Phil Friedman

5 years ago · 5 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

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Selling Bull Chips In a Paper Bag



Back when I was working my way through college, I was often told that the measure of an ace salesperson was his or her ability to, "sell bull chips in a brown paper bag..." (or some less polite variant of that). The implication was that a "good" salesperson could overcome buyer resistance and make even dung seem desirable.

Those were the days of fast-talking used car dealers hawking their wares on TV. Of cigarette companies using print and video images to make consumers believe that smoking was glamorous. And of Las Vegas based real estate developers, with pomaded hair and pencil mustaches, selling unimproved "investment" lots in the Nevada desert by mail.

But make no mistake. It wasn't just the slick sleazes who subscribed to that philosophy, Horatio. Just about every sales manager with whom I had contact in those days, echoed pretty much that same point of view. 

Personally, I was never comfortable with that as a business philosophy. For it presupposed that it didn't matter what degree of manipulation or misrepresentation might be involved, as long as you made the sale. Hooked the fish. Brought home the bacon. Or whatever euphemism might be used to disguise the adulation of a form of dishonesty that, for some unfathomable reason, society and the market elected to tolerate.

Now, of course, we've come a long way, baby...After all, the Harvard School of Business developed a full blown curriculum in business ethics, which has been duplicated by sundry other business schools worldwide. Corporate social responsibility and good citizenship have become watchwords ─ or perhaps more accurately, catchwords. And internet-based watchdog organizations now publish thousands, no, hundreds of thousands of "consumer" reviews of goods and services in the market. Surely then, the days of lionizing flimflam are long gone. Or not.

The common view is that customer relations management revolves around communication, at least according to the developers of CRM software...

Of late, I've seen repeated over and over again the expression that, "Communication is everything."  Indeed, just the other day, I received a marketing piece from a software company pushing its proprietary CRM (Customer Relations Management) system. What was interesting about the pitch was a purported survey of customers which lead to the conclusion that the single most important factor in customer satisfaction was communication -- and by a 30% higher ranking than the second most important factor. Wow!

Well... maybe not exactly wow. Leaving aside that the survey in question sampled only 35 respondents, how was the question formulated? If I ask you what is the most important factor in your being satisfied as a customer, and then give you, as one of the response choices, "a top notch buying experience", what do you think will be the result of the survey

Yet, it is only those who already accept the axiom that communication is everything, who will equate "top notch buying experience" entirely with having a pop-up window for ordering assistance, being sent an order confirmation, being sent a shipping notice with tracking information, being sent tracking notices, being sent a notice that the package you already received has been delivered, and finally being sent a thank you note with information on other products in which you might be interested (based on the company's surreptitious and insidious tracking of your web browsing habits).

  A "top notch buying experience" is first and foremost founded on receiving the goods and/or services promised, as represented and in a timely manner...

Please understand that I do not pretend to be a Marketing Guru, nor do I seek the mantle of Sales Iconoclast.  I simply should like to suggest to you that a "top notch buying experience" is first and foremost founded on receiving the goods and/or services promised, as represented and in a timely manner. In addition, that a top notch buying experience also presupposes one receiving quality and value commensurate with, or in excess of  the purchase price. Communication is, I submit, icing on the cake, if you will. Or sauce on the steak. Or the whip cream on your pie. And the reality is that icing or sauce or whip cream alone will not leave most customers satisfied.

At some point, you have to deliver the product as promised, whether that product is goods or services, and whether the promise was overt or implied. (No weaseling out with excuses like, "Well, we didn't really say you'd get wheels with your bicycle.")

Ask yourself the following: If you needed an operation, would you rather have a surgeon whose bedside manner was impeccable and oh so reassuring, but whose O.R. record indicated a high percentage of patients who croaked on the operating table... or would you choose a surgeon whose manner might be on the short or gruff side, but whose record of success rate was hard on 100%?

Would you rather have an auto mechanic who remembered your name, and those of your wife and children, who served you coffee and stood around talking about sports with you, but who often left off wheel nuts when he changed your tires, or managed not to tighten the filter properly when he changed your oil... or would you choose a not-so-warm-and-fuzzy technician who simply got the job done correctly, on time, every time?

Communication plays a role in a customer's buying experience , but it does not substitute for quality of goods or competence of service...

What does it say about a company whose "customer service department" is so large that it is forced by fiscal considerations to outsource "customer communications" to independent call center operations in countries where labor rates are exceedingly low? (Never mind that linguistic and cultural disconnects, often make a sad joke of such approaches to customer relations.) It tells me that the heads of management in those companies have their heads where the sun never shines. It tells me that they would do better to reduce the number of complaints about which to communicate, that is, to pay more attention to delivering quality product in the first place.

Granted, every customer base may include some people who are concerned more with being made to feel important, than with actually receiving fair value for what they are spending. Just as it will include some people who will never allow themselves to be fully satisfied, whether about quality, or price, or delivery, or whatever. And in such cases, hyper-attention to CRM may help. However, such cases seem to me to be a very small subset, and need to be recognized as such.

Granted as well, that relations with even ideal customers benefit from attention to timely and consistent communication, especially when problems arise and delays are experienced. However, it does not follow that communication is "everything." It does not follow even that communication is the main thing. (Which I suppose could be considered a stunning statement from someone who builds a consulting practice around communication -- but that is a discussion for another time.)

