• March 1, 2009
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

You Know What They Say…

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Memo from the desk of Marshall Lager, March’s Chief Cliché-Hatin’ Officer:

The merry, miserable month of March has materialized. (How’s that for a lot of alliteration?) My thoughts on this month always bring me back to elementary school—kindergarten to be exact. Forget All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten—the fact is that you also “learn” a lot that’s just plain wrong.

Whenever the month of March is mentioned—alliteration again—I recall this stupid phrase: “March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb.” The idea? That March started off with blustery wind, but April had mild weather and the eponymous showers that bring May flowers.

It’s a lie. March may come in like a lion but here in New York it usually goes out like a rhinoceros; the weather deteriorates over the course of the month. I loved my teacher, but I’m not sure I can forgive her for sticking me with this thought virus.

I told you that story so I can tell you this: A number of phrases in the group consciousness irk me—because they end up being wrong. I’m not talking about truisms that fail in specific cases, but they’re not falsisms either (yes, it’s a word). I think we should call them untruisms—statements that are usually false even if they seem true on the surface. Some examples:

The customer is always right. This cliché dates back roughly 100 years, and supposedly comes from Wisconsin-born expatriate Harry Gordon Selfridge, who founded Selfridges department store in London. Most people call it the Field Rule, named for the Marshall Field’s chain, where it was famously put into practice—and where Selfridge worked for more than 20 years before decamping to London. Both Selfridge and Field owe credit to French hotelier César Ritz, who said, in 1908, “Le client n’a jamais tort” (“The customer is never wrong”). Well, whoever’s responsible, it’s a poisonous idea. It implies that the salesperson is wrong, and encourages the customer to take advantage. But the customer’s human, and therefore just as likely to be an idiot as anybody. She might insist on something clearly not in her best interests (or the company’s)—it’s the salesperson’s duty to point that out and offer alternatives; it’s the manager’s duty to back the salesperson up when it’s reasonable. The salesperson and boss might also be idiots, but somewhere in the mix a solution should emerge.

A good salesperson can sell anything. Define “anything.” (In fact, define “good.”) Having some arbitrary level of selling skill doesn’t make everything else irrelevant. This one probably came from somebody who’d held several jobs in one industry, and turned an insular career into motivational-poster gold. Take salespeople out of their element and suddenly they’re not so impressive. Each industry, regional market, and customer is different. Some techniques cross the boundaries, but you’re only as good as your knowledge of the prospect’s needs. Even good salespeople fail to make sales; the ones who believe they’re good enough fail more.

Anything 80 percent complete is “good enough.” Speaking of good enough: The principle here is that less internal fine-tuning and more external feedback breeds success. In the long run and in some cases, this might be true. Many software firms, especially game designers, do something like this with public beta testing. The difference is that the testers don’t pay for it. Foisting an incomplete product onto customers who give you money for the privilege of finishing your work is a recipe for disaster. Several CRM companies have stumbled here; if you don’t have deep enough pockets to survive the lambasting you’ll receive from delivering “good enough,” the stumble could take you over a cliff.

We’re programmed to seek patterns in what we observe. The compulsion is so strong that we’ll ignore things that don’t fit the pattern in favor of things that do, thus confirming what we expect. All of the above examples are what happens when we rely on the general and don’t look to the specific: We fail.

Got any clichés you love to hate? Leave them in the Comments below, or send ’em to Senior Editor Marshall Lager at mlager@destinationCRM.com.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

For the rest of the March 2009 issue of CRM magazine, please click here.

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