A Rant Against Sales Cannibalism

Since the dawn of mankind selfishness has been a human characteristic. Many philosophers over the years have advised us to embrace selflessness. The major religions of the world are racked with conflict because in doctrine they espouse caring and concern but are taken over by the radicals, who for personal gain, twist the values of their respective religion to serve their own purpose. This creates major credibility issues and the spurning of organized religion because many followers don’t practice what they preach and are identified as hypocrites. What about us? What about the piano industry? How do we effectively serve the higher good which is getting music into the lives of as many humans as possible? Let’s take an introversive look at our selling culture. Self-examination can be painful so bail out now if you’re not in the mood for it… this is going to get real.

Cannibalism up close: I will get around to how all this pertains to the piano business and the writing is intended to be somewhat entertaining so please be patient and allow me to start at the beginning; in the late nineteen eighties I took on a sales position in Nashville. My job was to call on local businesses (yes, cold calling) and find people who would allow me to present them a direct mail program entitled MainStreet Marketing. The program was just getting started in Nashville and my sales manager, the guy who hired and trained me, was my direct superior. I may not have been the world’s most talented representative but I believed that computers were changing the world and that what we called “database marketing” back then was a truly great tool for the “mom’s and pop’s I was calling on. That plus I really needed to make a living so I could stay in Music City so I was determined as hell to make this job work.

I prospected and handed in the prospect sheets as instructed. The sales manager, we’ll call him John (might even be his real name – the bum) closed a deal for me so I could see how it was done and then I was off to the races!…of so I thought. I kept calling on enough people to hit my goal of booking at least 3 presentations a week but it was frustrating as could be because I would come into the office to prep for the next presentation only to have John discourage me from going to that appointment. He either went with me and cut me in on half the deal (plus he was getting an over-ride) or told me they called in an canceled every other time. I was really confused because I thought I had performed my 5 Step sales process well and was convinced that these were truly qualified candidates for what I was selling. I trusted that these appointments were as solid as they felt but every other one blew out. This continued for weeks … then one fine day John, my sales manager, was out of the office so I strolled in and sat down to wait for him noticing that his office door was wide open and I could see some proofs on his desk. The proofs were matted on large black backboards to present to the clients. From my seat I could see the content of two of them. Prospects of mine he had told me called in and weren’t going to proceed with the campaign.

I walked out. This was before cell phones so I couldn’t snap a shot of the proofs for evidence but I knew he was stealing from his own sales person, me. Cannibalism. I had an up front, in person, encounter with it. If you’ve ever been ripped off you can relate. If you’ve ever been ripped off losing something that you worked to build (like a relationship deal) that’s even worse. It is a taste that never leaves your mouth.
End of story: I went over the bosses’ head and he was relieved of his duties and I was made the youngest district manager in the country. When they figured out who was really out on the streets working they gave me a position I wasn’t even expecting, They said that the amount of prospecting I was doing successfully needed to be passed on to the others and off I went! From salesman to sales manager in zero to sixty. Who says timing doesn’t have anything to do with sales? The moral of this story? Crime doesn’t pay? Maybe. The BIGGER lesson for anyone reading who is an owner or sales manager is not simply the wrong he did but the opportunity for himself and his company he would never realize. Instead of mentoring and adding more talent to the stable and helping grow the company he became a victim of his own cannibalism.

Cannibalism comes in levels but is always destructive because of what it does to the chemistry of a sales organization or industry. Allow me to give you some examples of it in our industry, some obvious, some more subtle. Who knows, when I’m done listing them maybe I’ll arrange them in order of severity from top to bottom. I won’t go into great detail individually because each one could spin off an article of their own but here we go…

Self inflicted piano industry cannibalistic activities include:

A) Eventitis: The perpetual investing in one weekend sale after another so that NONE are believable any longer. Guess what folks – if you are ALWAYS throwing a sale that is your real price. I get it when we’re moving used inventory but at least with new products couldn’t we sell value over price?** The cynicism conditioning in the market place is most often self inflicted.

I was in Detroit a couple of years back going to a seminar on event selling and the cab driver asked what we were doing, a cabbie mind you, and so we told him, the gentleman I was with and I. When we were explaining he chimed in, “oh, yea, like the college sale they have every other month around here. I wouldn’t know we had so many schools except for those school sale letters I get so often.” So let me ask you a couple questions my valued reader: how does a cabbie get so many of these unless it is saturation and not highly targeted? how compelling is the message if it is totally worn out and not a “controlled substance?”

The reason why so many event themes are not as effective as they once were is because of the “monkey see, monkey do” plagiarism. Every dealer in many markets did the same basic sale until it didn’t work nearly as well and in many markets died. Setting appointments got harder and harder because the consumer felt like if they missed it there was another opportunity right around the corner. There was nothing so compelling or unique about the offer any longer. An every other year offering of a particular theme would keep it fresh and viable but the Eventitis syndrome is a strong drug and the addicted are pulled to come back to the well way too many time for their own good. I’ve given this advice about symphony sales for years as dealers work their asses off to meet the numbers they used to and he few who have listened have felt better results, especially if it was a symphony who was a working and willing partner.

In short: if you are still relying on weekend sales to “make your year” you are not giving day to day sales their due. With the Internet as a tool events themselves should be a “controlled substance.”
B) Manufacturers Competing With Dealers: Many manufacturer policies place themselves in a competitive posture with their dealer network. I need to be careful in how I present this opinion because I don’t really want to accomplish poor political positioning but there may be no way to accomplish that AND be truthful so what the hell, here goes the truth…

When a manufacturer sets themselves up in competition with the independent dealer/principal they are being cannibalistic. I love the idea of e-commerce but instead of the manufacturer dedicating a national percentage of the dealer revenue and providing marketing tools to help their dealers get in on the action they shave off some of their own dollars and often create a direct funnel of revenue. Any time the manufacturer starts going directly to the consumer and does an “end around” the dealers they de-motivate their most valued resource; the folks in the trenches.

