In a democracy, we participate in elections where each side tries to sell us on their candidate. Throughout American history, we’ve seen passionate, but mostly civil elections. This year has been a shouting match of incivility, unrest, and unwillingness to listen. Both sides are failing at salesmanship.
As annoying as political rhetoric is, politicians and their teams have a job to do. Successful campaigns are built on modern marketing principles, as the late Joe McGinniss explained in his 1969 book, The Selling of the President. To get elected, candidates deliver their best sales pitch and value proposition, using every known channel of communication. They have a deadline and a hard quota to meet—for votes, not sales orders.
This year, each Presidential candidate has a slogan that capsulizes their core sales proposition. Trump’s says that people need his help to become a great country again. Clinton’s says that people are stronger when they work together to solve political and social problems. Both campaigns are relentless in bringing every discussion back to that sales proposition, and asking for the order—or in this case, the vote.
Like successful salespeople, both campaigns are also adept at using their competitor’s weaknesses (like “Nasty Woman” or “Deplorables”) against the other. What both sides are really bad at is listening. Both parties agree that this election has been bad politics. It’s also bad sales technique. With all the unprecedented personal attacks, rigid adherence to talking points, and refusal to hear anything outside their respective bubbles, both campaigns fail to engage. As a result of these bad sales techniques, potential customers—I mean voters—threaten to walk away, or vote for the “lesser of two evils.”
How to Sell
This election would have been better with some good sales training practice. When you’re bad at something, a teacher, a parent, or a boss tells you how to do it right—and to practice your skills. If your political techniques or sales techniques need work, you need to start doing better research on your product or service—and on your audience’s needs.
Research is essential for talking about what you’re selling. Neither salesmen nor politicians should make claims about each other or the issues without the data to prove it. More important, without good communication skills—including real listening—you’ll never know if your claims mean anything to your audience. Those working in sales enablement know that making up claims just to make a sale is short-sighted and doomed to failure.
Research must be focused on the actual values of the audience. For example, if a salesperson is selling gluten-free granola bars, they need to know that their customer is a health conscious person who values spending a little more money for the right product. In politics, it’s also better to know what the audience actually cares about—not what you’ve already decided they care about.
This type of value-driven research helps illuminate the bigger picture of the sales mission: to sell to the ideal customer (or voter). It is also something that has to be learned—with LOTS of practice.
Ultimately, salespeople (and politicians) need to learn how to listen, interact with their customers, and respond to their actual values. For example, watching a training video on how to handle customer objections (or debate rebuttal questions) is a good start, but it’s not enough. There also needs to be practice sessions, self-analysis, and feedback from seasoned professionals. There should also be a rating system on how well the question was answered—to provide deeper insight on how to answer questions better in the future. After getting feedback on past performances, repeating the repetition process, until perfected, is a surefire way to get better results in the form of a sale. (It would also help in the process of becoming President of the United States.)
Imagine a world where politicians practiced their lines and fine-tuned their missions before getting on stage for a debate. Better yet, imagine a world where politicians actually learned how to listen to questions before answering them. That might convince me they wanted to solve our country’s problems, instead of attacking the other’s hair or outfit. I know those are the types of politicians I would be proud to vote for.