Tag Archives: selling

Faceless Giants


There’s no surprise in the fact that no human wants to take our call at banks, government offices, or the vast number of other services that have set up robotic phone routing systems.

Cultural observers have been noting for some time that we are at the beginning of a revolution in robotics. The prediction has it that machines will do what has previously been done by people, even in many service industries.  In truth this transformation has been going on for a long time.  Ask anyone who has tried to reach a service provider such as a utility or cable company.  Robots now “answer” the phones in the nation’s largest customer service centers and many smaller businesses as well.

It is up to us to push buttons and envision menus to find approximations to the questions we need addressed. No live human really wants to greet us at our banks, government offices, or any other of the dozens of services that have set up routing systems that might save a little money.  But it’s worth pausing to notice what we’ve lost.

At best, the human/automated system “interface” is often frustrating, time consuming and—could it be otherwise?—dehumanizing.  Everyone has horror stories about the company that touts its customer service, but still manages to tie us up for the better part of a morning.  Indeed, long phone queues are becoming the norm for many firms, especially those who have already sold their services to a customer.

Medical insurance companies seem to be the worst. Anyone who must reach them to clarify a payment or seek permission for a medical procedure will run the equivalent of a sports decathlon. Professionals who must deal with them as part of their work now equip themselves with phone headsets, antacids and other work that can done while they wait out a company with no financial incentive to deal with a claim. This is a new kind of political-style filibuster found in many businesses after a point-of-sale exchange is finished.

There are a few faceless giants for whom contact with another sentient creature is virtually impossible. Trouble with Google e-mail?  You are on your own.  Hit the “?” key and the best you can get is a link to little generic “help” essays that mostly end in useless cul-de-sacs.  Google is a huge “service provider” without service.  Apple’s iTunes can be as bad.  Apple’s famous “closed system” philosophy is, well, not much help to those of us without Steve Job’s intuitions.

If we want a visual reference to these faceless giants, think of a downtown telephone exchange building in a large city, perhaps 12 stories high with no windows, no markings, and no welcoming access for pedestrians.  (There’s a large one owned by A.T.&T. in Tribeca at 33 Thomas Street)  If you have business inside, it will have to be conducted through a wire.

AT&T Long Lines building in lower                               Manhattan

A friend actually has a phone contact at super-giant Amazon.com. and can report that there are live people who can deal with a customer.  But she guards this hard-won secret with her life.

There are positive stories as well. I am happy to report that the electronics maker Onkyo will connect a customer to an engineer who will troubleshoot a problem over the phone. They actually seem pleased to be able to help, even though the buyer may have purchased a modestly priced item. The same is true at my local Ford dealer. A person always responds to a call. That’s really no surprise. The owner is a gifted salesperson.  Potential sales or repairs are not opportunities he wants to farm out to an electrical router.

An old switchboard or its electronic equivalent requires a human to connect us to another human. No integrated circuit is trying to be a person.

But it’s mostly true these days that someone who wants to experience customer service will probably be most satisfied calling 911 or eating in a restaurant.  Save the emergency call for an emergency. As for restaurants, longtime owner Jeff Benjamin notes that he tries to hire people who have a “hospitality gene.”  These are people who get genuine pleasure in making their customers happy. (Front of the House, 2015).  Alas, with notable exceptions, the gene isn’t found in the management or customer service staff at a lot of businesses.

There’s a generational difference as well.  My students don’t expect much help from other humans in service positions. In fact many prefer to raise questions about a product or order food without any direct human contact. They are “digital natives” used to the equipment and “apps” that are supposed to make life simpler and self-correcting. But here’s the requisite “I remember when.” In my student days soon after California became a state my duties included working in a dormitory with the responsibility ofrunning a modest switchboard. That meant that someone was in charge and on call to help if there was a problem.  When they were in wide use, every staffed switchboard at an organization or business was its own local 911. An old switchboard or its electronic equivalent requires a human to connect us to another human. A live body is at the center of the network. No integrated circuit is trying to be a person. We surely lost something when operators and phone receptionists more clearly knitted people to each other.

The American Pitch

Selling Lemonade in 1960 Wikipedia.org
Selling Lemonade in 1960                   Wikipedia.org

At the beginning of the American Century most citizens believed that social mobility was possible if a person was bold and audacious enough to seek it. 

In a professional baseball game a pitcher’s arm may only last 50 or 60 pitches.  But playing the game of American life may require that we never stop. To each other we pitch for charities, business ideas, book proposals, movies, advertising campaigns and political contributions.  Most of us know the rules. Make the best case you can in a compact time period you are given. And never get caught throwing curve balls.

One kind of pitch is the fundraiser. It’s perhaps a function of our times that we are flooded with invitations to attend events designed to raise money for causes that are worthy, but starved for support.  A recent fundraiser at a posh country club was raising funds for a non-profit organization that provides basic housing and life skills for the developmentally disabled.  Amidst the brie and smoked salmon a room of well-healed people joined an auction to bid on weekend getaways and meals at 4-star restaurants, with all of the money going to the cause. Similarly, local newspapers regularly feature heartrending attempts to crowd-source the costs of an essential medical treatment that a community member cannot otherwise receive. Only in America do we seem to miss the irony of ubiquitous pitches made by neighbors to find dollars to fund services that other advanced societies provide to all.

A friend in London notes that she mostly encounters sidewalk pitches for non-profit organizations. But the appeals are usually to benefit distant populations suffering from famine or other scourges. The goal is to make a quick plea for a worthy cause, with a follow-up request asking the listener to immediately text the money to the needy group. Another friend in Denver confirms a similar pattern, but for more local charities.  She cautions that a walk up busy 16th Street at the center of downtown is done more easily if pretending to talk on a phone. That apparently keeps those who are ready to pounce at bay.

We have also institutionalized pitches.  Candidates meet with potential donors mostly in private to make the case that they alone can rescue the nation. Presidential politics has now become a fully commercialized enterprise. PBS television stations have similarly turned their once-gentle requests for funds into sometimes gaudy infomercial extravaganzas. Television has even enshrined the act of making a pitch in shows like CNBC’s Shark Tank, where the proposals of budding entrepreneurs function as a kind of entertainment.  We get to see how potential investors react to a “hard-sell” made by a dreamer claiming to have invented the next big thing.

The man “on the make” is an American type, enshrined in such social science classics as Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans (Vintage, 1973) and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd  (Yale, 1961).  As members of a younger and still unformed society our forbearers knew that social mobility was possible if a person was bold and audacious enough to seek it. This kind of up-by-your-bootstraps optimism marked the dominant style of early MGM films such as Babes in Arms (1939), and has been lovingly caricatured  in the Coen Brother’s Hudsucker Proxy (1994).  The brashness of American hype is a fantasy about ourselves that we still celebrate.

What makes a good pitch for a new product or service?  Circumstances require different approaches, but as a general rule the presenter can usually rely on a few elemental guidelines.

1. Be brief and to the point. Explain the concept quickly. Then move on to the comparative advantages that make the new idea superior to competing products or services.

2. Explain the unmet need that is satisfied with the new product.

3. Put the audience in the picture. How might they or a family member use the service?

4. Sell your experience and know-how as part of the deal. It's true of investors that they want the expertise of the pitch-maker as much as they want the product or service.

No business school today could be without courses that require sales and marketing students to storm their classes with a blizzard of hypothetical opportunities too good to pass up. That is one of many possible reminders of why a cultural milestone like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) remains not just a sad family saga, but a quintessential American tragedy.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.eduPerfect Response logo