The Most Self-Destructive Phrase in the Business World

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I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV.

But if I were a doctor, I’d probably have a list of phrases that, when uttered by my patients, would trigger a whole whack of red flags to go up. Phrases like «It’s probably nothing,» or «I figure it’ll just heal itself,» or perhaps «Malaria? But I’ll be using bug spray!» and so on.

I’m not saying I’d have this list of red flag-triggering phases in a file, or on the wall of my doctor’s office, right next to my degrees and an annoying picture of dogs playing golf (hey, it was a gift).

But, it would always be in my head, somewhere (probably jammed next to some useless facts that will forever take up precious real estate in my brain, like lyrics to the Scooby Doo theme song, or… calculus).

What I am, though, is a copywriter. A creative one. And so, in the spirit of creativity, I’m giving myself permission to pretend that I’m a doctor, and reveal that there is one particular phrase that, when uttered by business leaders, not only sends up a red flag in my world, but firmly deposits me within the center of a red flag convention.

So, what’s the shocking phrase that rips me up inside? It’s this:

«Our stuff will sell itself.»

That phrase — or rather, the philosophy that it expresses — is THE death knell for a sales or marketing campaign, and, eventually, for the business itself.

Nothing will ever sell itself. Nothing. Even if a business has a monopoly, it still can’t go to bed at night and wake up in the morning saying «our stuff will sell itself,» because there are always more people to reach, and given enough time, even if the barrier to market entry is extremely high, there will be competition — and the market share losses will be as predictable as they will be dramatic, as former customers flee en masse.

However, talking about monopolies here is academic. Most businesses can’t lay claim to one, and so the error of believing «our stuff will sell itself» is magnified that much more.

So, the gauntlet has been thrown: «our stuff will sell itself» is staggeringly bad business thinking. But why? What is it about this thought that’s so wrong?

Because, when this thinking takes root in a business and begins to filter (more like fester) vertically and laterally, an entire sub-set of beliefs, concepts, values and actions arise that are no longer based on objective reality. They’re based on flawed perception, and convince decision makers to do any number of really bad things:

  • Misread the temperature of the marketplace and how much it will love whatever is being sold
  • Neglect to create mandatory sales and marketing collateral by treating them as optional — or even worse, as redundant
  • Fail to properly train (or train at all) the sales force so that it actually knows how to turn prospects into buyers vs. just holding open their hands and expecting customers to line-up and spend money
  • Rush to market a product or service that simply isn’t ready for prime time, because «folks will love our stuff so much they won’t care that it’s at 30% functionality»
  • Underestimate market adoption rates, which gives the competition a nice, long time to develop a solution that keeps its customers loyal (which can include such uncreative, but effective, tactics like throwing wads of dough at the problem to «buy the business back»)

Ultimately, if you put all of this together, what the belief «this stuff will sell itself» does, is that it turns windows into mirrors. That is, instead of looking out through a window at the marketplace and objectively seeing what’s going on, a business starts looking in a mirror, and begins falling in love with its reflection (i.e. it’s vision and plans). The marketplace of customers and competitors becomes secondary; or quite frankly, an afterthought. The business becomes insular, and in a very basic sense, loses its grip on reality.

And if there’s one thing that customers OWN, it’s reality. Generally, they don’t care about how a product or service gets to market. They’re interested in solving problems, ending pain, and achieving goals. Solutions that do that are deemed good. Solutions that don’t do that are deemed bad. Customers may not even know how to spell what a company is offering, but they hold all of the leverage in the bigger picture, and businesses that fail to heed this axiom do so at their peril.

So, the next time you hear the phrase «our stuff will sell itself» — and especially if you hear it because you happen to be the one who just said it — then it’s time for a reality check.

By all means, be confident in what you’re offering and integrate that confidence into everything you do; including, of course your copywriting.

Just don’t trade windows for mirrors. And you do that by refusing to ever start thinking that your stuff sells itself. Because it doesn’t. It can’t.

(Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get the Scooby Doo theme song out of my head somehow. Does anyone know a good doctor?)



Jason Kalra

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