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Moments of Attention

Selling the future is hard. 
Imagine a new invention that is superior to what we have now.  This product is so much better than everything else that you only need to show it to a potential customer to close the sale.  Sounds easy to sell, right? 

Back in 1987 the Canon company, who built the first laser printers, did a study and found two types of people:  those who had never heard of laser printers, and laser printer owners.  The laser printer was so superior to current printer technology in output, cost, speed, sound, size, maintenance, and paper handling that anyone who had seen one had also bought one.  The Canon salesforce was euphoric, until they learned just how difficult it was to actually get people’s attention.  As someone who has often failed to sell truly superior products, I understood their pain.

You might think that everyone would be open to better ways, but not really.  We have all been burned by promises of miracle products so often that words like superior, new, and better have all just become toothpaste adjectives.  But what if you really do have something better?  You actually need someone’s attention. 

In the early 1990’s, I had such a product.  My company, Mira Digital Publishing, had developed a way of collecting, curating, and editing scientific papers that was so vastly superior to the current process that anyone who heard about it would buy it.  There really was no selling involved, just a demonstration and a handshake.  But getting a new customer involved getting someone to first consider that there might be a better way.  And that was hard. 

Can I have you attention please?

My greatest frustration at the time was the Institute of Transportation Engineers.  The ITE was an organization in Washington DC that decided the optimal radius for a highway curve or what shade of red to make a stop sign.  My product would save them millions of dollars, but after a year and a half of attempts I could not get them to take a look.  I could not schedule an appointment; phone calls fell on deaf ears; emails were ignored.  Even physical cold-calls failed – at least my first three did.  Then one day I found myself across the street from ITE with two hours before my next appointment.  I decided to try again.

The ITE lobby was typical: at the receptionist’s desk a descendant of Cerberus guarded two glass doors, one leading to the offices and another to a conference room.  There was also a couch and chair where you could sit before being told that someone was too busy to see you. This was my fourth cold call, but this time the receptionist was absent.  I was alone in the lobby watching a group of women having what appeared to be some sort of party in the conference room. Before the rectangular piece of cake arrived, I had a crazy idea. 

I was wearing my meet-with-the-Government suit, and carrying a leather briefcase.  I walked into the conference room like a stern teacher entering a chaotic classroom, no smile, no expression whatever.  I put my briefcase in the middle of the table.  Then I turned the radio dial from office-safe adult contemporary to the edgiest hip-hop station I could find.  Volume UP!

I still don’t say a word.  I just start grinding to the music. My audience begins to clap rhythmically. I start taking off my clothes, beginning with my necktie and working my way down. I throw my jacket to the screaming women; and just as I rip my shirt off, I stare at my watch, a tiny analog Rado.

I ask the nearest lady,  “Is it 1:30 AM or 1:30 PM?”

She replies, “It’s 1:30 PM.”

And I say, “Oh my god, I’ve got my jobs confused! I’m actually here to sell you software!”

Everybody bursts out laughing. I act embarrassed and ask for my shirt back. As another lady is retrieving my necktie from the light fixture I say, “Oh yeah, I’m here from Mira Digital Publishing. We make software that automates the collection and review of technical papers. I’m here to talk to your boss.”

Three women run down the hall to the executive director. They literally drag him into the room and now I’ve finally got everyone’s attention.  I set an appointment to come back fully clothed next week, and they sign a six-figure annual contract. 

So what has changed?

They have the same needs and we have had the same solution for the past eighteen months; but during that time I never had their attention.  A few busted buttons is a small price to pay to deliver an important message.

New doesn’t count until people notice.