Before I worked in politics, I worked in sales. One of my first jobs after finishing sixth form (before I decided to go to university) involved getting to a warehouse in Clapton at 7am for an hour’s motivational chanting before lugging 48 heavy socket sets off to far flung high streets around London and trying to flog them to shop owners. I get a pound for every socket set I sold. Some days, I didn’t make back the money I spent on the travel. The company had an ethos built around impulse buying: a firm belief that every 12th person was an impulse buyer – so you just had to reach enough of them to be in profit.
I later got a job selling chemical cleaners and degreasers. The sales technique was completely different. The motto of the company was “I don’t sell chemicals, I sell a relationship”. The sales theory was based around befriending the potential customer – though these were completely cold leads – and talking to them about things they were interested in before steering the conversation around to their desperate need for some super-concentrated cleaners.
I held both of these jobs in the early 90s, long before the minimum wage. I worked on a commission only basis. Some weeks I earned nothing at all, though I was extremely good at telesales so some weeks my earnings were extremely high!
My last two sales jobs were post-university. I sold advertising space in local papers in Kent. While I was there, the sales theory went through a revolution that moved them from mirroring the behaviour of my first company to adopting the theory of the second. For some this was an unpopular change. They preferred the easily measurable certainty of a high volume technique to the greater uncertainty of the relationship model, even when they could see how the rewards could be reaped.
The largest leap of faith was in the way we approached potential clients. Gone were the days of simply calling through the local Yellow Pages making quick call after quick call until someone would bite and we could sell a quick 10 X 2 (“about the size of a fag packet!”). Gone were the days of relying solely on those we already knew to be loyal customers who could be spoken to quickly and without wasting time that could have been spent on further cold calling. Now we were encouraged to really investigate our customers before contacting them. To get to know as much about those who weren’t currently buying from us as those who were.
So why am I writing about any of this on LabourList? Well, when all or a large part of your income relies on getting the right data and using that data in the most effective and efficient way, it will focus the mind. So when I read Tom Harris’ dismissal of the 5 Million Votes campaign – of which I am a cautiously optimistic advocate – It caused me to wax nostalgic about my time in the world of sales. It was this sharpening experience that leads me to think that Tom is coming at this completely wrongly. I agreed very much with Marcus Robert’s response, but wanted to add a little something based on my own real life experience.
Tom’s biggest mistake is to make no distinction between ex-voters and non-voters. But these are very different things.
In the world of sales, these ex-voters would be considered hot leads. That’s some desirable data. These are people who have backed us once. In sales terms, they are statistically much more likely to buy again. Those currently having their voting needs fulfilled by the Tories would arguably have to take a longer political journey to voting Labour than those who have simply stopped voting. A non-voter has never offered what’s called in sales a “buying signal”. They are a different proposition again. While I think it is important to reach them for democratic and moral reasons, I wouldn’t dream of treating them in the same way as a former Labour voter. It wouldn’t work.
But a good lead is just that. It takes more than the fact that you know they exist to bring them to a sale.
Many of you will have experienced poor sales techniques. The salesperson so in love with their product they never let you get a word in edgewise until at the end of their monologue, they ask you how many you’re going to buy. Or who asks you questions, but tries to torturously twist your answer to fit their product. Politics at its worst can feel like this. Like a broadcast, not a conversation.
A good sales person knows about their product and about their customers. They do their homework and they ask the right questions. They listen.
The debate over sales techniques reminds me of the two different sales theories I have worked with.
Standard voter ID is the prime example of playing the numbers game. Hitting enough doorsteps to identify enough of the vote to get it out on election day. It’s simple, it’s easily measurable and it works to an extent. It works when the sun shines on polling day, when the voters have a sense of optimism and momentum. It works less well as voters go off Labour, start to waver and don’t have the conversations that are needed with their local party members and representatives to bring them back to us or pull them over the line in our direction. But this takes considerable time and resources. No CLP focused on this technique will win the most contacts prize which was hotly contested in London at the May elections – even on a ward-by-ward basis.
The answer is not one or the other. Not voter ID or relational canvassing, but finding a mix of both that suits the people undertaking the work and their abilities. For myself, I’m much better at relational canvassing. But others will be much more comfortable doing voter ID alone. Lately it has seemed in this debate that a false choice has sprung up between the two. That may be because the way the data is given and processed by the Party massively favours a VID model. But we can and should find ways to be more flexible.
5 Million Votes isn’t about choosing between ex-Labour voters and current Tory voters. Developing relational canvassing isn’t about abandoning VID. The difficult work is not in choosing between approaches, but in finding a way to blend the approaches that makes the best of our data, the best of our volunteers and produces the best outcome for our Party. We’ll have enough hard choices to come as we approach 2015, let’s not make it harder by inventing false ones along the way.