Is Analytics “Different”?: 2 Lessons in Sales from The Mayflower Madam

April 13, 2011
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Sydney Biddle Barrows is an expert in marketing luxury services. She consults for plastic surgeons, salons, retailers and others. Her work is required reading for a number of business programs, and we in the analytics trade stand to benefit from applying her ideas to our own work.

Sydney Biddle Barrows is an expert in marketing luxury services. She consults for plastic surgeons, salons, retailers and others. Her work is required reading for a number of business programs, and we in the analytics trade stand to benefit from applying her ideas to our own work.

If you were born after the baby boom, that last paragraph probably seemed pretty unremarkable. If you were born earlier, you may be laughing now, or perhaps wondering why that name seems so familiar. Anyone who was old enough to watch the news in 1984 knows Sydney Biddle Barrows, not as a marketing consultant, but as “The Mayflower Madam,” owner of a pricey and sophisticated New York City escort service which became world famous when the operation was busted.

Wondering what this has to do with analytics? Sydney’s marketing message for businesses centers on a concept that many in the analytics trade desperately need to learn:

All businesses are alike.

What works for retailers works for surgeons, dentists, hair stylists and escorts. It will also work for your business, no matter what kind of business you run.

If analytics is your business, this might seem ridiculous.

In some ways, promoting the use of analytics is quite different from promoting consumer products or services. It’s a business to business (B2B) sale, and that implies a complex and rather rigid formal purchasing process. There may be competitive bidding, and analysis of the return on investment. But Sydney didn’t say all businesses are identical, she said they were alike. All businesses have elements in common, and any business can take lessons from any other business.

Many in the analytics trade are so caught up in the belief that their businesses are unique that they fail to recognize the many ways that their businesses are like others. As a result, they fail to follow good practices that can be learned from other successful businesses.  I’m not just saying software vendors find it hard to adapt ideas from beauty salons and shoe stores.  The “my business is different” view can run so deep that businesses fail to follow business practices that work well for businesses as similar to theirs as other software firms, even other analytics software firms.

I’ve heard developers of analytics tools insist that their products are so unlike any other that the lessons learned by other vendors of analytics software don’t apply to them. This is sheer nonsense. Day by day, I find more and more ways in which this industry is much like any other.

Every business can take lessons from others, even from businesses that are not obviously similar.

My friends, I have spoken with more people shopping for analytics than just about anyone on this big green marble. Thousands of people, literally thousands, have spilled their guts to me, in the sense of sharing private business concerns, information that they wouldn’t go around discussing in public. Sharing is a sign of trust, and it is good for business; when I was in the software trade, more than half of the prospects who spoke with me bought something, very strong conversion for the analytics industry.

Though I have left software behind to concentrate on consulting, speaking and writing, people still constantly lean on me to talk to them about software. The market is hungry for products, and starved for trustworthy information. Yet most analytics software vendors are just scraping by or worse.

It’s sad for me to meet so many people working hard creating products that people don’t buy. What a waste of resources. And it’s sad for those prospective clients, too. They stand to benefit from analytics, but they aren’t buying.

Until now, I’ve never suggested to any vendor that he or she should take sales training from a madam, but I have lost patience with the software industry. It’s time for extreme measures. So read on and open your eyes to the reality that your business is like others, and that you can learn and benefit from the good examples set by any successful business.

Ms. Barrows applied her education and experience in fashion and cosmetics marketing to the call girl trade, and used it to build a loyal clientele willing to pay extremely high prices for the most luxurious services in the industry.  But why did she choose that business? As a young woman, she struggled to get by on the small income she earned in fashion merchandising. When she lost a job, she found herself without a financial cushion to cover her expenses. So she took a job answering phones for an escort service. She learned that there was a market for luxury escort services, and took the opportunity to go into a business where she could offer something she knew customers wanted and would pay handsomely to get.

So there’s the first thing we can learn from Sydney’s business:

Lesson 1) Sell something people want to buy.

Sydney wanted to sell clothes, but she couldn’t make a decent living at it, so she chose to sell what she knew customers would buy. You are going to have to make a similar choice. Fortunately, you will be able to do this without violating any laws.

