Monday, September 16, 2013

The Art of Selling; or, the Sun Tzu Guy Swings His Dick Around With Ultimately Predictable Results

There's always that guy at your job, the Sun Tzu guy. He's forever sending you email memos with Sun Tzu quotes. Maybe he even has a Sun Tzu quote italicized & in red or blue below his email signature . . . so much heavier than your run-of-the-mill Zig Ziglar quote. So much ballsier. Brass balls, about THIS BIG. Sun Tzu guy is the Ayn Rand Viking, the guy who really felt all those old Rush songs.

You just want to punch that guy. And you would, 'cept he's pretty much always your boss, and post-colonial libertarian capitalism frowns upon smacking down your boss.

I do understand the attraction. Sun Tzu is simple, straightforward, self-evident . . . okay, no, I don't understand the attraction at all. I would have cursed every minute I spent reading the damn thing, except I did it on the clock, so the boss paid me to read it. Not that he knew. I had Von Clausewitz on deck, but I figured enough was enough. When you get kicked out of the queue by Proust, you know your days are numbered.

But yeah, I guess Sun Tzu's Art of War makes you a big, brash, masculine intellectual, with the emphasis on big, brash, and masculine. It makes you a real dickswinger, a real John Galt, a total Master of the Universe. It makes you the guy who knows how to get things done, as all the erectile dysfunction ads like to say.

I suppose I shouldn't be blaming all this on Sun Tzu, but the Sun Tzu guy makes it hard.

Anyway, here's the quote you see most often:

III:18 - [. . .] If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself,you will succumb in every battle.

Well, thank you Mr. Obvious. If you know your capabilities, and you know the capabilities of your enemy, then you will win. Like, I know my game, I know Metta World Peace's game, Metta doesn't know my game, so . . . I'm pretty sure that won't make a damn bit of difference when he takes me to the rack.

Seriously, though: the Sun Tzu guy runs this every few months (either he has no short term memory, or he doesn't mind repeating himself, I'm not sure which) as an admonishment to KNOW OUR CUSTOMERS. Which, of course, is good advice. If you expect to be able to sell somebody something, you have to know her/his hot buttons, and you have to have an honest assessment of your own selling skills, so you can best tailor your pitch to connect to those hot buttons. Again, I hardly think we need EFFING SUN TZU to reveal these truths to us, but whatever.

But, really, it's not that simple, is it? Because, in this formulation, the customer is our enemy. I suppose you could denature the term “enemy” for this context . . . but, if the customer is the enemy for III:18, then the customer is the enemy for the entirety of The Art of War. Which is problematic, since the central axiom for The Art of War is

I:18 – All war is based on deception.

And while that may not be problematic for some used car salesmen, they're hardly the type that need to resort to Sun Tzu for justification in the first place.

* * * * *

Turns out that Sun Tzu guy is just riding a wave crashing into the shore, strutting on the beach while hell breaks loose all around him, just like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. He is the vanguard in the militarization of abso-freaking-lutely everything, from the WAR ON POVERTY to the WAR ON DRUGS to THE WAR ON TERROR. Welcome to THE WAR ON THE CUSTOMER.

*An aside: just once, I wish people would remember that war is a mode of interaction between nation states, and reserve use of the word for that purpose. Alas, I dream in vain. So back to THE WAR ON THE CUSTOMER . . .

There is clearly a strain of the adversarial in the relationship between customer and seller. The customer feels the need to “battle” with the salesman for the best deal, the salesman “battles” to hold profit in what he is selling. It is this “profit” over which the customer and the salesman battle: he who holds the position of strength will win. You can be sure that this capitalist relationship is built on an inequality, just as you can be sure Sun Tzu guy is prepared to fight for that position of strength.

Against that there's been a new-agey trend toward “customer satisfaction”, ranging from simply “providing solutions” all the way to “connecting with the customer's inner desires”. It's gone beyond just doing your best to take care of the customer; “customer service” has morphed into a mantra, almost a mode of being (“You have entered the customer service zone”). There have been TED talks, of that you can be sure. This new age of retail is about service accelerated into a mystical, transcendental realm; and it's never about the “purchase”, it's about the “experience”. The salesman is converted from warrior to shaman, leading the customer through the what and the how to the great universal WHY, discovering the hole in the soul of the customer that needs to be filled with a product . . . 

On one hand we have the great capitalist warrior, girded for battle with Sun Tzu stuffed into his codpiece. On the other we have salesman-as-spirit-guide, helping the customer actualize her/his inner desires. At some point there's a collision here. Or is there?

Not so much. The whole idea of connecting with your customer is nothing more than the stagecraft in what Burroughs called “the long con”, or part of the process of what J. K. Galbraith calls “manufacturing desire”. As far as that goes, it's right in Sun Tzu's wheelhouse as well: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Ideally, the customer decides whatever he is buying is worth the money, and doesn't even think about what it may have cost to produce, like the guy who ponies up two bucks for a small can of Red Bull that cost pennies to make (even after Red Bull Inc. walks into the advertising marketplace with a suitcase full of greenbacks and MAKES IT RAIN!).

At the end of the day, it's all about coercion. The celebrated freedom of liberal democratic capitalism is freedom from physical coercion; but that doesn't mean that the parties are operating from a position of equality. Exploitation always comes into play, be it benign (like my good friend who always gives me amazing guitars and amps on long term loan, and always manages to “finally put it up for sale” just about the time my tax return is due) or less so (q: when is a simple molded plastic face mask worth a whopping $135? a: when it's connected to a machine that helps you breathe). Exploiting, taking advantage, winning . . . indeed, that is what Sun Tzu is all about.

* * * * *

Not that Sun Tzu guy follows the train all the way into the station. He still looks at me like I'm a complete fool when I try to discuss his reading of Sun Tzu with him. Sun Tzu guy is convinced that I'm an idiot who will never get it, and that's okay. The less I talk to Sun Tzu guy, the better.

Sun Tzu actually can function in a somewhat more benign way if you merely adjust the schema slightly: if you think of your competition as the enemy, and the customer as your field of operations, then you are deceiving your competition, not lying to your customer. Chapter X of The Art of War, “Terrain”, is a topographical/geographical delineation of a theater of war; and as such the summary unspoken commandment becomes “know your theater of war”, which can easily be shifted to “know your customer base” . . . know the terrain upon which your battles will be fought. Not nearly as clean, simple, or FREAKING OBVIOUS as “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”, but conceptually much tighter.

But of course, we know that the original intent is much closer to actual fact. All war is based on deception. All sales are a con job. Sometimes we're in on the joke, sometimes the joke's on us; but there's always a joke. And you know what really sucks about that? It's Sun Tzu guy's joke.

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