Bonfire of the Vanities

When I was in my 20’s, I was taught the relationship between marketing and sales over a bonfire.

Over thirty years ago, before the arrival of the personal computer, there were desktop computers called office workstations. Designed around the first generation of microprocessors, these computers ran business applications like word processing, spreadsheets, and accounting. They were an improvement over the dumb terminals hanging off of mainframes and minicomputers, but ran proprietary operating systems and software. My third startup, Convergent Technologies (extra credit for identifying the photo on page 2) was in the business of making these workstations.

The OEM Business
Convergent’s computers were bought and then resold by other computer manufacturers – all of them long gone: Burroughs, Prime, Monroe Data Systems, ADP, Mohawk, Gould, NCR, 4-Phase, AT&T. Convergent had assembled a stellar team with founders from Digital Equipment Corporation and Intel and engineers from Xerox PARC.  And once we went public, we hired a veteran VP of Sales from Honeywell.

As the company’s revenues skyrocketed, Convergent started a new division to make a multi-processor Unix-based mini-computer. I had joined the company as the product marketing manager and now found myself as the VP of marketing for this new division. We were a startup inside a $200 million company. A marketer for 5 years, I thought I knew everything and proceeded to write the data sheets for our new computer.

Since this new computer was very complicated – it was a pioneer in multi-processing– I concluded it needed an equally detailed data sheet. In fact, when I was done, the datasheet describing our new computer, proudly called the MegaFrame, was 16 pages long. I fact-checked the datasheet with my boss (who would be my co-founder at Epiphany) and the rest of the engineering team.  We all agreed it was perfect. We’d left no stone unturned in answering every possible question anyone could ever have about our system. As we typically did, I printed up several thousand to send out to the sales force.

The day the datasheets came back from the printers, I sent the boxes to the sales department in Convergent’s corporate headquarters, a separate building across the highway, and sent a copy to our CEO and the new VP of Sales.  (I was thinking it was such a masterpiece I might get an “attaboy” or at least a “wow, thanks for doing all the hard work for our sales organization.”)

So when I got a call from the VP of Sales who said, “Steve, just read your new datasheet. Why don’t you come over to corporate.  We have a surprise for you,” I smugly thought, “They probably thought it was so good, I’m going to get a thank you or an award or maybe even a bonus.”

Fahrenheit 451
I got in my car to make the five minute drive over the freeway. Turning into the parking lot, I noticed smoke coming from the far end of the lawn. As I parked and walked closer I noticed a crowd of people around what seemed to be an impromptu campfire.  “What the heck??” As an ex Sales and Marketing VP, our CEO had a Silicon Valley reputation for outrageous stunts so I wondered what it was this time –  a spur-of-the-moment BBQ? A marshmallow roast?

Heading to a meeting with the VP of Sales, I almost walked past the crowd into the building  until I heard the VP of Sales call me over to the fire. He was there with our CEO feeding things into the fire.  In fact as I got closer, it looked like the campfire was being entirely fed by paper.  “Here, toss these in,” they said as they handed me a stack of…

Oh, my g-d they’re burning my datasheets!!!

The Bonfire of the Vanities
I stood there stunned as I realized that my 16-page carefully constructed, brilliantly written, technically accurate datasheets were being destroyed en masse. I guess I was speechless for so long that the VP of Sales took pity on me and asked, “Steve, do you know we have a sales force?” I managed to stammer out, “Yes, of course.”  He asked, “Do you know how much we pay them?”  Again, I managed to answer, “A lot.” Then he got serious and started to explain what was going on. (In the meantime our CEO watched my reaction with a big grin on his face.) He said, “Steve, I’ve never seen such a perfect datasheet. It answers every possible question a prospective customer could have about our product. The problem is that our computer sells for $150,000. No one is going to buy it from the datasheet. In fact, reading these, the only thing your datasheet will do is give a prospective customer a reason for saying “no” before our salespeople ever get to talk to them.

“Do you mean you want a datasheet with less information?!”  I asked, not at all sure that I was hearing him correctly. “Yes, exactly. Your job in marketing is to get customers interested enough to engage our sales force, to ask for more information or better, to set up a meeting.  No one is going to buy our computer from a datasheet, but they will from a salesman.”

