Old White Guys and Sales Paradigms

Matthew Tuerk (@matthewtuerk) tweeted at 10:15 PM on Wed, Mar 13, 2013:
old, white guys http://t.co/8DpPe4nclQ #econdevREV #mansplaining

Economic development as an industry has known about its “old white guy” problem for a long time. I may be wrong, but I would guess that some of the IEDC course materials have even codified the reality that death and retirement are the economic developer’s best friends (well-stated by an old, white guy here)….

Other, non-economic development initiatives seem to have a better grasp on building open communities. They haven’t totally figured it out yet, but they seem to grasp a fundamental principal of bottom-up….Let the old, white guys focus on recruiting on the golf course.

Matt is one of my favorite new voices in economic development.  He’s leading economic development, coworking and makerspace initatives in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, and he’s launched a blog based on the Twitter hashtag he coined, #econdevRev.  I love the fact that he’s concise and not afraid to speak his mind.

In the rest of the entry I quoted above, Matt discusses some tactics for getting women more engaged in tech development, but I got the impression that there was more embedded in the portion that I have quoted than he fully unpacks.  And while I think the gender issues in both economic development and tech are things we need to talk about, there’s something deeper in his “old white guy” shorthand that I think we need to pull out into the light.   In this case, “old white guys” includes more than a few young white guys, a few older non-white guys, and some women both younger and older.  There’s also quite a few people in economic development and related professions who fit the old white guy demographic, but whose thinking and professional work indicate that they are about something else.

What I think Matt is getting at here is a paradigm — a set of largely unexamined assumptions about what we do and why we are doing it.  For many of us and our communities, the “Old White Guy” paradigm has become outdated and increasingly risks damaging our communities… and making our work irrelevant.


The problem comes down to this: The Old White Guy paradigm assumes that economic development is primarily about sales and marketing.  The skill sets for selling a community are, in essence, the same skill sets as selling television sets or cars: strategic information sharing, communication, persuasion, getting people to like you, persistence, closing the sale.  That is the nature of a sales job.  I have sold professional services for 20 years.  I get that.

But we have three problems with this paradigm today.  Economic development professionals who stick to this paradigm will make themselves increasingly irrelevant professionally, and hobble their communities in the process.

The first problem is that the nature of sales and related professions themselves is changing, and changing swiftly and profoundly.  If you don’t believe me, go hang out with some marketing or advertising people for a while (being in a national center of consumer marketing in Cincinnati, I get to be a fly on the wall for these conversations fairly regularly.  But a few issues of Fast Company will give you a taste).  The marketing and advertising professions are going through gut-wrenching changes — not just because of the shift in media consumption, but because of upheavals in popular expectations about how companies and brands and products should behave — how they should relate to customers and consumers.  Marketing gurus now insist that you have to have a dialogue instead of just talking at them, you have to engage them, be authentic…the basic ideas seem to be mostly in place, but advertising and sales people are still trying to figure out how to make it work. Read the industry coverage of the ads on the last Superbowl and you’ll see what I mean.

The second problem with the old sales model is that the nature of the businesses you’re talking to has changed.  To an ever-growing extent, they have more sophisticated expectations than they did 30 years ago.  They are more likely to look for detailed data, ask probing questions, look at issues like your community’s political stability.

And as economic development leadership has gotten better in the past decade at recognizing the importance of business retention and homegrown entrepreneurship, at least in theory, that traditional sales model becomes increasingly irrelevant.  Try to sell a used car to the person who used to own it, and you’ll see what I mean.

The third issue is that the nature of our responsibility is changing.  We as a profession and we as communities are finally starting to understand that it’s all connected–that our communities are interdependent ecosystems, not a thing with separate parts.  Housing and parks and community organizations and fiscal structures are all part of economic development–sometimes we call that by the overused term “Quality of Life.” When I taught a professional economic development course a couple of weeks ago and asked the students what they were responsible for in their communities, more than one said “quality of life” – an answer I would have never heard 10 years ago.  Quality of life is shorthand for “the stuff that we used to let the planners and park guys and whoever deal with, but now it’s what the businesses are asking us about.”

