A thought experiment in one act:
Scene: A small shop on a run-down block in the Bronx, present day. A Shopkeeper goes about his daily business. Enter Salesman.
Shopkeeper: Good morning. May I help you?
Salesman: You know what? I was hoping I could help you. If you have a moment, I’d like to tell you about an exciting new product being offered by my company. It’s really outside-the-box, a market-defining ideation that could revolutionize your retail-experience metrics here at your store. Won’t take five minutes.
Shopkeeper: Well, since I don’t have any customers at the moment—
Salesman: Thanks! I really appreciate your taking the time. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that things are still pretty rough out there in this economy. It’s hard to get anybody to listen to a pitch. But once they do: Ka. Boom.
Shopkeeper: I have to warn you, I’m notoriously cheap. Sales are down, taxes are up. You’re going to have a hard time selling me anything.
Salesman: No problem, Scrooge McNuggets. Because this is a product that sells itself.
Shopkeeper: Everybody says that in the movies. Do they teach you that at the Acme School of Salesman Clichés? Who do you work for, anyway?
Salesman: The Rutacanali Syndicate.
Shopkeeper: The, uh . . .
Salesman: The mafia, that’s right. Only we don’t call ourselves that anymore. When Kentucky Fried Chicken went to just KFC, to get the “fried” out of their name, and AARP and NARAL 86ed “retired” and “abortion,” it was like, boom! We need to brainstorm some corporate-identity issues. We had an executive retreat, really workshopped some rebranding options.
Salesman: Knowledge-sharing. A big brain-dump at some hideous Hilton conference room upstate. Listen, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Oh, my God. There’s some mafia goon here in my store, trying to collect money for a protection racket.’
Shopkeeper: . . .
Salesman: And you are absolutely correct.
Shopkeeper: I’m going to call the police.
Salesman: In the Bronx? Good luck with that. Unless there are multiple shots fired, it’ll take them an hour to respond to the scene. And I only need a few minutes to pitch you. Just chillax, and I’ll blow your mind like John Wilkes Booth. I promise you’ll like what you hear. If not, no problemo. But I’m confident. Our product is that good.
Shopkeeper: And if I don’t pay up, what? You break my legs?
Salesman: See, that’s exactly why the rebranding. I brought this up with Corporate years before the restructuring. In our business space, there’s a whole new paradigm, and our business practices really have to be congruous with that new reality. Back in my dad’s day, yeah, breaking legs was corporate policy. It was the industry standard. But it was a dying industry, a victim of its own success: In all the major metro markets—New York, Chicago, Philly, Boston, Las Vegas—we were either a cartel, like the investment banks, or a monopoly, like the public schools.
Shopkeeper: Or the police.
Salesman: Exactamundo. But we don’t like to compare ourselves to competitors in the same business space.
Shopkeeper: Same business space?
Salesman: The market segmentation is kind of weird, but I’ll get to that. So, yeah, back in the bad old days, we were your basic old-fashioned, dinosaur-type corporation, horizontally and vertically integrated, totally disengaged board of directors just like playing golf all day or whatever, poor performance-review practices, no Six Sigma, no just-in-time inventory, God knows how many incompetent brothers-in-law on the payroll: Fat and happy for the moment, but totally unprepared for any kind of black-swan type market event. Not ready to evolve. And, of course, our customer-relations techniques were not exactly what you’d call best practices.
Shopkeeper: So you’re, what, reformed?
Salesman: No, mi amigo, we are reinvented. Had to. No choice. We’d always had a few fringe competitors: The Cubans, a few Latin-American narco guys, your occasional Yakuza start-up. But with the end of the Cold War—man! We were up to our 24-carat collar-pins in Russians, Ukrainians, those Balkan bastards. Now, the Chinese, the Koreans, your cross-market BRIC outfits, your big-time next-generation narcos. It’s a tough business. And the old business model, to be honest, wasn’t working. We had to innovate or die.
Shopkeeper: Verge of bankruptcy?
Salesman: No, I mean innovate. Or die. We called in consultants. Bain, in fact. You should have been in on that pre-meeting! You’re a businessman, I don’t have to tell you how hard it can be to get buy-in from a big, entrenched corporate culture in dinosaur mode.
Shopkeeper: Gotcha. So, a new kind of protection racket? That’s what you’re here to sell me?
Salesman: Yep-yeppity-yep. Best in the industry. Market leader. Total optimization. Nobody can touch our level of service and customer satisfaction. Here’s how it works. Now, you have a nice little shop here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.
Shopkeeper: Acme School of Mafia Clichés?
Salesman: That was a joke. Sort of. Look, you do have a nice little shop here, and it would be a shame if anything happened to it. But you’ve got insurance for that. Place burns down, big whoop. Check is in the mail, you get a nice little vacation. And it would be a shame if anything happened to you, personally. And, while you’ve probably got life insurance to take care of your family, which I’m sure will be a great source of comfort to them as they grieve, between us, it’s not going to be a whole lot of comfort to you if you’re dead, or like crippled or maimed or something.