Marketing to Match the Channel
It took me a few weeks to get over the lesson, but it stuck.  When selling a physical product through direct sales, Marketing’s job is to drive end user demand into the sales channel.  Marketing creates a series of marketing activities at each stage of the sales funnel to generate awareness, then interest, then consideration and finally purchase. 

Ironically, over the last decade, I’ve seen web startups have the opposite problem. For web sites with an ecommerce component, the site itself is supposed to both create demand and close the sale. Web designers have to do the work of both the marketing and the sales departments.

Lessons Learned

  • Marketing materials need to match the channel
  • Marketings job in direct sales channels with consultative sales need to drive demand to the salesforce
  • Indirect channels require marketing material with more information than a direct channel
  • Web sites that sell products combine sales and marketing
  • Confusing these can get you your own bonfire

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19 Responses

  1. Love it – one of my favorite marketing material coaching moments involved the advice, “our need to tell exceeds their need to hear.”

    But I have some pushback on the current relevancy of the marketing model: this model of marketing – at least from the graphic – implies substantially all outbound marketing, with no inbound marketing component. It implies “interruption marketing”, pushing the information into the marketplace and in front of the customer. Substantially, the market has shifted to embrace more inbound techniques – creating the information needed to help sell, and luring the customer to it, allowing them to self-educate, digest, and engage when the time is right for them.


    • right, but Steve’s post basically implies that if you do content marketing you can’t give away too much, or you’ll end up with a situation that is similar to his “perfect” datasheet?

      • Oh, I disagree there. His situation wasn’t “telling the customer too much” as I interpret it, it was pushing too much on them in one huge dump.

        The approach today is that it’s totally a measure of letting the customer take what information they want (as appropriate), and self-educate themselves to the point where they’re ready to engage. Steve has the stages of the sales funnel laid out correctly in terms of the customers’ mental progress. The key is serving what’s appropriate to their buying stage – a 3rd party white paper or research report for early evaluators, a live demo for someone farther down the pipe.

        You can embrace progressive profiling, as well, by requiring some engagement with the customer – opting in – by feeding them a valuable bit of information, such as a white paper for basic log-in (email, name). Then subsequently offer more material as they move down the pipe, asking them for bits more information along the way. They progress, you watch – when their behavior indicates they’re ready, and their profile informs you that they’re worth your time, you pick up the phone.

    • Aaron is right. Marketing has moved on and for most tech solutions we want to provide enough information to make it easy for buyers to buy.

      Most high-end (i,e. expensive) solution vendors still restrict the amount of information so that it can be delivered by their direct sales force. The danger nowadays is that marketing no longer controls the message .Prospects will find the information they want. So you can choose – do you provide the information buyers they want or leave them to find it?

  2. In some ways, nice; in some ways, not so nice!

    Mostly the VP Sales was just trying to keep his job standing between the customer and the product, even in cases when the customer would rather have your data sheet and have nearly no communications with the sales people.

    Look: Sales is a very old business, say, as in the movie ‘The Music Man’ where the salesmen got on trains in Chicago and rode west to small towns and sold to the general stores and other local merchants. Communications technology was so poor that such selling was essential.

    But that such selling is necessary has long been open to serious question, and in those cases a great ‘data sheet’ can be terrific and the VP Sales a pain in the back side for everyone. Big example from the days of the movie ‘The Music Man’: The Sears catalog. “No salesman will call”.

    You mentioned Prime: In 1980 they had the best gains of any stock on the NYSE! They were a Multics on a bit-sliced motherboard and much easier to work with and much cheaper than DEC and especially IBM (factors of 10 for IBM).

    But their selling was special: Early on they sold only to highly qualified customers who could make good use of the equipment, didn’t need the salesmen of your VP Sales, could work from good printed information, and, from their successful usage, build a good reputation for the product. Worked great.

    An early multi-processor computer would be liked mostly only be quite technical customers who would have appreciated your data sheet. The chances that the people under the VP Sales could do better without your data sheet were slim to none.

    Time is moving on: More and more people want to buy ‘rationally’ from solid information and not just ’emotionally’ from some salesman.

    E.g., look at Amazon.