You cannot sell your way to quality of life…and you cannot put a sharp marketing effort on a place that doesn’t offer what people are looking for when they can go to citydata.com and see the truth about you education rate, or go on Google maps and see how shabby your parks really are.


That used car reference in the second point probably tells more about me than I intended.  As I have written about before, my father was a casualty of the early 1980s recession, which I think marks the beginning of the economy that we live in today.  My father loved cars, and was devoted to both Chrysler and the local dealership franchise that sold Chrysler products.  So when he was offered a job selling used cars for that dealer, it looked like a dream come true.

He sucked at it.  In the days before Car fax and blue book prices on line, used car selling was closer to horse trading than what we have today.  Selling late 1970s and early 80s K cars meant putting a lot of lipstick on pigs, and a lot of haggling over prices.  I was pretty young, and he died many years ago, so I don’t know all the details.  But my theory is that he knew too much about what was under the hoods of these lemons, and as a reasonably upright guy, he couldn’t fully commit to what he had to do to sell them to rubes.


Many years later I bought Saturn (I think there is a rule against Chrysler families inbreeding). That was, of course, the first car brand to set its prices without haggling, so the sales process was more about educating the buyer and less about that dance.  Saturn put its salespeople in polos and khakis (groundbreaking in itself in the early 1990s), hired younger people and women, equipped them with detailed information on each model, purposely took a low key approach and basically turned your usual assumptions about buying a car on its head. Set pricing and polo shirts and the like are standard parts of the car buying process now, but if you remember the early days of Saturn, their approach was groundbreaking.

I bought my last Saturn in 2007, in the second to last year before GM shuttered the brand (I’m still driving it).  By that point, my dad had been dead for five years. And I one of those weird moments that hits you out of nowhere when you have lost someone, I choked up in the middle of filling out the paperwork.

The thought that flattened me out of the blue:

Dad would have been a hell of a good Saturn salesman.

The Saturn model of sales is hardly innovative anymore.  But it was a precursor to the issues of transparency and informed customers and demand for a relationship model that all of the sales-related professions are wrestling with today.

We in economic development, or anything that touches on economic development, cannot pretend this is the 1970s anymore…or think we can get away with blithely ignoring the disconnect between our daily work and assumptions and the world around us.

If we don’t disrupt ourselves, someone else will….and chances are, it won’t be someone who thinks like the stereotypical old white man.

2 thoughts on “Old White Guys and Sales Paradigms”

  1. It’s not all about external sales but selling both internal (a used car to the same person) and a used car to a new prospect on the lot.

    Shirts with or without ties is not the issue but the ability to sell is critical. In person, to groups small and large, online, over the phone. Selling communities is tougher than a program or an incentive which is all that some do whether “old or young white or black or yellow or rainbows of color. You need to represent your community and their expectations or you are out of a job with a polo or tie.

    Yes, the prospect may think they know your community from website and maps but they don’t. It’s up to the economic developer to re-frame and provide additional insights using the assets of the community and having a plan to overcome the challenges.

    I have sold two bankrupt crime ridden communities successfully. In a shirt with a tie.

  2. Della:

    To be honest, I am a little offended by the use of the phrase “old white guys”, and it’s not because I am an “old white guy”. Nevertheless, I am assuming that the term refers more to old, outdated institutionalized practices of this “profession” we call economic development and not a specific demographic.

    We should not throw out the function of sales for economic development. I am not talking about sales in the sense of back-slapping, let’s make a deal behaviors. I am talking about long-term relationship building where listening to customer needs and adding customer value are the cultural drivers in economic development. This type of culture builds customer trust and enhances location marketability.

    I thing of economic developers as brand managers. And remember, branding doesn’t just mean the promise you make; it also means the promise you keep.

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