I’d assume many of them would be a lot more timid because of it, but one of the big lessons of ’94 for Dems was that you don’t have a huge hullabaloo about reforming health care and then do nothing.

  • Papa Ray

    Mexico was the one giving out the land to settlers. But it came at a cost. Read up on it. The U.S. government had nothing to do with Texas at that time and for years afterward.

    Papa Ray

  • Conservative Blog

    The primary keys to a sale is listening to your customer. As long as Obama pretends to listen, nothing he’s selling, whether it be world peace or heath care, isn’t going anywhere.