    Now, for Amazon, as successful as they are, and for other on-line selling, they could do themselves a big favor by hiring people able to write product descriptions as good as your data sheet. E.g., for Amazon, for many of their products, they should have lots of close-up, high resolution photographs (they can afford recent high-end digital cameras) so that customers can see the product as well as they might in a mall store. For many of the products, they should give careful dimensions in, say, inches so that, again, customers can check the physical size of the product as well as they might in a retail store. Secret: US consumer kitchen equipment is in standard dimensions so that everything fits under a sink faucet, in a sink, in a dishpan in a sink, in a dishwasher, on a stove burner, in an oven, etc. So, the dimensions are important, especially if a consumer buys an item mostly sold to restaurant kitchens!

    Rag trade: When my wife was alive, at Xmas I shopped for clothes for her, heavily at Talbots (they had some super nice things in those days). My wife was eager to know how I was able to get clothes that fit her. Simple: In secret I went to her closet, picked some clothes I knew fit her well, spread the items on the bed, made sketches, got out a tape measure, found the lengths of the main dimensions in the sketches, and then went shopping. At Talbots, I’d pick an item, spread it out somewhere, get out my sketches and tape measure, and about that time a salesperson would ask “Can I help you?”. I’d explain that in women’s clothing, sizes were just fantasy and had next to nothing to do with the actual sizes of the garments. Instead, I trusted a tape measure. So, I bought the clothes based on actual, measured dimensions, not stated sizes. That was the secret to my success.

    All the on-line, rag trade sites need to borrow this idea: For each item, have a sketch, or a nice, high resolution, well-lit photograph, and then clearly show the lengths (in, say, inches and 1/16ths) of the main dimensions — right, large type, easy to see, very clear, very accurate, good enough to please mathematicians, physical scientists, and engineers and totally frustrate, anger, and piss off nearly everyone in the rag trade. ESPECIALLY the limp-wristed types!

    Broadly the idea that salesman are really needed keeps having facts shoot it in the gut: E.g., for all the years of stuff that went around about ‘sales’ needed for office automation via word processing, etc., now people do fine, thank you, buying a computer from, say, Dell, with Windows, installing Office, PhotoShop, etc. and a color printer, and getting back to their real work, no sales force needed.

    One of the last places for face to face sales is new cars, but here the car companies are making the same mistake the CEO made who burned your data sheets. I will soon have to buy a new car, but there is essentially nothing anywhere in the new car buying system that temps me. Why? What the car companies put out insults me. What I want about the cars is information that is not available. Crucial information I want includes:

    (1) What has been done to stop each of the major cases of corrosion?

    (2) If the car really is “all new”, then maybe I’ll consider it in another five years; otherwise, I want to know in fine detail, literally part by part, with descriptions and part numbers, the age and availability of the part; much in the way of significant new parts, and I’m out’a there.

    (3) I want to know in fine detail all the more advanced systems in the car that might need maintenance; the more the selling talks about how many automatic features the car has, the more I suspect I will be paying too much for purchase, collision insurance, and maintenance and the lower the reliability will be. Salesmen, keep talking about all those fancy features, go on and on, and I’ll be gone — good riddance.

    (4) I want to see a maintenance manual that explains nearly all maintenance procedures that might be done by an owner with good skills and routine tools. In particular, it should be easy to repair anything in the dashboard. If the car company won’t up front explain to me, CLEARLY, how, EASILY, to remove, repair, and replace anything and everything in the dashboard, then I’m PISSED OFF with a ‘buying and ownership experience’ less pleasant than an unanesthetized, self-inflected, upper molar, root canal procedure. Entertain that, ‘marketing’ people.

    So, for (1)-(4), the selling process avoids them all. One reaction I have is, drive into the country, find someone who drives a pickup truck in their business, ask them how their five, hopefully 10, year old truck has been holding up, and then buy the best such truck. I have no intention of carrying anything heavier than some groceries, but I want something as solid as a truck that can be used to plow snow, carry bricks, charge across fields, tow heavy loads, etc. For style, luxury, comfort, smooth ride, etc., I get offended! They want to sell a throw-away fashion frock, and I want blue jeans with brass rivets, a thick, wide, stiff leather belt, and heavy rubber knee pads over rubber boots with steel toes!