No, delivering a quality product and fair value are the primary factors in achieving satisfactory overall customer experience. Without these two essential ingredients, the rest is just bull chips in a bag. ─ Phil  Friedman

Author's Notes:  The use of certain colloquial expressions in this article is not intended to disparage or denigrate in any way the use by persons and businesses of cow or other animal dung for purposes other than as fertilizer.─ PF

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About me, Phil Friedman:  With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.

The (optional-to-read) pitch: As a professional writer, editor, university educator, and speaker, with more than 1,000 print and digital publications, I've recently launched an online program for enhancing your expository writing: learn2engage — With Confidence. My mission is to help writers and would-be writers improve the clarity of their thought and writing, master the logic of discussion, and deal confidently with criticism and disagreement. To schedule an appointment for a free 1/2-hour consult email:

Text Copyright 2016 by Phil Friedman — All Rights Reserved
Images Credits:  Phil Friedman and Google Images

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Claire L Cardwell

4 years ago #14

Phil Friedman - I remember back in the early 90's when I found that journalists in London were severely underpaid and chose to go and work in the sales and marketing department instead. We all had to stand up at our desks when we made calls to 'keep the energy high', and there were cheesy slogans everywhere like 'smile when you dial' or horror of horrors the '7 no's ladder'. It was only far far later that we were allowed to take a more consultative approach and actually listen to what our clients or potential clients wanted. Even to this day I get calls from people who are following a script, answer no when I ask them if they are trying to sell me something and from time to time persistently ask for my boss...

Phil Friedman

4 years ago #13

Thanks, Jim Murray, for reading and commenting -- a second time. I re-posted this because I think it was largely ignored the first time around. The fact is the issue is an important one, whether we're talking about selling, marketing, advertising or customer service. What's at issue is, to my mind, the distinction between appearance and reality. And as you correctly perceive, value lives in the world of reality; in the world of appearance, there are only deception and delusion. Cheers, bud!

Jim Murray

4 years ago #12

Well, it's another Friedman miracle. A piece on communication that's really all about value. Either way you make a lot of solid points, and believe it or not, those of us who are actually not in the flavour of the month communications business think a lot about the value proposition. Because without it...well bullchips in a bag is as apt a metaphor as anything. Just noticed this is my second comment. Oh well, it's your second wind with this post. It's all good.

Phil Friedman

4 years ago #11

I agree, Franci. Being a customer is somewhat like being a social media user -- as a customer, receiving what you ordered and paid for is of core importance, while as a social media user, being touched by genuine engagement is core. In both cases, empty strokes and pats on the back do not do the job. Thank you, as always for reading and the kind words. Cheers!
So much of the communication has become "iffy", IMO. I'm not easily persuaded and totally agree with the delivery of promise in order for me to believe in the product. Perhaps, that's not the right way to say but I need to see it, read it, re-confirm it before I listen to someone's BS. Cool post. Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

4 years ago #9

You could make similar points about advertising and marketing...

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #8

Yes, Jim Murray, the simile that always comes to mind is the surgeon who has a great bedside manner but an abysmal success record in the O.R. versus the gruff, unpersonable surgeon who, nevertheless, has a 90% plus success rate on the cutting table. I know whom I would choose. Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers!

Jim Murray

5 years ago #7

Good post, Amigo. I was very lucky during my agency career to work with companies who understood the necessity of building a real benefit into their products. Using that as the focus of our communication we were able to create advertising that actually sold the product instead of stuff that simply set the consumer up of a product performance let-down, which related directly to your point right above the smiley guy.

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #6

Tes, Dale Masters. I think the only solution is to have by-subscription ad-free networks. Something we may see soon, if Netflix and others continue to create original content successfully. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #5

Randy Keho, at guys from Chitown say it like it is. If bull chips was ice, most "customer relations management" would be Antarctica. Cheers!

Randy Keho

5 years ago #4

Wow! This is the type of discourse I'd hoped this hive would generate and we've only just begun. You start with Phil's topic, written in his professionally conversational style ( does that make sense? Well, consider whose posing the question). It generates responses from a number of equally experienced bees, which may lead to further conversations regarding the responses themselves. Take the ball and run with it! Having spent quite a few years in what I thought was customer service, I eventually discovered, while surfing job sites, that the current definition of customer service sounds a lot like telemarketing in reverse. Answer a phone while sitting at some desk located in Timbuck II, listen to the customer's complaint, empathize, half-heartedly tell them their important and that you'll gladly contact someone who will address their issue, and then introduce a new product you're selling for their consideration. What?

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #3

Thank you, @Praveen Raj Gullepalli, for reading and commenting. You are spot on in understanding what this is all about. Hey, don't look so surprised at my saying that. You would be astounded by the number of people who just don't get it. And think that customer sevice amounts to a kind pat on the back and a kind voice. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #2

Yes, Aurorasa Sima, it is a disconnect. The idea that you can manage customers with "good communications", but never get around to actually delivering what was promised in terms of quality of goods or services. I tend to think the attitude was originally sown and nurtured in the computer software industry, where you can deliver an expensive product in little more than a Beta test version, then charge the client for correcting the defects that shouldn't have been there in the first place. Thank you for reading and commenting. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

5 years ago #1

Well, Brian Brian McKenzie, that was a legitimate selling of bull chips -- as I allowed in my postscript author's notes. What is not legitimate is promising customer service but handing off a bag of bull chips instead. Thanks for reading and commenting. And cheers!

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