Monday, April 26, 2010

In Defense of Salesmen (including Fab)

Yesterday I mocked Fab Tourre as a probable sales hack. I don't know him, but consider that he was selling a mortgage CDO derivative while the collateral that underlay it was collapsing in value (the ABX-HE 2007-1 BBB index had already started imploding, and was trading well below par). If Goldman did lose $83 MM on this deal as they say (because Goldman ended up long some of this issue), this means Fab did not tell Goldman this deal was doomed. He either mislead his own company, or was clueless as to what mortgage collateral credit analysis entails. I'm guessing the latter.

It should go without saying that while the average member of a group may be uninspiring, his group may have an essential function in society. Your average anything is a hack, mindlessly repeating tasks that get them through their daily toil. That's true for scientists, policemen, businessmen, lawyers--everyone. As Sturgeon's law states: 90% of everything is crap. Sales hacks have the distinguishing characteristics of knowing a few key tricks about persuasion, and a superficial knowledge about their product that is most useful to those who are totally ignorant. Their pitch benefits from a certain degree of ignorance.

Yet I should stress that salesmen are essential for a growing economy. Amar Bhide highlights the importance of entrepreneurial consumption, those consumers who buy things because they are 'neat', like iPods, iPads, or Photoshop. A small minority figure out a way to make these create really useful services, and these ideas create newer innovations. The consumers are the tinkerers whose trials-and-errors generates useful insights that can't be found via pure theory. An economy where consumers merely read their product manuals and followed the directions of the creators, would not discover as many valuable things. Salesmen encourage this entrepreneurial consumerism.

The benefits of salesmen are primarily that they are incented to educate the totally ignorant about the benefits of their product. If you are totally unaware of, say, databases, you might not know that using MS Access dominates using Excel at some point. Without someone getting paid, the chances you get this education are purely a function of serendipity. However, if you know a lot about databases, you might find the salesman annoying, because he neglects to inform you of alternatives to his database, such as MySQL, that are even better. Thus, the ignorance of salesmen is relative, and their primary beneficiary, the noob, is common enough, and is made better off moving his 5 MB excel sheets into Access. Given the pedestrian nature of your average consumer, nudging him to enjoy something slightly better is much more common, and important, than top-end refinements.

My prior post noting their ignorance was elitist, as most expert users find salesmen redundant, but we aren't their primary audience, and their benefit to the economy comes from the way they have sufficient knowledge and incentives to make a lot of consumers, especially those noobs, a little bit better. The point about Fab Tourre is that if we are going to learn something about the Credit Crisis of 2008, his level of knowledge is probably not useful to that end, in the same way that a MS Access salesman is not the best person for explaining the cutting edge trends in database development.


DaveinHackensack said...

This is an improvement over your previous post, but it's still not quite accurate. A good salesman will know about competitors' products, and will tell you about another company's alternative, if it is clearly better for your purposes than his company's product. As Thomas Lifson wrote,

"The best sales professionals have a bit of nobility to them, doing what's right for the customer, even if it costs them or their employers in the short run. They build trust and personal bonds and actively help their customers succeed, bringing far more than a shoeshine and a smile. The best sales professionals are all problem-solvers and dedicated to their customers."

Hacks don't, obviously, but as you noted in this post, all professions have hacks.

Also, the idea that salesmen are categorically redundant to experts is false as well. In a dynamic economy, there are always new products and services that even experts are unaware of. As a business development guy for a start-up I successfully sold private label partnerships incorporating my company's products to savvy executives who were experts in their industry -- but didn't know about my company's product, because it was new. When they heard about it, they liked it, and I worked with them to customize and private label it.

The idea that if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat its way to your door is false. It's hard selling even great new products. You have to get over prospective buyers' cynicism first, and their inherent wariness about being your first customer.

Anonymous said...

Eric, Wow ... you admit your view of salespeople was flawed. That's speaks well of you.
Although, your view of salespeople was pretty hard to defend.

Anonymous said...

agree totally with Eric, 95% of sales people are just uninsipring hacks (probably a fair amount of traders that couldnt really trade their way out of paper bags as well for that matter)...

But on the lighter side

A Man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He lowered altitude and spotted a man in a boat below. He shouted to him, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

The man consulted his portable GPS and replied, "You're in a hot air balloon approximately 30 feet above a ground elevation of 2,346 feet above sea level. You are 31 degrees, 14.97 minutes north latitude and 100 degrees, 49.09 minutes west longitude."

He rolled his eyes and said, "You must be a Derivatives Market Maker."

"I am," replied the man. "How did you know?"

"Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and I'm still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help to me."

The man smiled and responded, "You must be a Salesman."

"I am," replied the balloonist. "But how did you know?"

"Well," said the man, "You don't know where you are or where you're going. You've risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You've made a promise that you have no idea how to keep, and now you expect ME to solve your problem. You're in EXACTLY the same position you were in before we met, but somehow, now, it's MY fault.

Sorry couldnt help myself !!!