When we think of capitalism, we typically think of competition as a central, driving force. At a macro-level, we have enshrined the value of competition in our antitrust laws. We think of competition between providers as a way to increase innovation and reduce costs. Adam Smith is frequently (and somewhat inaccurately) cited as the prophet of competition in his concept of the “invisible hand.”
At a micro-level, we have also glorified competition. Athletic competition is seen as a metaphor, as well as a proving ground, for competition in business. Businesses line up to sponsor major athletic events and athletes. And nowhere in business is competition more revered than in sales.
The truth is much of what we think about competition is dysfunctional, suboptimal, and actually destroys value. By contrast, what I’ll whimsically call Buddhist Capitalism shows another way that adds more value. I’ll explore this theme first at the business world level, then at the sales level.
Business Competition in the Real World
In the real world, pure competition leads directly to monopoly. Competition is inherently unstable, resolving to dominance of one more powerful firm over all the others. What we call “competition” in the modern Western world is a finely tuned mix of rules and regulations, as well as a few customs, that serve to keep behavior within socially acceptable bounds.
If you doubt this, think of what the U.S. economy would look like in the absence of the FTA, the FDA, the FAA, the SEC, or the FDIC. Or just look back a few decades in the history books. Maintenance of a state of competition depends enormously on the power of the referees.
Pure competition, even where regulatory regimes are strict, rarely exists. There are imbalances of labor, education, geography, and a hundred other variables. The point is in nearly every industry, there is an imbalance of power, exploited by one party at the expense of the weaker parties. “Competition” in the real world is more or less about zero-sum games, with one party holding the stronger hand.
The definitions of “capitalism” have been hijacked by extremist theoreticians in recent years: people such as Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Alan Greenspan, who believe in a moral purity produced by competition. (Never mind that an ethics built on selfishness isn’t worthy of being called ethics in the first place.)
By contrast: imagine an economy relatively unencumbered by laws and regulations, but where trust and custom abounded. An economy with not nearly as many lawyers, but with fewer legal battles. An economy where the frictional costs of competition (and the regulation of competition) are lower, and innovation is higher.
You get such an economy when you introduce the concept of trust and collaboration. Zero-sum games shift to 1+1=3 games. Stephen MR Covey Jr.’s book The Speed of Trust is all about this: when trust is present, speed goes up and cost goes down.
If my Buddhist friends will forgive me the crude colloquial language, I’ll call this Buddhist Capitalism. What I mean is that it focuses on collaboration, not competition; on getting along harmoniously rather than vanquishing; on letting go attachment to outcome rather than obsessing over goal achievement.
It’s far from crazy. The lesson of the Prisoner’s Dilemma work in game theory is that a collaborative strategy always, always beats a competitive strategy if played long term. Research shows that collaboration produces more innovation than solitary introversion. Collaboration and trust build on each other, increasing knowledge of both parties to the point where they can jointly add value, cut costs, and reduce risks.
It may sound like a Beatles song—the more you give, the more you get—but it’s true.
What does all this have to do with sales? Selling is just the micro-version of the same thing. We as human beings have a primal desire for survival, which can easily revert to competition. But we have an equally strong desire for connection, collaboration, and cohesion.
Except for pure commodities (and not even water or electricity is a pure commodity), buyers prefer to buy from sellers they trust. Trusted sellers have their customers’ interests at heart, ahead of their own. They play the long game because they know that the best way to long-term success is through their customers’ success, and, therefore, no particular sale is worth sacrificing the long-term relationship.
Trusted sellers are also not attached to a particular outcome. They don’t keep meticulous score at a detailed level, and they are willing to let their agenda be influenced by client needs. Finally, they keep no secrets from their customers because they see their interests and their customers’ interests as one and the same, and the value of shared information to both parties exceeds the value of secret information privy to just one party.
Of course, these attitudes are hard to come by in a world that prizes competition. Sellers everywhere are taught to compete not only with their competitors, but also with their own customers. Not getting a sale is considered bad form, if not unacceptable. Metrics in sales are short-term, incentives are largely extrinsic, and motivation basically consists of war chants.
But a seller who can “think Buddhist” will outperform a competitive seller over time because customers prefer to deal with sellers they trust. And they do not trust people who are in it for themselves.
The ultimate irony: by being willing to forego a sale and do the right thing, the “Buddhist seller” will end up selling more than the competitive seller.