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Are You Selling Snake Oil?

The year is 1893.

A well-dressed crowd of punters are pushed shoulder to shoulder, fighting to get their view of the small stage at the World Expo in Chicago. Onto the stage walks a man, his leather boots knock loudly as he struts to the centre of the timber platform. He looks down, dragging a brown hessian bag in his cracked and worn hands. The shadow from his broad cowboy hat hides his face in darkness leaving his neat moustache and goatee barely visible. Suddenly he stops sending a hushed gasp through the crowd. He lifts his eyes and the tense audience can now see his fiery gaze. He plunges his hand into the bag and pulls a live, hissing, terrifying rattlesnake.

Thrusting it into the air he reaches his other hand to his belt and out takes his large, ornate knife. The crowd is heaving with a thick mix of terror and suspense as the cowboy plunges the knife into the snake, slicing it down the belly, allowing the blood from the dying serpent to drip onto the floor. With the dying snake still writhing in his hands, the cowboy tosses it into a large cauldron of boiling water at the front of the stage.

The cowboy begins to speak in a deep and sagacious voice. He shares tales of his amazing journeys to the mesmerized crowd. While travelling in Texas, he told, he had learned the secrets of the Native Hopi Medicine men. Despite being bitten hundreds of times by rattlesnakes, he tells the crowd that his magic potion has saved him from danger and distress each and every time. As the fat of the snake bubbles to the surface of the pot, he scrapes a mixture off the top with a steel ladle and pours it into a small bottle labelled “Stanley’s Snake Oil”.

Original Fake.

The man, Clark Stanley, tells the crowd of the large list of treatments and magical healing powers of his famous concoction. Immediately the crowd descends upon the stage waving hands full of money, frantically shoving to get a bottle of this magic snake oil. Each bottle proudly declares it will cure Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Sciatica, Lame Back, Lumbago, Contracted Cords, Toothache, Sprains, Swelling, Frostbite, Chilblains, Bruises, Sore Throats, even the bites of animals, insects and reptiles. Stanley happily takes their money by the fistfull, handing them a bottle and smiling assuredly.

Clark Stanley became very wealthy in the late 1800’s travelling the US wowing crowds and selling them his famous snake oil as a miracle cure. There was a slight problem though, rattlesnake oil wasn’t very effective as a treatment for any of the symptoms or illnesses Staley claimed. Actually it wasn’t useful in curing anything at all. Chinese snake oil, made using water snakes from China which were rich in Omega-3 and did have some benefits. This was where the idea for using snake oil originated.

The Chinese migrants who mined for gold in America would use their traditional tincture to soothe their aching hands after a long day on shovels and pickaxes. Rattlesnakes, with their totally different diets and physiological make up, produced snake oil with none of these healing properties. This didn’t worry Stanley; he had a product to sell and was happy to sell it.

His problem was that collecting enough rattlesnakes was a dangerous and difficult business. Fortunately, Stanley came up with a brilliant solution. He didn’t use rattlesnakes in the potion! In 1917, federal investigators found that there was no snake oil in the bottles, instead it was mainly beef fat and chilli peppers mixed with turpentine. Not only was he peddling a product that had no scientific or medicinal basis for solving the problems he claimed, but it wasn’t even what it said on the bottle. So how was Stanley so successful for so many years if his product didn’t work?

Sell & Move.

Stanley lived in a time where you could safely burn your bridges. You could happily travel from town to town, putting on the grand shows, weaving wonderous stories with extraordinary and unproven claims. There were few regulators and even fewer consumer advocacy groups. As long as you kept moving from town to town, the repercussions of your false claims would take long enough to catch up to you that you could become wealthy and never have to worry. In fact, when he was found out as a fraud, Clark Stanley was given a fine of just $20.
Today, professional salespeople can no longer burn bridges. There is no longer anywhere to hide. Regulators and investigators have more eyes and ears than ever before. Consumers and employers are constantly peering into the history of people. Issues are quick to spread across the twitter-sphere with lighting speed. Right of reply is weak and Facebook justice is brutal. Quickly a snake oil salesman is outed on social media and customers quickly flee as authorities close in.

It is now more important than ever that sales professionals are not only acting ethically, that is a given, they also need to be actively engaged in developing deep understanding of the people they serve. It is critical that sale people understand the preferences, issues and cultural sensitivities in the diverse markets they look to serve. They need to be working towards genuinely improving the living conditions of customers, fostering economic and social improvement in their markets. The game has changed as now we need to do more than just sell; we need to care.

Build Trust.

Your customers want to trust you. They want you to care about and support their families, their homes and their lives. Your employers want more than just a human resource, they want you to care about the bigger picture, to align with their purpose and understand how you help them change the world. Your employees want you to be more than a boss handing out a pay cheque. They want you to stand for something, to have conviction in your actions.

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