It often is said, when someone complains about the annoyances of progress, “you can’t turn back the hands of time.” In one sense, this is unarguable; we travel through time in one direction only. But it has been pointed out that, when the clock is wrong, the only way to set it right is to adjust it. It also has been said, famously, that when you make an error in calculation, you must go back to that step and correct it, or you never will get the right answer. When you clearly are moving in the wrong direction, you change course.
We have been reminded of this by news reports of consumer studies that find dull old audio-only commercials to be more effective sales tools that the sort of sensory-overload video advertising nowadays thought to appeal to the younger generation. It seems that rapid presentation of images unrelated to one another, and to the product being advertised, confuse viewers and fail to encourage trial, or even to create awareness. According to some accounts, this discovery has been greeted with alarm, a sense of helplessness, a feeling that “nothing works.”
We find much contemporary advertising and sales promotion misguided, and we think the reason primarily is boredom. Creative people, especially younger ones, may tire of assembling radio spots instructing the drive-time audience in where to go get their brakes relined. It is much more fun, more exciting, to play with video and wild computer-generated special effects. It commands higher prices, too. The only downside is that it doesn’t work.
Those creative people might well object that they know when to use one approach or the other, but that their clients expect psychedelic graphics; anything more conventional is seen as outdated and tedious. If someone insists on paying much more for visual stimulation and a satisfied sense of pushing the envelope, it may be impossible to talk them out of it.
The gap between effectiveness and self-gratification has been a challenge for a long time; the ancient Greeks knew that the conduct which democracies seem to enjoy seldom is the conduct that will preserve them as democracies. Similarly, the behavior that suppliers prefer may not be the behavior that maximizes their sales.
For example, attendance at trade shows. It is easy to understand why a sales rep who has devoted the previous eight weekends to state and municipal restaurant shows might not look forward to spending a ninth weekend standing in a vending/coffee service exhibit. And it is natural enough that someone who is reluctant to do something will find reasons for not doing it. Still, most salespeople recognize that the key to success is knowing what prospective customers want. We think the way to find out is to ask them.
The whole contemporary impatience with “old” media and other sales promotion tools seems also to reflect the growing insistence on hitting a home run in every at-bat. The older conventional wisdom, “slow dimes are better than fast nickels,” never has been disproved; but it isn’t exciting and dynamic.
The danger in this may be more acute than the peril of misdirected advertising. A company can set out to astonish the world with quarter-over-quarter revenue gains, and it may succeed for a while. However, if that success is purchased at the price of alienating customers, degrading quality and otherwise losing touch with the market, the long-term effect will be disaster. Meanwhile, the sales department will not be encouraged to spend money showing products to a few prospects, and probably low-volume ones at that. It does not matter that those prospects may be the industry’s titans in seven or eight years. The turnaround wizard will be long gone by then, as (probably) will the company.
We think that recognition of all these things is dawning, slowly, and there is hope for improvement. No one selling approach will work for everyone, and professionals know which are appropriate to particular market segments. Not every product or service will appeal to teenaged males, however appealing their impulsive spending habits may be. Other people, like vending and coffee service operators as well as other adults, buy things too.
What’s needed, as always, is common sense, patience and enthusiasm for dealing with customers. Given those qualities, it’s usually possible to find a cost-effective medium through which to communicate the sales message effectively. Without them, nothing is likely to help very much.