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"How can we help?"

Jan. 1, 2006
We are remarkably successful at making just about everything overly complicated.

by John Graham

We are remarkably successful at making just about everything overly complicated. Just give us a chance and we’ll do it. Almost any document written by a lawyer is prima facie evidence in support of this.

Life insurance is another example of a product that lost its way into a labyrinth of verbal nonsense. As one life insurance executive says, “There’s nothing complicated about it. Life insurance is a guarantee to pay when you die.”

That’s insurance made simple. Yet, the industry has made the product so convoluted that even its own salespeople require backup experts to explain it.

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Fortunately, everything isn’t this way. A week or so before Christmas - across the country - thousands of business executives stand on street corners, in malls, and at supermarkets ringing bells to help fill Salvation Army kettles.

Every major corporation, and thousands of smaller businesses, take special pride in making charitable donations, sponsoring community relations programs, and offering their owners and executives for service on nonprofit boards of directors.

As a nation, we take pride in being helpful. The cynics may say that we’re attempting to assuage our guilt for our “me first” attitude, on the one hand, and greed on the other.

Cynics aside, we like thinking of ourselves as “doing good” and being helpful. The image of the Boy Scout coming to the rescue by helping someone cross the street is engrained in our psyches.

When Bank of America announced that it was committing more than $700 billion to community efforts, the public response was positive, not cynical. Even though the bank may harbor less than noble motives, it was answering the question, “How can we help?”

There’s a valuable lesson in all this for marketing and sales. These disciplines often suffer from a lack of focus. In one respect, everyone is an expert when it comes to creating a marketing program. Sales managers seem to know all the answers on how to increase sales - or so they think.

Then, there are the marketers who pontificate with their seemingly authoritative studies and latest theories from the marketing guru of the moment. They talk about CPM, CRM, ROI, and the rest of it as if they are unveiling the Ten Commandments. The concepts can be valuable and they can make significant contributions to the marketing process. At the same time, however, it’s easy to get buried in confusing language and seduced by the latest and greatest “concepts.”

So, what’s the point? When you cut to the core, marketing and sales focus on a single question: “How can we help?” If you don’t understand this issue, you can’t understand either marketing or selling.

If this is the fundamental premise, then where can we go for a model?

Although it may come as a surprise to some, it’s the nonprofit sector that offers the clearest guidance as to what for-profit organizations should be doing. Why is this so?

Whether it’s Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Boys and Girls Clubs, or local social service agencies, each receives financial support and public approval because it’s perceived as meeting a worthwhile need. These organizations thrive and grow because they fulfill the mission of finding ways to respond to the needs of their constituencies. It’s that simple. If they lose their sense of mission, they fail.

The nonprofit model can be extremely useful in the for-profit sector. Here are several thoughts on why asking the “How can we help?” question can benefit businesses large and small:

* Force the focus on the customer. From a marketing and sales perspective, far too much time, energy, and money goes into getting the customer to do what we want, to accept what we feel is important, and to buy what we want to sell. Far too little thought goes into figuring out how we can help meet customer objectives.

This approach deserves a big, fat label: “Yesterday’s business philosophy.”

“We must sell 107 cars in the next 36 hours,” blares the radio ad. Such ignorance only reinforces the common belief that car dealers can’t be trusted. Asking customers to behave in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with what they believe to be in their best interests just won’t work.

On the other hand, the Costco-type warehouse stores grasped the “How can we help?” issue. They responded to a need to go beyond discount, and to provide meat, groceries, and other products packaged in larger quantities. It’s good for the consumer and Costco.

Or consider a successful hardware store operating in the direct shadow of a pair of Home Depot stores. It’s Curry Ace Hardware in Quincy, Mass. The moment you walk through the door, there’s a competent salesperson to take you to the right department of this relatively small, 4,500-square-foot store and help you find exactly what you need. With super-fast check out, getting out is as easy as getting in the store.

While Curry’s prices are competitive, price is irrelevant because the service is so superior. The store’s success is built on a “How can we help?” focus.

