Whatever else the nation has learned from the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on America, it is clear that American business was sent a loud wake-up call. Companies discovered their vulnerability, not from without but from within.

What happened to business in the weeks since Sept. 11 is revealing — and instructive. Last fall, T.B. Boane, an experienced salesman from Texas, reported that small and mid-sized businesses were “hunkering down.” He was not alone, of course. For a while, it seemed that companies were actually catatonic, unable to make a move or a decision. No one wanted to do anything because no one knew what might happen next.

While no businessperson wants to admit it, most of us were just plain scared. Many had good reason to be frightened, particularly the airline and hospitality industries, along with the ancillary services supporting these vast enterprises.

The attack laid bare the utter dependence of American business on a growth economy for its success. Over the last half decade, what we thought was our business prowess was actually just plain old good luck at being in the right place at the right time.

Simply put, business is now being put to the test, and coming up with a passing score is a challenge. Yet, if we look closely, the attack offers lessons for succeeding in 2002.

1. Looking for the next sale is the sign of serious trouble. The days following the attack served to underscore how dependent most companies — both large and small — are on “the next sale for their survival.” This is a symptom of the widespread disease known as the “sales-driven business.” It is characterized by marshalling the sales force to “get out there and get the orders,” a successful system as long as there is an ever-increasing demand.

The vulnerability of businesses when it comes to sales is frighteningly clear. “Where are our sales going to come from?” was the question that haunted most companies.

While just-in-time deliveries make sense in manufacturing, expecting the next sale to come through the door at just the right moment doesn’t. Unfortunately, too many companies insist on trying to short-circuit the selling process. All they want is the order. When there is a severe disconnect such as the attack or an economic downturn, sales hit the wall. Even worse, for many companies, it appears that they do not bounce back quickly.

The fallout that followed the attack is instructive: “Before you can own the customer’s wallet, you must own the customer’s head.” Or, as Christopher M. Knight states, “You must have mindshare before you can have marketshare.” If this is true, then why do so many companies insist on trying to do it backwards? Why do they think that salesmanship — even expert salesmanship — is the solution? Why do they want to make a sale before they actually have a customer?

2. Focus on what you’re selling, not what you sell. Believe it or not, what you’re selling is not the same as what you sell. Honda Motors is a good example of a company that understands this seemingly contradictory concept. Honda has long recognized that customer trust is the key to selling cars. Honda vehicles are very good, but they are not great. They are, however, what millions of consumers want: a vehicle that’s incredibly trustworthy.

Other companies try to do it backwards. They push to build sales before they build customer trust and confidence. They fail to recognize that it is trust that keeps customers buying — no matter the economic environment. Whether it’s the entrance of a new competitor or a worsening economic environment, it is trust that pays off because consumers do not want to take a chance on making the wrong purchase.

Even though the economy falters and new competitors have assaulted its market segment, Honda sales continue virtually unaffected.

The lesson is this: If you don’t deliver on trust, the customer won’t deliver the order.

3. Don’t try to pull the wool over the customer’s eyes. Customers are more sophisticated today than they were in the past, primarily due to the availability of information through the Internet. Few companies and even fewer politicians seem to understand the fundamental change that’s taken place in the customer’s psyche over the last few years. Without question, the events of Sept. 11 were an exercise in consciousness-raising when it comes to truth. We now require it.

The Firestone-Ford tire debacle in 2000 may have contributed to this change. We realized that our lives and those of our families were on the line and we wanted facts, not corporate PR puffery, a lesson Ford learned far faster than Bridgestone/Firestone. The attack only escalated this demand for truth.

An address by Acting Governor Jane Swift of Massachusetts in the days following the attack revealed one politician’s inability to read the audience. Not realizing the microphone was still on after finishing an unprecedented prime-time speech to the citizens of her state, she was heard to ask her speech coach how she “did” and to comment, “They [the constituents] know I’m in a firing mood.” A few inappropriate words laid open what was the true purpose of her 10-minute performance: to gain a political advantage.

What’s the issue? Those who try to mislead customers will be rewarded with a loss of their business. Reality has interposed itself into our lives in ways we never thought possible. Duplicity is out; customers demand the truth.

4. Customers are emboldened. A business executive visited a luggage store shortly after Sept. 11. “With all the changes in baggage requirements, I wanted to buy a new carry-on,” he says. “In the past, I would never have asked a retailer for a discount, and I’m not sure why I did it this time. Not only did I get a generous price break, but the salesperson included a $35 shaving kit at no charge.”

Every salesperson has noted that customers have become far more aggressive in the last five years, again coinciding perhaps with the arrival of the Internet. The attack, however, seems to have brought out the more serious side in all of us. We’ve all noted the signs — less small talk, a more no-nonsense attitude, and an even higher value placed on time, if that’s possible. We tend to be more direct than we were in the past.

This suggests that we need to be more probing in dealing with customers, letting them talk more than we have in the past. Further, the sales process is enhanced by avoiding the usual “corporate marketing materials” that are likely to be designed to obfuscate the facts, avoid competitor qualities, and steer the customer in one direction. What is required today is objective, helpful, and comprehensive information that assists the customer in becoming more productive and successful.

The message is clear: It takes collaborative salespeople to serve aggressive customers.

5. Take charge of the future. With the future the fuzziest it’s been in a long time, this may seem like a strange suggestion. But look at what is happening in business. Managing current issues is management’s number one priority in most cases, while thinking about the future is not even on the screen. Meeting current quotas, stock analysts’ (and shareholders’) expectations, and trying to outdo the competition are the pressing concerns.

Whether some business executives recognize it or not, it’s the future that fuels the present. To ignore what lies ahead spells trouble for the present. The fact that sales came to a halt on Sept. 11 in so many industries and have been slow (painfully slow in many situations) to bounce back is particularly challenging. But that’s not all. The fact that consumers and business buyers have been so slow to start spending is frustrating and confusing.

Even though they don’t dare verbalize their worst fears, many are wondering if some basic shift is taking place. It’s quite possible that people are feeling far more vulnerable and, for the first time, exposed to forces beyond their control.

To avoid the disruptions caused by economic contractions and other changes, the task is to create a constant, long-term flow of new customers. As such, the prospect identification and cultivation process is unending.

The message is clear: Having sales growth today results from making the investment and effort to plant the seeds long in advance of the harvest.

The future can never be known for certain, of course, and unforeseen events will surely arise, but creating a framework for the future is very much in our hands.

No matter what happens next, the attack of Sept. 11 was the clearest wake-up call that American business has heard in more than half a century. While some company executives and business owners are panicked, the more astute are taking charge of their destiny.

Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He can be contacted at 617-328-0069; j_graham@grahamcomm.com (e-mail) www.grahamcomm.com (website).

Publication date: 03/18/2002