16. The Bitterest Truth: It’s Not About You

In How to Win Friends & Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “If out of reading this book you get just one thing—an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle—if you get that one thing out of this book, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.”

Bitter Truth #2 says that people buy to fill a need, with the implication being that you need to sell to their needs. This can be hard to do if we succumb to the all-too-human temptation to place our own needs front and center. Most people have a tendency toward that kind of egocentrism—to be “the star of the movie,” as I like to put it—but serious activism demands that you learn to subordinate your needs to your customer’s, at least during the sale.

Here’s Carnegie again:

Thousands of salespeople are pounding the pavements today, tired, discouraged and underpaid. Why? Because they are always thinking only of what they want. They don’t realize that neither you nor I want to buy anything. If we did, we would go out and buy it. But both of us are eternally interested in solving our problems. And if salespeople can show us how their services or merchandise will help us solve our problems, they won’t need to sell us. We’ll buy.

And here’s Beckwith in Selling the Invisible:

The most compelling selling message you can deliver in any medium is not that you have something wonderful to sell. It is: “I understand what you need.” The selling message “I have” is about you. The message “I understand” is about the only person involved in the sale who really matters: the buyer.

And so, we arrive at our final Bitter Truth:

Bitter Truth #3

In any sale, the customer’s needs and viewpoints count far more than yours. In fact, yours hardly count at all.

Here’s how Bitter Truth #3 plays out in a business context:

• A “fashionista” opens a clothing store and stocks it only with clothing she likes—and is surprised when her sales are meager.

• A chef opens a restaurant whose menu consists solely of his favorite dishes, which tend toward the complex and esoteric. He also refuses to compromise his culinary standards and therefore uses only the most expensive ingredients, even in dishes where his customers can’t tell the difference. His restaurant runs at a loss until, less than two years after it opened, it is forced to close.

• A freelance programmer takes pride in her elegant and “tight” code. Only, her projects frequently take too long and go over budget, so her customer list is dwindling.

Each of these entrepreneurs has put his or her needs—or ego, if you prefer—before the customer’s. The fashionista’s shoppers want to see clothes that they like in her store. The chef’s diners want comfort food—and don’t bother with the truffles. And the programmer’s clients don’t care about elegant code, or code at all: they are not buying code but an inventory-management program. They just want it delivered on time and within budget.

Placing your needs ahead of the customer’s is a common reason for business failure—and also for activist failure, as we’ll see in the next chapter.