A Man from Mars Looks at Sales and Marketing

Trade journals are filled with articles by professionals who dispense wisdom and advice based upon their decades of experience and extensive knowledge of the subject. What you don’t often find are articles by people who don’t have years of experience in a field, but have seen enough to know the right questions to ask, and who bring the value of an outsiders’ perspective.

Many years ago, Robert Townsend wrote a book about management called Up the Organization. One of the tenets he espoused was the “Man from Mars” approach. What would someone who just dropped in from Mars and knew nothing about your organization think about the way you do things? His theory was to look at a process as if you’d never done it before.

Of course, a skeptic might say that years of experience are better than being a Man from Mars. There aren’t a lot of Martian CEOs in the Fortune 500. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer once said to his manager, Earl Weaver, “The only thing you know about pitching is that you couldn’t hit it.” One could similarly say that, as a finance person, the only thing I know about sales and marketing is that I couldn’t do it. But I’ve seen many sales and marketing operations in action, and I’ve seen the results of those operations in the form of profits, good or bad receivables, and sometimes insolvency. I’ve seen a lot over the last forty years, and one of the most puzzling and contradictory things I’ve learned is that while most owners love their timeshare interval, most also dislike the way in which it was sold to them.

For decades, timeshare sales presentations have been the subject of comedians’ routines and situation comedy skits, mostly based upon the pressure placed on prospects to buy the day they come to the sales center. I’ve seen many people come from other disciplines and attempt to sell timeshare with a laid-back, come-back-if-you’re-interested approach, and I’ve never seen it work. People go to a realtor because they need a place to live. Most people attend a timeshare presentation to get a free gift without buying anything. Too frequently, that results in a dialogue in which the salesperson is applying pressure and the prospects are trying to fend it off. Companies that find ways to create a sense of urgency without creating a sense of anxiety are the ones that will be successful. A developer once said to me, “People say they buy from us because there was no pressure. They don’t understand. Of course, there was pressure. The key is that the pressure has to be subtle.”

One way of making the pressure subtler might be to eliminate things like the “price drop.” We all know how that works. The opening price is $35,000, but after 90 seconds of tepid negotiation, it’s $25,000, and if you buy today and become a platinum, gold, and silver charter member, it’s $18,000. At that point, a handful of prospects think they’re great negotiators, and the rest become suspicious.

Over the past few years, the process of buying a car has changed. Thanks to the internet, people literally have information about you and your product at their fingertips and in the palm of their hand. With a minimal amount of research, they can learn that the average price of the car they want to buy is $24,437, and they tell the dealer that’s what they’ll pay. And they know the average value of their trade-in is $5,679. There’s still a little haggling, but the drama of the salesperson running to the manager and claiming they’ll be fired if they give you the car for a certain price has pretty much disappeared. Car dealers now take pride in advertising the fact that their prices are their prices and you don’t have to come in for a knock-down, drag-out fight to get a fair deal.

Most timeshare developers will tell you that the price they sell for is usually pretty close to the ultimate drop price, so why not post the prices and eliminate the drama and suspicion? If car dealers can change, so can timeshare developers.
One thing that many organizations are now doing is something that everyone should do—reinforcing the buyer’s decision during the rescission period and being proactive in making the new owner confident in their purchase. For years, the accepted practice was to hunker down in the foxhole and hope the rescission notice didn’t arrive.

Tom Lyons, President of Global Connections, likes to tell a story about visiting the sales office of one of his distributors and seeing a couple walk in. They were carrying the company’s collateral materials and had obviously just bought the product. “There were two salesmen there,” Lyons said, “and as soon as they saw these people come in, they ran and hid in their offices.”

Lyons talked to the couple and found out that they were looking to refer some friends. He then went back, dragged the salesmen out from under their desks, and explained that the company sold a product they could stand behind and that the next time recent purchasers returned with questions, it would be a good idea to welcome them and answer the questions.

The most difficult thing about change is that it has to be done without exception—in the collateral materials, the people you hire, the presentation, the close, and everything else about the sales process. It’s easy to slip in one aspect when other priorities emerge. I once worked for a community bank that prided itself on warm customer service. Then, after a workplace shooting, it was decided that we needed a secured entry system to protect us from potentially violent customers.
I wouldn’t allow it in my department. An institution that wants to establish close, supportive relationships with customers can’t treat them like potential murderers. Security is important, but we don’t greet friends at our homes by wanding them down. If we bankers could put our lives on the line to present a consistent message, you can certainly take that misleading little item out of the product description, even if it might lose you a sale or two.

The biggest win for developers would be if a change on the sales floor enables a change in the marketing process. It’s becoming harder and harder to find ways to get people to sales presentations, but if it were a more pleasant experience, arms might not have to be twisted so hard.

These are big issues. Reading this article won’t give you the immediate satisfaction you would get from a piece showing you how to get two extra uses out of each washcloth, but if these issues can be addressed, and the needle can be moved just a little, the benefits could be tremendous. Take it from a Man from Mars.