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Great Selling by Truth Telling: A Best Buy Tale

I was in Best Buy the other day.

The sales guy was excellent. He was open about what he knew and what he didn’t. He advised us to spend more, or to spend less, depending on what we wanted and needed in the several product lines we were exploring. He was candid. He spoke quickly and directly, in short, to-the-point sentences.

When we finished, I asked him, “You’re not on commission here, right?”

“No, not here. I’ve sold on commission before, though.”

“Which do you like better?” I asked.

“Oh, I prefer this. You can tell the truth.”

“You can tell the truth?”

“Yup. The other way, sometimes you’ve got to make the month, or bend it around for some other reason. It’s hard. Here you just tell the truth. It’s a lot easier.”

Just tell the truth–it’s a lot easier.

Let’s parse that: then evaluate it.

Why is it a lot easier?

1. There’s only one version of the truth—an infinity less to remember.
2. It’s easier to answer questions—it requires only short-term memory, not creative license.
3. It’s easier for people to tell you’re not lying.
4. People buy more from you if they feel you’re telling the truth.
5. People tell their friends; truth-telling is good marketing.

Of course, some people feel this is a sucker’s game. It’s sales right? The point isn’t to tell the truth, it’s to not get caught not telling the truth? To look like you’re telling the truth, not to actually tell it.

After all, we’re in business—right?

So let’s have a look at the numbers.

BBY Stock Chart

Here is a 5-year stock chart for Best Buy, tracked against the S&P500, and against Best Buy’s most obvious US competitor, Circuit City. (BBY is the one that ends at the top, by the way).

And sure, you can make charts look any way you want. I’m not trying to be an analyst here. I’m just saying the case is not only intuitive, but very plausibly empirical as well.

(By the way, Bear Stearns rated it underperform back in January. Goldman Sachs rates it a Buy.  Cheap shot? Maybe, but I’m just sayin’…)

Telling the truth is not stupid, wussy, or bad business. Far from it. It’s very good business. And for pretty obvious reasons.

And that’s the truth.

Decaying Social Trust and Moral Indignation

Pop quiz!

Who wrote: “This is how the world will end—not with a bang, but a whimper.”

a. T.S. Eliot
b. W. H. Auden
c. Robert Frost
d. e.e. cummings
e. Alfred E. Neumann

Answer at the end; no fair peeking.

I don’t know about the world, but the subprime/mortgage/credit crisis shows how social trust ends. Not with a whimper, but with righteous moral indignation—on all sides.

We are in the midst of the deflation of a debt or credit bubble, itself based on an asset bubble—overpriced houses. As of today, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, 24% of subprime mortgages are delinquent or in foreclosure; ditto for 4% for prime mortgages; and for all mortgages it’s a record 7.9%, the highest since records began in 1979.

Everyone played musical chairs. And the more frantic the music, the more rightous the talk.

Here’s the Heritage Foundation—mind you, just last November, 2007—demonstrating its utter subordination of logic to ideology, arguing against H.R. 3915, a House bill to reign in predatory lending:

[the bill] would establish an explicit series of credit standards for lenders, which could have the effect of excluding many moderate income borrowers from the ownership market. In sum, the enactment of H.R.3915 would delay the housing market recovery that is now struggling to get underway.

Yup, Congress killed the real estate bubble appreciating market.

A year earlier, in September 2006, the Mortgage Bankers Association stated that

“the subprime market has evolved dramatically in recent years, providing significant benefits to consumers…increasing regulation could decrease competition and increase rates that the subprime market offers consumers.”

But this is not a populist rant.  Consumers were far from just hapless victims.

An FBI Mortgage Fraud report 3 months ago stated that up to 70% of early payment defaults may have been linked to buyer misrepresentation on loan applications.

What about FICO credit scores?  Courtesy of BusinessWeek, meet “credit doctors,” companies who will manipulate credit ratings by blitzing credit agencies with disputes about old reports (which have likely been lost), setting you up as an “authorized user” of an account owned by someone with good credit, or just creating paper accounts.

“All legal,” they protest. Of course. No miscreants here.

So—end game—bang or whimper?

Dateline, CBS Evening News February 12, 2008.  Meet Karen T., a married San Francisco suburbanite who bought a condo as a second home for $505K, financing it 100% with mortgage debt. Now it’s worth $340K, and her adjustable mortgage goes up $900 this June.

They own another home. They can afford the rate increase. So—what to do?

Karen’s answer?  Walk away. Default.  Give it back to the bank.