* Force the focus on the benefit to your target market. Sergio Zyman, Coca-Cola’s former top marketing officer, is on the right track when he says that much of what passes for innovation in companies is really a sign of boredom. Everyone wants the excitement that comes from creating something new.

Zyman learned this as part of the team that introduced the ill-fated “New Coke.” Heinz “Funky Fries” are another example -- chocolate-flavored and blue-colored fries. Can’t you hear the Heinz marketing people? “Wow! Wow! Wow! This is great!” Unfortunately, kids didn’t think so. Their response was “Yuck.” The Funky Fries went into the trash after less than a year on supermarket shelves.

Gerber came out with “Gerber Singles,” small servings of fruit, vegetables, and entrees in the company’s baby food jars. This proved to be a loser. Adults couldn’t relate to eating from baby food jars. In addition, the product made them feel lonely.

While these products were a good fit for the companies’ existing product lines, they were a poor fit for the consumer. They failed to meet a need, or help the customer in any way.

The powerful tendency to go from one marketing tactic to another, to constantly look for the latest and greatest product to fire up enthusiasm and sales, is the problem - not the solution.

Zyman is correct in suggesting that the focus should be on determining ways to deliver whatever we sell more effectively. And this means spending time and effort answering the “How can we help?” question.

The insurance agency that offers 24/7 claims reporting and online customer information updating is helping the consumer. The auto dealer who is open for service in the evening and all day on Saturday is helping. The bank in the supermarket is helping.

There’s nothing in all this that even remotely shouts, “We want to sell you something.” The message is on finding new ways to deliver the products and services we offer in more helpful ways. This approach works.

* Force the focus on what’s important. While wine has grown in popularity, it continues to be intimidating. Sure, there are the wine enthusiasts who enjoy intimidating the rest of us with their talk of bouquet, etc., and encyclopedic knowledge of individual wines.

What about the rest of us who have other interests in life? Well, John Casella, the Australian winemaker who brings us Yellow Tail Chardonnay and Shiraz, understands. He says, “People can’t be bothered by all the hype and nonsense of wine. They just want to drink it.” Yeah, that’s it. Casella deserves the “Marketer of the Decade” award. Who wants to feel stupid for not being able to decide on some asinine-sounding explanation about why we like a particular wine? In his simple, direct comment, Casella sets us free simply to enjoy a wine. This is the type of help that resonates with customers. It also pays off. Casella’s winery now sells 20 million cases a year of Yellow Tail - and counting!

*Force the focus on what grabs customer attention. Salespeople make the biggest blunder when they assume they know what’s important to a customer. Dunkin’ Donuts’ “cinnamon stick” is a case with correct focus. The company has learned that “gooey” doesn’t do it. We don’t want our fingers and mouths covered with sticky stuff, particularly while driving. The “cinnamon stick” comes in a neat little pocket so it’s easy to hold and eat with one hand. On top of that, you can have it warm if you like. That’s a winner.

In the same way, Volvo grabs customer attention with a little device that silences a cell phone ringer when you make a turn to avoid unnecessary distraction. There’s also a tiny side view mirror camera that helps avoid problems of changing lanes. Downside protection is a huge issue with consumers when it comes to financial products. This is one reason why the life insurance industry’s new guarantees are gaining enthusiastic acceptance. It isn’t always new, exciting, breakthrough products that attract buyers. Rather, it’s what’s helpful in ways that make sense to customers.

Far from a soft-headed or maudlin approach, the “How can we help?” question calls for a demanding analysis of what we’re doing in marketing and sales to focus on the customer.

Only when we are helping can we be sure we are not only serving the customer but the company’s objectives as well.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. The author of “The New Magnet Marketing” and “Break the Rules Selling,” he writes for a variety of business publications, and speaks on business, marketing, and sales topics for company and association meetings. Graham is the winner of an APEX Grand Award in writing, and the only two-time recipient of the Door & Hardware Institute’s Ryan Award in Business Writing. He can be contacted by mail at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170. Reach Graham via phone at (617) 328-0069, or e-mail at [email protected]. The company’s Web site is