    For a while, Chevy modified some of their pickup trucks for uses such as mine. So, the first thing I did on the lot was get on the ground and look at the rear suspension: Right, suspicions confirmed! The ‘marketing’ people ruined the truck! They wanted a ‘smooth ride’ so put in coil springs! BUMMER! They wanted the springs to be too darned soft; bummer. Coil springs give too much deflection and, thus, make the vehicle less stable (bounce around dangerously for no good reason) and wear out shocks, suspension bushings, and tires. BUMMER. Coil springs SAG. Big BUMMER. Coil springs are too ‘linear’, as in Hook’s law, and not like leaf springs that get MUCH stiffer with large deflections. Coil springs need various ‘control arms’ that have bushings that wear out. Bummer. Stiff, pickup truck leaf springs with high load helper springs for my light usage just do NOT sag. So, right, they ruined the truck!

    So, the ’emotional experience marketing people’, maybe from the rag trade, totally convinced themselves that what I wanted the ‘truck’ for was some ‘macho’ image but, of course, still wanted a luxury car ride. BS. Total fuming, reeking, flaming, sticky, ugly, toxic effluent. MOSTLY what I want is the rugged suspension, frame, drive-line, brakes (I’ll pay extra for old brakes without anti-lock or stability control), bumpers, etc. For the ‘style’, I’d be limp-wristed wuss to pay any attention to any such.

    Indeed, recently I did want to buy some blue jeans. So, I went to Web sites of some of the famous names. There I saw only tiny pictures useless for seeing details. I saw no dimensions in inches. For colors, I saw only emotional names cooked up by some rag trade ‘marketing’ idiots. So, it looks like your VP Sales joined the rag trade! I never could find just BLUE JEANS. I gave up and picked something off a pile at Sam’s Club — they have been fine.

    Net, your data sheet was terrific, and your VP Sales works really hard to deny customers the crucial information needed to buy and drives away business.

    • Totally disagree here.

      People make buying decisions primarily based on one thing. Trust. Trust that their selection will meet their needs.

      Your process of measuring clothing was extraordinary. And extraordinarily rare. By far the majority of husbands daring to clothes-shop for their brides would ask the clerk for advice on style and size, then trust their recommendations.

      The spectrum of buyers is complete – there is NO one single approach that is the alpha and omega. Even for 6 or 7 figure purchases, some purchases are made online completely self-serve – and smart companies know to make that option available. But the close is always based on trust – you trusted because you KNEW the garment would fit, but few are capable or willing to do all that technical due diligence themselves. That’s where your sales team is invaluable and always will be.

      People have not changed. But marketing processes have become much more informed and effective. It’s marketing’s job to help the customer self-educate – in the fashion that suits them – and then know with confidence when it’s time to ask sales to expend time on that prospect to try to close them.

      • “People make buying decisions primarily based on one thing. Trust. Trust that their selection will meet their needs.”

        Spoken like a real face to face salesman.

        I can have some trust of some products, e.g., Tide laundry detergent, French’s yellow mustard, Hellman’s mayonnaise, most highly regarded pharmaceuticals, the more heavily sold products at Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart, the milk at my local convenience store and dairy, etc.

        Recently I had to call 911 and trust a chain of people for about four days. They deserved the trust.

        But mostly I have a tough time trusting anyone in sales.

        And your claim, “But the close is always based on trust” is a mis-use of ‘trust’: Closer would be the famous “trust but verify”. Still better would be, at least for me, whenever possible, “The decision to buy is based on knowledge.”.

        Anyone working for me making a buying decision based on “trust” from someone in sales would soon be pursuing another career. I can believe in well tested, brand name products, in due diligence, especially with technical and engineering details and evaluations from customers who have made good use of the product or service, and some more, but not sales people.

        At Talbot’s, for styles, colors, and quality, I trusted the company, Talbots. And for more trust on style and color, I trusted what I liked and what I knew my wife liked. But I didn’t trust the sales clerks at all. And the clerks never ‘closed’ the sale. The only source of deciding what to buy was me. Then the clerks put the items in boxes, rang up the total, and took my money.

        For cars, I don’t trust any of the car companies or anyone selling cars, and that’s why I want all the ‘technical due diligence’. I’ve seen corrosion around front and rear windows, in radiators, fuel lines, fuel tanks, brake lines, brake backing plates, wheels, both steel and aluminum, everything in exhaust systems except cast iron, and door latches in addition to just body panels and bumpers. There isn’t a car salesman in the galaxy I would trust with the time of day, much less with the engineering or construction of a car.