Is Karen distraught? Not really. “I’m not doing anything illegal.  Everything’s negotiable in business—this is just another business decision. I don’t see why this is any different. I’m within my right to walk away from a bad deal.”

And 60% in an LA Times Real Estate blog poll agreed with her.

Karen is morally indistinguishable from a landlord turning off the heat under rent control; insurance companies withdrawing sole-provider coverage from unprofitable markets; banks charging usurious credit rates; emergency rooms turning out the uninsured; de facto mortgage redlining; and a thousand forms of “fine print."  Or—come to think of it—from a banker foreclosing on a never-should’ve-approved-that-loan loan. 

The rallying cry is always, “I’m not doing anything illegal.”

But here’s the kicker.

Karen’s not morally indignant about walking away. To her, that’s “a business decision.”

No, her moral indignation is reserved for the consequences she might face.  She leans her face on her hand, her voice intensifying, as she says, “It is devastating to think that my credit scores are going to drop 200 points," she said.

OMG, it’s just so, like, unfair!

Huh? Devastated because you were educated, had the money, and placed a 100% bet on an overheated market—and lost? And you can afford to pay the piper—but don’t want to?

Take a trip to Vegas, Karen, and see if the blackjack dealers buy it.  Better yet, go tell it to someone with half your education and income who’s been foreclosed on after having spent their last money trying to pay the bank. 

It doesn’t matter who started the food fight.  It seems that the decay of social trust is accompanied by higher levels of self-righteousness and narcissism on both sides.

When business and consumer alike choose moral bankruptcy over financial bankruptcy—without even thinking about it—and then justify it indignantly through Darwinian arguments—well, Houston, we’ve got a problem in trust-land.  Not to mention ethics-land. 

Oh yeah—T.S. Eliot
 

Business Ethics and Self-Orientation

The Harvard Business School Working Knowledge series has a track record of picking fascinating topics, even if I’ve occasionally accused them of over-analyzing the obvious.  Not so in a current article.

Why We Aren’t as Ethical as We Think We Are, by Tenbrunsel et al, is not only a terrific topic, but—in my humble opinion—it’s treated very provocatively. It raises big issues well.

Here’s HBSWK’s abstract:

People commonly predict that they will behave more ethically in the future than they actually do. When evaluating past (un)ethical behavior, they also believe they behaved more ethically than they actually did. These misperceptions, both of prediction and of recollection, have important ramifications for the distinction between how ethical we think we are and how ethical we really are, as well as understanding how such misperceptions are perpetuated over time…Key concepts include:
• All individuals have an innate tendency to engage in self-deception around their own ethical behavior.
• Organizations worried about ethics violations should pay attention to understanding these psychological processes at the individual level rather than focus solely on the creation of formal training programs and education around ethics codes.

That second conclusion contrasts with the usual business approach to "ethics."  Many corporate “ethics” initiatives amount either to probabilistic analyses or to brainwashing about political correctness.

Harvard Business School’s own ethics program is, if I recall, built around analyzing three constituencies: business, the law, and society (the latter including prevailing norms and mores).  The manager’s job is to intelligently balance the response.

This approach doesn’t distinguish between “ethics” and corporate strategy.  If the overriding goal is the long-term survival and success of the company—which it nearly always is (think "sustainable competitive advantage")—then "balancing" is just another exercise in corporate optimization.  The concept of a “conscience” in such models is a curiosity that seems to exist solely in others—just another data point or constraint to be optimized.

Yet how can “ethics” be discussed absent a treatment of the formation of conscience?

It can’t.  To their credit, the authors suggest conscience is individually meaningful, and affected by emotional processes. They say the psychological angle may be heretical to some ethicists—but I think the personal angle is even more heretical to most business thinkers, stuck in modes of alignment and processes, where "conscience" is an alien concept.

The article has meaning beyond ethics.  Look at this pattern.  People think they are more ethical than others; and they rewrite their past (and future) ethicality relative to current actions.

This is also a pattern not just of ethics, but of self-orientation.

A study asked faculty and students to rate how often they thought about the other group, and how often they thought the other group thought about them.  Yup—students and faculty alike thought mostly about themselves—but students assumed that faculty were also absorbed by their thoughts of students.  And faculty assumed that students were consumed by thoughts of faculty.  Everyone projects their own levels of self-absorption on to others, no one noticing the true similarity—self-absorption itself.

In its low-grade form, this is human nature.  In extremis, it is narcissism.  Another extreme form is encountered in alcoholics.  In both cases, the individual projects an over-inflated sense of one’s own importance on to others. (For narcissists, the projection is always positive—for alcoholics, it’s an oscillating  sine wave of positivity and self-revulsion).

