On several occasions I’ve taught the principles and practices of effective data visualization to people whose job it is to sell business intelligence software—sometimes for the entire sales team of a business intelligence vendor, but more often for mixed audiences that included a few salespeople among others. In such situations, I can always count on a particular issue to arise: “Yes, we know that much of what our products do and many of the features that we promote don’t work (silly eye candy and the like), but we include and promote them because they sell. We have no choice.” When I’m in the room with these folks whose livelihood is affected by this dilemma, empathy prompts me to explain how they can educate customers during the sales process to recognize the silly stuff for what it really is and thereby nudge customers in the direction of their own best interests. I’m beginning to realize, however, that this effort rarely, if ever, makes a difference. Some businesses are built on a model that will always favor immediate sales revenues over effective products, and nothing that I say to salespeople will change this.
Any business that measures its success by current sales revenues or profits without regard for the effectiveness of their products will go for the silly stuff every time. I could argue that this is a poor business model because it’s short-sighted and doomed to fail, eventually resulting in declining revenues, but what’s the point? Businesses built on this model lack the foresight to appreciate the greater intelligence of long-term planning around products and services that effectively address the real needs of people. I believe the root problem that belies such business practices is not strategic short-sightedness or a myopic focus on sales—these are symptoms of a deeper, more fundamental problem. I believe that it’s wrong to build a business on self-interest alone.
In the midst of the current presidential campaign, we’re reminded daily of how willingly and shamelessly politicians do whatever it takes to get elected. I’m embarrassed to live in a country that puts up with this. Yes, it’s true that most other countries are just as bad and many are worse, but that’s no excuse. We could be so much better. Our country could function so much more intelligently and morally. How did we come to expect so little of ourselves?
At least when politicians twist the truth and manipulate voters to get into office, however, they probably believe they’re doing it for the good of the country. Sarah Palin can say that she wasn’t really clueless when Katie Couric asked those questions that she couldn’t answer, she was just being “flippant.” Despite being a good Christian who was taught to value the truth, she probably believes that God makes exceptions when the stakes are this high—the ends trump the means. (Yeah, I know that Palin isn’t the only candidate twisting the truth, but her acts are so transparent, they’re especially insulting.) Whereas politicians rationalize their behavior based on the genuine belief that they’re better for the country, businesses that sell bad products are simply out for themselves. When I step back and think about those discussions that I’ve had with salespeople who promote software features that don’t work because that’s what it takes to sell their products, I’m affronted by the fundamental absurdity of this exchange. How did we come to find it acceptable to convince people to pay money for things that we know don’t work? How does “because this is what it takes to sell our product” excuse the fundamental wrongness of this end?
I’m in the business of helping people use information effectively. I don’t tolerate anything that undermines this end. I believe that business intelligence software vendors owe it to their customers to do business in this way as well. When I evaluate a a product as ineffective, I respect vendors that defend their software by making an honest attempt to show that it actually works. I don’t respect vendors that defend their efforts to sell software when they know it doesn’t work. Things that don’t work should not be sold—period. That’s good business.