C) Ownership/Management Competing with Their Own Sales Staff: Remember the story I told about my first experience with cannibalism? The observation I’ve made in our industry isn’t about being an all-out thief, it is more a structural Faux pas.

Many location managers or on the job owner/sales persons are in direct competition with the sales people they hire. They take an “up” when it is their turn instead of building a killer sales environment. They also believe that hiring a sales person with piano sales experience is a hell of a lot more important than it is. A business person, just like any other person, has about ten business hours a day with which to work on his empire. How can you possibly mentor and grow at an acceptable rate if you have the “if you want anything done, you have to do it yourself” mentality? or if you believe you can’t take a musical loving individual with good people skills and teach them how to sell a piano? You MUST be able to duplicate and perpetuate your sales philosophy if you are to reach your businesses income earning potential. What you need to be in control of is the sales culture of your organization not the actual selling itself. Five well trained sales associates will out sell any one super star regardless of their talent, besides why work hard when you can work smart and build a team?

My Point?: way too many sales managers and owners don’t place enough emphasis on chemistry and team work. They are in competition for the commission sales dollars – BAD mistake. Learn to give back some of your sales secrets and build your business while you help young sales people build their lives.

D) Not Understanding the BIG picture. Here are some unpopular statements methinks: Steinway need Yamaha and Yamaha need Steinway. They both need Kawai to build and sell value, not price. Competition brings out the best in us all. The NFL understands the market place value of parity. People everywhere watch more football if the games are good and there aren’t so many blowouts. Overall piano interest grows the market place pie so everybody’s piece gets bigger but piano dealers and sale people act like we can’t create market, we can only sell to the market which exists and if someone else gets a sale they in essence have taken money out of your bank account. This is the perfect definition of a “zero sum mentality.” Let me ask you this: did Nike really hurt their competitors by making celebrity tennis shoes a multi-billion dollar affair? I think not. I believe that Addidas, Sketchers and many other lines profited immensely from the Michael Jordan paradigm. So why doesn’t Steinway have Billy Joel and Harry Connick Jr on national TV espousing the educational, mental and spiritual health benefits of playing the piano? Why not tell all families, especially the children who drive the parent dollars, how cool it is to play? Why isn’t Elton John, Alicia Keys and Paul McCartney talking to our next generation of players/revenue providers? A lack of foresight or understanding? A zero sum mentality? We might aid music in general and how can that realistically help us? Is oit always about the harvest and never planting seeds? If so we have no future and the term “shrinking industry” will prevail. We will fight over the select few who still care as the world moves on. We’ll turn onto a modern day episode of the Twilight Zone, a show about a world which used to exist because we could only cash in on market share, not create any. This is cannibalism at it’s most extreme.

E) Abandoning Traditional Musical Values: The keyboard is often the bane of the piano sales person’s existence. Years ago the keyboard was thought of as an inexpensive way to get lots of consumers hooked on playing a piano type instrument and therefore it would be the catalyst to bring many people to the place where they would love to play something inexpensive so much that they would want the real thing. Is that something like getting folks hooked on burgers so they’ll need a filet minion? Selling value – not price, teaching culture not convenience is the path to a more educated and appreciative musical society. The “easy way” is rarely the way to accomplish true appreciation or if you are a player or composer the way to greatness. The marriage of technology and tradition is the key.

Our young, brilliant CTO and Co-Founder Joey Bouza, is our partner because he believed in building that bridge – the one between today and yesterday. He believed that the lessons learned from days gone by should not be abandoned but digitized and made available to a whole new generation of young business professionals in the piano industry. Traditional values are to be made more accessible, not forgotten through technology. These are the things we should appreciate most about the Disklavier and more recently Spirio. The marriage of yesterday and today, not to the exclusion of either. The cannibalism to fend off? Tjhe human tendency to do the easy thing instead of the right thing. We must preach the benefits the masters taught us, not allow it to be swept away in the age of gadgetry.

In closing, I must say I see light at the end of the tunnel. I believe that many current piano companies are starting to understand that being the best “them” they can be is the most important thing and that placing music into as many lives as possible is more profitable than always worrying about what your competitor is doing. I believe that some of the old grudges between dealers are dying with the advent of the Gen Xer’s taking more ownership of the piano dealerships. I believe a spirit of “being on a mission to convince people of how damn important music can be to their lives” is becoming the message, not buy here because you’ll save “X” amount. Value over price and art over convenience… that is where we’re headed if we are to be a healthy and profitable industry. More than anything we must believe in what we do so much that we do it with honor, music deserves that, don’t you agree?

** I once trained a young man to sell pianos who had never sold before and purposely left out the art of negotiating. I convinced the young man that MSRP was a fair price. He sold the benefits not the price. I was called in to the owners office because something was obviously amiss! There was something wrong with young Fredrick (fictitious name injected), he must be missing a lot of deals because he always wrote business at MSRP. He had only turned one over to management in three months. After checking his closing ratio and seeing that it was above 40% (which for floor traffic ain’t bad) he started to realize that the money being left on the table wasn’t from the newby, it was being left there as a result of bad habits by the established sales pros! The new guy was selling for much better margins simply because he didn’t know any better.

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