Narcissists and alcoholics—I suspect—aren’t high on ethical behavior charts either.

Which suggests the ability to get out of oneself and to see things as they are are prerequisites both for accurate observation of the outside world, and for ethical behavior.  

Which suggests that strategy and ethics actually share something—an innate focus on the Other.  Self-centered strategies, those built around optimizing selfishness, are ultimately self-destroying; good strategies are intimately bound up with markets, customers, employees, suppliers.   Ditto for ethics; an ethics built solely on corporate success is an oxymoron.  Ethics require us to be intimately bound up with others.  

Hmmm…strategic and ethical analyses share an external view…both have a psychological component…business is about people as people, not just as objects of behavioral vectors …

This is not your normal business writing.  Kudos to HBSWK, and to the authors.

 

How the Pharmaceutical Industry Can Increase Trust

“You can’t talk your way out of what you behaved your way into,” says Stephen Covey.

But not everyone believes Covey.

NY Times, May 22, 2007.

“Columbia University dismissed its financial aid director yesterday after the release of documents showing he promoted a student loan company in which he had a stake, sending letters to parents and alumni on three occasions praising the lender.”

NY Times, March 21, 2007.

…the year [Dr. Allan Collins]was chosen as president-elect of the National Kidney Foundation, the pharmaceutical company Amgen, which makes the most expensive drugs used in the treatment of kidney disease, underwrote more than $1.9 million worth of research and education programs led by Dr. Collins…In 2005, Amgen paid Dr. Collins at least $25,800, mostly in consulting and speaking fees…

…Dr. Donald Hunninghake served on a government-sponsored advisory panel that wrote guidelines for when people should get cholesterol-lowering pills… eight of [the panel’s] nine members had financial ties to drug makers.

A 2002 survey found that more than 80 percent of the doctors on panels that write clinical practice guidelines had financial ties to drug makers.

Doctors said that lectures were highly educational, and that drug makers hired them for their medical expertise and speaking skills. But former drug company sales representatives said they hired doctors as speakers mostly in hope of influencing that doctor’s prescribing habits.

I don’t wish to engage in pharma-bashing. But Covey’s point needs heeding.

Columbia’s response to conflict was to say that the director, a 1985 graduate of the university, had “abused a position of trust and violated the university policy on conflicts of interest.”

So they fired him.

Covey, presumably, would approve.

Not so in pharma. In recent decades, the business of making and selling drugs has become much less about making and much more about selling. Perhaps that’s why the industry tends to see its trust problem as a marketing or PR issue—’if only the public knew the full truth, they’d trust us.’

Typical is this headline, from an April post by Ipsos research, :

Pharmaceutical Companies Need To Raise Awareness Of Their Social Investments To Improve Industry’s Image

Or this, promoting an interactive web seminar:

How can you safely navigate this politically-charged environment—and keep your business and brands strong? What can you do to restore public trust—even while facing negative campaign rhetoric? Find out at a New WebSeminar—Surviving the Election Wars: Strategies to Build Trust and Defend Brands.

Just to be clear who they view as being in charge of trust and brands:

If you are involved in advertising, marketing, market research, corporate communications, product and brand management, senior management, public affairs, or public relations…This is a program you can’t afford to miss!

PhRMA, the industry association, is a big proponent of the trust-is-a-communications-issue viewpoint. In an article appropriately titled "New PhRMA Leaders Discuss Future of the Industry, Need for More Public Education, " PhRMA’s CEO, ex-congressman Billy Tauzin, says, "“For PhRMA to continue to advocate well for our members, we must begin to correct the misconceptions and the outright fraudulent views that have been created about our work and our products.”

So, how’s it working? Here’s one survey:

43% of US adults believe that pharmaceutical companies fund groups like the American Heart Association and the National Kidney Foundation in order to get more people to buy their products or medicines, whereas only 21% believe it is to demonstrate that the companies care about a health issue supported by the group.

Truth: the pharmaceutical industry is loaded with good, smart, dedicated, well-meaning people. It has saved millions of lives, and improved millions more. It has the potential to do unimagineable good. We need a trusted pharmaceutical industry. But it’s the industry that must do the heavy lifting, not the consumer. The only real way to be trusted is—to be trustworthy.

A friend who does PR for pharma tells me it is difficult to give away drug coverage to lower income people—for free—because people are suspicious.

Covey’s right. You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into—ask Imus. You can’t market your way out of structural conflicts of interest—ask Arthur Andersen. You don’t become trustworthy—worthy of trust—via marketing or advertising or PR agencies. That’s throwing water on a grease fire.