        “It’s marketing’s job to help the customer self-educate – in the fashion that suits them – and then know with confidence when it’s time to ask sales to expend time on that prospect to try to close them.”

        With “close them”, you have another version of “your sales team is invaluable and always will be.”. Spoken like a true salesman.

        The idea that some sales person will ‘close’ a sale with me is insulting. My decision to buy has to be mine.

        It is true that I’m starting a business and will consider buying from Microsoft, HP, Cisco, a local colocation site, and more. There I do expect to be able to ‘trust’ the ‘account executives’ I work with. Here the sense of ‘trust’ is also a bit strange; I won’t literally ‘trust’ what they say. Instead, due to the high end enterprise selling context and how much I’m paying, I will ‘trust’ the account executive, their technical support staff, and the technical parts of the company to ‘make it right’ within a wide range of what I might need. And I will know that should I drop Cisco and move to Juniper or drop HP and move to Dell, then some HP or Cisco account execs may have a bad day. Long at IBM, an account exec who lost a good account lost his job.

        Why will I go along with such enterprise buying? The main point is, I will be in a big hurry and willing to spend more to save time. So, I’ll be an easy sale: We’ll go over the main points quickly, and I’ll put in the order. If I buy a box from HP or Cisco, then I’ll expect the power supplies and cooling to be about 300% of what is really needed, the construction to be about as strong as the battleship Missouri, the air filters to have far more capacity than is reasonable, etc. If there are any problems or questions at all, then I’ll get back with my account exec or the technical support person they assign to my account, and I’ll expect them to ‘make it right’, e.g., walk me or my staff through just what commands to give, what buttons to push, etc. The ‘trust’ is because Microsoft, HP, Cisco, etc. hire competent, enterprise-level, highly motivated, A+ sales and support people, pay them well, charge me for it, and, because of what I’m spending, expect their people just to ‘make it right’ for me. Fine.

    • Do you think you are normal?

  3. excellent post – do you have any ideas on how this applies to startups trying to sell a product through there website that might require “high touch sales”?

    • The Chasm is very informative on this topic.

      If your sale requires high touch – and the price and margin will support the cost of that selling channel – you will need to employ a direct sales force. And by and large, complex sales, particularly of new technologies that require a lot of education, are always going to require high-touch sales. That’s the only way you’ll find the passion, dedication, and evangelism necessary to bridge buyers to the new new.

  4. Excellent post, Steve.

  5. +1 to the comment above. That datasheet today would be invaluable as an inbound ‘discoverable’ – especially for your competition’s customers! Today’s buyer has the power to inform themselves to the nth degree at the time of their choosing — and they know it.

  6. Thanks, what a great articulation of the purpose of marketing based on channels. And I loved the link to the InfoWorld article. What was also interesting was the next article, where Timothy Leary described interactive writing, predicted that ‘Everyone in the new age will be an author’ and defined ‘memes’ – in 1984!


  7. So how do you know that the VP was actually on the right track? For all we know, customers went for a competitor’s product that had a more comprehensive data sheet because it the detail made the competitor seem more legit.

    There’s no actual evidence being communicated in this blog post–just speculation.

    • John,
      The post assumed some a priori knowledge of B-to-B sales for high value items.

      People and organizations who purchase expensive physical goods (think Airbus’s/Boeing/cars/boats/Servers, homes, etc.) still want to interact with other humans in considering an expensive purchase. It’s how we’re wired.

      Datasheets and now the web has been a great way to streamline the exchange of information. But it’s not a replacement for a consultative sale.

      That was the point the VP of Sales made. It was true then and true now.


  8. A young persons perspective:

    1. What will give more sales?

    2. Brain storm.
    (A lot of upfront information OR information designed to get them to get in contact with sales person OR do it in any other way?)

    3. AB-test it.

    VP Sales, VP marketing, channels, gurus, pirates, traditions, best practice… AB-tests beat them all in my experience.

    While the old folks are having bon fires and making Guesses, the younger entrepreneurs tend to rely on facts.

  9. […] Blank just shared an interesting anecdote from his days in marketing, where he created what he thought was the ultimate data sheet, only to find his CEO and VP of sales […]

  10. […] The More Things Change…By Chris Selland on August 20, 2011 I’ve finally gotten around to reading Steve’s Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany these past few weeks, and now just caught his recent blog post Bonfire of the Vanities. […]

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