How can you assure that you are selling something people want to buy? Before you begin to develop any product or service, you must conduct research and form a clear understanding of

1) the market for your product,

2) the business problem your product will enable customers to solve, and

3) requirements – what capabilities you must offer in order to motivate customers to pay.

It’s foolish to invest in development of software without clear and concrete evidence of a market for your product.

Now that you know who will want to purchase your product, why should they purchase from you rather than some other vendor?

Successful hairdressers cultivate loyal customers who come to the same salon habitually, who pay premium prices not only for haircuts, but also coloring, nail and skin services, and salon beauty products to take home. There are many elements in the process:  marketing that projects an out-of-the-ordinary luxury image for the salon, well-trained customer service people who inquire about the customer’s concerns and suggest appropriate services, an indulgent atmosphere within the salon and more.

When the rubber hits the road, the software business isn’t that different. The most successful companies invest in marketing and public relations to project a high-end, cutting edge image, don’t they? They train the staff to inquire about customer needs and suggest appropriate services, don’t they? They provide special indulgences, such as priority service contracts, invitations to participate in customer boards, special events and other niceties designed to make customers feel honored and special, don’t they?

Sydney’s explanation of her phone technique – cultivating each customer, carefully getting to know his preferences and concerns, establishing trust, making him look forward to speaking with her, building confidence that she offered exactly what he desired – described a master sales technique that was much the same as any capable sales professional would use.  Her techniques were remarkably similar to those used in B2B sales of software and services.

Lesson 2) You must establish trust.

Buyers always look for suppliers they trust. The greater the risk associated with the transaction, the greater the importance of trust.

The first thing anyone in the market for analytics wants is someone who will listen and understand. Listening builds trust. Once a customer begins to trust, the door is open to ask questions and listen some more. The more you listen, the more people share their troubles and pretty well beg you to offer them some relief.

When you’re in the salon business, you recognize trust when someone shares personal stories, or gives up her usual stylist to come to you. In the call girl business, the client shows trust by sharing his personal wishes and his identity. People with customer-facing roles in these businesses understand the meaning of these gestures. They also understand that most people do not trust them immediately and recognize signs that they have not yet established trust.

That’s where the analytics business is way behind others. Most people in analytics software and services are utterly unrealistic about trust. They don’t understand how to establish trust, and can’t recognize obvious signs that the customer doesn’t trust them.  That’s a shame, because so many businesses could benefit from investment in analytics. Vendors aren’t just missing out on potential business; prospective clients are missing out on beneficial tools.

Often, very often, I am approached by small vendors of analytics software or services who hope to build sales. This should be a good time for them – popular business books and media coverage are driving interest in analytics, and businesses are spending more freely than they did in the past couple of years – yet these vendors aren’t enjoying great success. They attribute this to an assortment of causes:  the sales people aren’t hungry enough, we’re way out here in India and Americans don’t know us, “these people” don’t recognize the value, [feel free to add a few of your favorites here… leave them as comments below.]

Each of these less-than-booming businesses shares two things in common – an overwhelming illusion of the uniqueness of the business, and the failure to recognize the signs of lack of trust.

Don’t believe me?

Have you spoken with prospects who declined to name or introduce you to their decision makers? These people don’t trust you. Have you reached decision makers who implied that they wanted your product, but would have to see if they could get it into the budget – next year? These people don’t trust you. Have you asked for information about business problems facing your prospect, but not gotten enough information to determine the magnitude of the problem? They don’t trust you.

The powerful belief that your business is “different” stands in the way of learning from the good examples set by others. You can take valuable lessons from any business. But (with apologies to Carly Simon) you probably think this song is not about you.

Want titillating sales inspiration? You’ll find it (and many more sales lessons) in Sydney’s books:

Uncensored Sales Strategies: A Radical New Approach to Selling Your Customers What They Really Want – No Matter What Business You’re In by Sydney Biddle Barrows with Dan Kennedy (Despite the title, this book is PG at most. Coauthor Dan Kennedy is a well-known writer on sales and marketing.)

Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows by Sydney Biddle Barrows with William Novak