Pharma needs a fundamental recontracting with two critical constituencies—patients and physicians. It’s a business thirsting for trust—but trust based on values and behaviors. Not on spin, ads, press releases, awareness improvement and “education.”

We should all be rooting for pharma to make that shift.

Insurance Fraud, Short-Selling and Why You Can’t Trust Stock Analysts

8AM, July 17, 1989: I’m driving on Route 2 outside Concord Massachusetts, lights flashing and horn honking, fighting rush hour traffic. My son is nearly being born in the back of the car. We reach Emerson Hospital; nurses rush my wife to the ER; I park the car and run back.

Birth time: about one minute after reaching the hospital. Delivery: by the good nurses, a minute before the obstetrician on duty arrives to bless what’s now history.

Two weeks later, the bill arrives. It includes several thousand dollars for the obstretrician. I call to complain. “What do you care,” the office says, “it’s all covered by your insurance.”

9:20AM May 12, 2007: I’m flying from Amsterdam Schiphol back home, reading Joseph Nocera in the Herald Tribune, Why Short-sellers Should Have Their Say. Think of short-selling as the “opposite” of buying stocks—betting that a stock will go down, rather than up.

Since precisely 50% of stock trades involve selling, you’d think Wall Street would put roughly the same emphasis on when to sell as on when to buy. Of course, you’d be wrong. There are few short-sellers, and they are often reviled, harrassed, even sued.

Reasons often given for the dearth of short-sellers are that losses from short-selling are potentially unlimited (true), that short-selling goes against the long-term natural rise of the market (true so far), and that human psychology is basically optimistic (debatable). But those are weak explanations.

The real reason is—wait for it—money. Wall Street gains more when you buy and trade than when you sell. This is one reason securities analysts overwhelmingly issue positive, not negative, ratings. But there’s more.

Companies don’t like negative ratings. To be more precise, CEOs and senior managers of companies with compensation tied to stock performance don’t like negative ratings. Many leaders call the analysts’ parent company to complain, even issue veiled threats to switch to other providers of financial services. Even sue.

And voila, the analysts either withdraw the negative rating or just stop covering the company.

The analyst will blame management for telling him to emphasize positive reviews. Thus he justifies his lapse in professionalism: the devil made me do it.

The poorly rated company blames the analyst for “unfair” analysis (meaning it hurts the CEO in the wallet). Easier to blame the analyst than to take responsibilty for the shortcomings identified.

Management of the analyst firm also caves in, blaming the blackmail tactics of the rated company.

Fingers point everywhere but back. Blame instead of responsibility And blame feeds the rot.

Our social “solutions” propagate the problem. We opt for an expensive regulatory program like Sarbanes-Oxley, to protect everyone from their presumed innate selfish tendencies. Our approach resembles airport security—“somebody will always cheat: let’s constrict everyone’s freedom, in order to stop the few.” But securities markets are not airports.

Far from stopping a culture of blame-throwing, this approach enables it by assuming bad motives.

Instead, we should selectively prosecute the hell out of individuals who behave badly. Prosecute analysts who won’t honor their role, CEOs who blackmail bankers, and bankers who cave in, and who lack the guts to call the cops.

A vibrant community of short-sellers would have seen Enron coming. A few people could have spotted the lies, and made a lot of money by publicizing the rot—saving a lot of lifes’ savings and careers. An MBA class at Cornell did just that—analyzed the numbers and recommended shorting Enron well before it imploded. No one was listening.

Business has no right complaining about government intervention if it can’t bring to bear the pressure of capitalism upon itself. Greed and lies aren’t the stuff of business—they’re the death of business, as long as they stay in dark rooms.

July, 1998, Madison, New Jersey: I go to a collision damage repair shop.

“I’ve got a dent in the back door of my car, can you punch it out? It doesn’t have to be perfect."

“Nah, we’d have to replace the whole door.”

“No you wouldn’t—the gas station will do it for me for a hundred bucks, I figure you guys could just do a better job. It’s a simple job to punch it out, I’d do it myself if I had the tools.”

“Buddy—god alone couldn’t fix that door, we’ll replace it or do nothing at all.”

Translation: “what do you care, your insurance company is paying. And we’re not about to ruin a good scam by being customer-focused.”

We don’t have to put up with this crap. Call your better business bureau. Call your state regulatory agency. Call your insurance company. Write a letter to the editor. Rat these people out.

With the market in nosebleed territory, you might want to short a few stocks yourself. If your broker doesn’t know how, then help create trust and integrity in the market while you make money—by getting a new broker.