Why politicians can’t sell

Elliot EpsteinRecently Prime Minister Tony Abbott was criticised for not being a good enough salesman for his policies. Here Elliot Epstein looks at how politicians could improve their sales technique to their electorate. 

Law, Unions, Engineering, Journalism, Small Business, Academia and Agriculture have all delivered people to politics.

But the world of high stakes senior sales professionals, steeped in the art and science of winning complex, competitive multi-million dollar deals has not regularly supplied our parliaments with its exquisitely skilled members.

The pay cut would kill them for a start, and the expense account scrutiny would deter the rest.

Typically, corporate sales can’t handle politics and politicians can’t sell.

We, the electorate, languish amidst debate, despair and disaffection vainly hoping that our leaders will suddenly discover the ability to deliver the messages that inspire, reassure and invigorate our lives. But, it never happens. The disenchantment festers and politicians now get voted out every nine and half minutes.

The irony is that like all buyers we subconsciously want to be sold to, no matter how much we deny it.

Top corporate sales people know that the product is not the issue because they still win business when they’re more expensive, less credentialed or have inferior features.

PM Tony Abbott has been accused of not being a good enough salesman for his policies

PM Tony Abbott has been accused of not being a good enough salesman for his policies

Contrary to many of the pundits raving about policy decisions, the political products are not the issue either. Both Liberal and Labor have manufactured their own home brands called ‘Ideology’.

Their political warehouses are full of them on Budget Reform, Medicare, Asylum Seekers, Education, Tax, Child Care etc. and then they try to flog them.

Their sales figures are not good.

Here are three key things our pollies could learn from corporate sales gurus.

1. ‘I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care’

Selling at the highest levels is highly collaborative at all levels of client engagement. They do not make recommendations until they have deeply understood the client’s culture, current thinking, past decision making history, emotional drivers of key executives, financial goals and insecurities. And, they consult widely to build a case that connects emotionally to the egos and ambitions of decision makers and influencers.

Companies that don’t demonstrate genuine care and simply try to prove that they’re the experts, droning on about why their product is just the ducks’ nuts and more technically correct, inevitably lose out to the emotionally intelligent.

That’s why we switch off the pollies. We don’t want to be told your policy is fantastic. We want to feel that you deeply understand its impact on us as human beings first. If we don’t trust that you care that much, we’ll smash you as soon as you make your first mistake.

We want to feel that you understand our concept of fairness, not yours.

2. ‘Pleeeeease, talk to us like a real person’

The old days of selling involved Willy Loman like characters who created a different persona and convoluted language to try and convince people often against their will.

It says 2015 on my iPhone and current day sales experts are conversational, relaxed, willing to concede faults all in the name of getting the best result for the client and by default for them.

Politicians are now Manchurian candidates controlled by advisors, apparatchiks, minders and other bedwetting, anxiety driven control freaks.

The politicians I’ve coached have had to sneak out to see me like they’re doing a clandestine drug deal because if their staff found out they’d freak out and turn into reactionary parents who ban undesirable friends from the house.

The lame excuse for the stage managed, manicured messaging is that the 24-hour news cycle and social media will catch them out without that level of control.

However, if our leaders are not authentic, conversational, relaxed and engaging, we won’t listen.

If we’re not listening, all that effort creating too clever by half messaging is totally wasted.

If we’re not listening, it’s as if you haven’t said it at all.

3. Trust is a verb

Most successful sales people are totally relatable to their clients – that’s how trust is generated.

They provide loads of reassurance, case studies, evidence, pilot programs, stakeholder engagement sessions to prove not just that their solution works, but that it works in that client’s specific environment at this specific time in history.

They don’t get ahead of themselves or get carried away with future opportunities until they’ve proven that they’re true trusted advisors.

Then, they do what they said they’d do.

They don’t upsell before the first implementation is bedded down. They don’t put a quote in for $1.2M and then invoice $2.6M because they’ve got a budget shortfall.

Real professionals take great care to empathise and relate, knowing that the trust generated will pay off for years to come.

Politics is about selling ideas and policies to millions of people who desperately want them to succeed.

Maybe an authentic, skilled sales professional will one day give up the Audi for a ComCar and take his or her place in Parliament.

What would be even better is an emotionally intelligent politician who can learn to sell.


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