Innovation Or Sales Pitch?
By Kevin Gray
Openness to change is not blind acceptance of claims.
“What you have is old. I have something new and better.” This may well be true but it is also a tried-and-true sales pitch. Talking about “new” is O-L-D. Though I strongly feel we should keep our eyes, ears and minds open for things that will help us live happier, fuller and more productive lives, there is no need to believe everything we read or hear. If it seems too good to be true, most likely it is.
The fact is things can be old and good, old and bad, new and good or new and bad. What’s more, something positioned as innovative might actually be an old idea that has been repackaged and recycled. (If you point this out, you may be greeted with a retort offering quite trivial modifications in support of the argument that this time it really is new.)
Some innovations don’t diffuse very far simply because they aren’t very good ideas. On the other hand, new ideas can fail, not because they’re bad ideas, but because they are difficult to comprehend or put into practice. New products or processes may address real and important needs but may be too complicated for the intended user. Others fail because they have been poorly marketed.
As a marketing science and analytics person I am bombarded by sales pitches of various sorts, frequently pertaining to “new” or “innovative” methodologies or software. I’d like to share a few thoughts about how to separate the wheat from the baloney, and I think they will apply generally, not just to my areas of specialization.
One tipoff that a claim is suspect is when the status quo is criticized…and the party leveling the criticism has gotten the status quo wrong. How can you think outside the box if you don’t know what’s in it? We shouldn’t take for granted that another person knows our job better than we do. Generalizing from the exception is another tactic to watch out for, and sometimes very poor practice is presented as standard practice. Clearly, many things will be an improvement over incompetence. Consumer surveys, some of which are very badly designed and executed, are a case in point. In general, though, they do work and are still essential even though they are “old.”
Be on the lookout for the words “advanced” and “world class.” Like “innovative” and “revolutionary” they are hackneyed and have lost much of their meaning. One example is “advanced analytics” software that, in reality, only offers cross tabulations and graphics, and another is software that mainly consists of standard routines wrapped in a flashy package. They may be solid products, but no better than what you already have on hand. Don’t allow yourself to be dazzled; this of course applies generally, not only to software.
“We are the only ones who can…” should get your guard up as much as “99% accurate.” One is tempted to wonder if the reason no one else does it is because it doesn’t work. Ostensible benefits of new a technology often are really camouflaged claims about its hypothetical potential, not what in fact it has been proven to deliver. “Validated” is another word to be wary of. How is valid defined? Who did the validation and what process did they follow? Has the validation been replicated? More to the point, can the new product or system really do what the folks pitching it claim it can do? I recall a rather caustic but telling comment made by another marketing science person: “This algorithm is fantastic! Can it also forecast how many suckers will be born in the next hour?”
Dubious claims sometimes conceal themselves behind academic or scientific authority. While endorsements from true experts are impressive, should any substantial investment be required please take it upon yourself to find out who the real experts really are and what they are really saying. Also, don’t be taken in by impressive paper credentials; ethics are not correlated with mathematical prowess or programming skills.
Some pitches attempt to bewilder us us with complexity, perhaps in the hope we won’t look too closely or ask too many questions. What is being pushed apparently is not only new but so complex and sophisticated that the ordinary Joe will never be able to get his head around it. (Therefore, if he buys it he joins an elite cadre!) Those adopting this sales strategy typically lean heavily on jargon and tend to dodge specifics. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated; try to pinpoint concretely what this new product, service or process is supposed to be able to do and whether there is genuine evidence it can deliver on these promises. Or just ignore it. This classic Monty Python skit is a wonderful parody of the tendency of the chattering classes to over-intellectualize:
Popular business media are another excellent source of nonsense. “Companies that do XYZ are more profitable than companies that don’t do XYZ” is not evidence that XYZ works. It is merely a sentence written in English. A few obvious questions should come to mind. Specifically, how is XYZ defined? How is “more profitable” defined? How did the two groups of companies differ before it was adopted? What about performance over time? Average profitability for companies doing XYZ might actually have decreased since they adopted it!
Some claims are self-repudiating almost to the point of farce, for instance, eloquently-written pieces asserting that humans cannot express themselves well verbally. We may be told in-depth interviews don’t really work but, inexplicably, text-mining Twitter with their software does. It seems we’ve been deceiving ourselves all these years. Some pitches for biometrics make similar sorts of contentions, neglecting that their development may have required exhaustive interviews with test subjects.
Along similar lines, that humans are not perfectly rational is not news, nor was it was when Sigmund Freud was a lad. My reason for bringing this up is that every few years it seems we are informed, once again, that it has been discovered that humans do not always shop very scientifically and therefore that conventional marketing thinking and practice are wrong. I suspect, however, that tail fins were not installed on automobiles in the 1950’s for purposes of aerodynamics.
Silly or misleading claims and outright falsehoods can discourage adoption of useful new tools and overhype risks backlash. Nevertheless, something slickly marketed or hyped to an irritating degree in fact may work well and be worth its price tag. Being open-minded means being open-minded and our decision ultimately should boil down to: “Will I get what I’m expecting and will our investment, including my time and my staff’s time, pay off under the constraints we work?”
Look closely and ask hard questions.