Ready to Sell? Quick–Name Your Prospect’s Issue!


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Author Michael Korda said “great leaders are almost always great simplifiers who cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everyone can understand and remember . . . straightforward but potent messages.”

As the photo illustrates, simplicity alone doesn’t make a message potent. What’s missing? Two crucial factors that Howard Gardner describes in his book Leading Minds: how effectively the scripts are enunciated and how convincingly the deliverers of the communications embody the scripts. On those dimensions, “now serving food” doesn’t demand rigorous analysis.

In marketing and sales, we live and breathe message potency. We have to. Everything we do must nudge, push, or demand a change in one or more entrenched behaviors. So, when it comes to potency, could the intended change be as significant as the message itself?

To answer that, we must address a challenge even more basic than potency: how to select the right issue to address in the first place. From experience, I know it’s hard to get it right. In business, we tout high ROI when our clients want strategic enablement. We push strategic enablement when cost reduction matters most. We communicate about best practice knowledge transfer when the greater issue is how to build communities. We promote social media tools to build communities when a client’s overarching concern is managing profitable growth. Our assumptions leave us in a fog of sometimes-happy ignorance. Most exasperating, our prospective clients usually can’t tell us that we’re attacking the wrong issues because they’re not even aware of our companies or our products!

Happily, every now and then, we find a great example that reminds us that we can connect to visceral issues and make our communications potent—but first we have to understand what the issues are. An advocacy group called Food Democracy Now (FDN) has a mission is to advance “the dialogue on food, family farm, environmental and sustainability issues at the legislative and policy level.” Against a powerful food industry lobby intimate with the complexities of the Farm Bill and the machinations of the National School Lunch Program, Dave Murphy, FDN’s president, faces a daunting challenge. According to a recent article in The Washington Post (“Where Policy Grows,” March 25), Mr. Murphy recognizes that it’s not only important to understand the legislation, but to “recast the debate about good food from a moral battle to an economic one. Take the school lunch program, which Congress will review this year. Food activists have long argued that more fruits and vegetables from local producers should be included to help improve childhood nutrition. But Murphy says the better way to sell the idea to legislators is as a new economic engine to sustain small farmers and rural America as a whole (italics, mine). Talk about nutrition and you get a legislator’s attention, he said. ‘But you get his vote when you talk about economic development.'”

Bland? After all, ‘economic development’ lacks originality—many times over. In addition, because righting economic wrongs isn’t FDN’s primary mission, Mr. Murphy could be forgiven for being more pedantic about nutrition, health, and the environment. But he knows that by building an economic frame around his cause that FDN will accomplish more than it could through moral grandstanding. By going after the wrong issue Mr. Murphy would find promoting his cause a much tougher row to hoe (pun intended).

Mr. Murphy’s circumspection about issues applies equally to other marketing challenges with differing complexities. What does finding the right issue mean for achieving a targeted return on invested capital? Sales productivity? Reducing sales risks and shortening sales cycles? Meeting revenue forecasts? Everything. Attacking the wrong problems (or attacking the right problems the wrong way) creates a cascading set of selling failures. When it comes to changing entrenched behaviors, not all issues are created equal. For maximum potency, messages need a highly motivating context, and that means choosing the right issue.

Like FDN, when you find the right one, you can change the world!


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