Shopkeeper: Very subtle, this sales pitch.
Salesman: So, we’re kind of like AFLAC. We’re a supplement. We cover the things your insurance doesn’t cover. Now, I’m guessing you get to work on the subway? On the six train?
Shopkeeper: I’m not exactly comforted by the fact that you know that.
Salesman: Well, the station’s right down the street. Not exactly Sherlock Einstein Hawking Holmes figuring that one out with my amazing powers of deducement. Okay, so your shop here is four blocks from the subway station. And on the other end of your commute, you’re what, five or six blocks?
Shopkeeper: About ten.
Salesman: Ouch. No fun in the winter. Brutal. Okay, so our basic package goes like this: For $19.99 a month, we guarantee the security of your shop, your home, and your person within a ten-block radius of your home or business. That’s the basic package, and we’re having a special, so we’ll waive the sign-up fee, which normally is $99. So it’s just the $19.99 a month, no contract.
Shopkeeper: Contract being a word with interesting connotations in your business.
Salesman: Rebranding! Anyway, what the basic package means is this: For your shop, it includes a guarantee of no burglary, no shoplifting, no vandalism—nothing. And we’ll cover up to $100,000 in damages if by some chance we whiff and miss something. The same is true for your home, with the exception of any crimes committed by people living in your home or in your building, if you’re in an apartment. We completely guarantee your personal safety to and from your car or any public transit on both ends of your commute. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about the subway itself at the moment, but we’re working on it. And we have some upgraded packages available, too, for your family, for your car, if you have one. Vacation homes, et cetera and so forth. We can even make sure that your customers come and go securely: They won’t experience so much as a bum panhandling for change in front of your store. And there’s no con—no obligation—so, if at any time you’re unhappy with our services, you can cancel your membership, no questions asked. No questions asked being a kind of core competency for us. It’s not like a gym membership, where they keep dinging your checking account on the sly for six months after you’ve canceled.
Shopkeeper: I have to admit, that sounds pretty good. But . . .
Salesman: But you’re hesitant about doing business with us. Totally understandable. Frankly and honestly and to be blunt, I don’t blame you. We have some real legacy issues that have to be dealt with, and I think it’s best to be totally up-front about those. We still have a long way to go when it comes to earning your trust.
Shopkeeper: This is surreal.
Salesman: Now, most companies in our space, what they do is they offer a free 30-day trial, or 90-day trial. But we don’t do that. That, frankly, cheapens the product. Our level of service is so high, our customer-satisfaction rating so strong, that we don’t feel the need to give away our product. But I have something better.
Shopkeeper: This is where the baseball bat comes out, I assume. The offer I can’t refuse.
Salesman: No, but these will hit you like a Louisville slugger: statements from actual customers. Your friends, neighbors, fellow merchants here in the neighborhood. Check this out.
Shopkeeper: Dr. Blanco? The dentist? My dentist is in business with the mafia?
Salesman: Another satisfied customer. You know that big, seven-foot plastic tooth out in front of his store?
Shopkeeper: How could you miss it?
Salesman: Criminals think the same thing. Or they used to. He used to have the worst time with that thing: taggers spray-painting graffiti on it, that kind of thing. Now, you’re a dentist, you have a big white tooth the size of Tyson Chandler out there, and it’s all painted up and disfigured: That’s bad advertising. Bad PR. Who wants graffiti on their teeth, right? Some kids actually hauled the thing away one time, and they found it all the way down in Mott Haven. Now, answer me this: You seen any graffiti on that tooth lately?
Shopkeeper: No, come to think of it. What did you do?
Salesman: We employ a full array of diverse, customizable fulfillment solutions. Let’s just say we maybe accidentally created some business for one of Dr. Blanco’s dental competitors across town. And check this out.
Shopkeeper: The Lacy Pink Hearts Stationary Shoppe? Mrs. Garfinkle?
Salesman: She used to have a heck of a time with shoplifters. Some people apparently will do anything for really nice letterhead. And she was afraid of walking to the bus at night. This neighborhood isn’t what it used to be. It’s vibrant, but it can be challenging.
Shopkeeper: So, what, you created some business for her, too? Condolence cards?
Salesman: Maybe some get-well-soon, hope-that-leg-was-set-nicely cards, yeah. It’s a question of how do we incent who needs incenting so that the deliverables get delivered, the deliverables here being peace and security and your basic island of sane calm here in the vast and turbulent urban sea. When we’re delivering the deliverables, you never notice us. That’s the cool thing about our product: You sign up, you pay your very reasonable $19.99 a month, and life just gets easier without you really ever having to think about it. We’re like the Apple of personal and commercial security. Seriously, you’ll wonder what you did without us.
Shopkeeper: Fulfillment solutions.
Salesman: Exactly. And here I’ll let you in on a little trade secret: Because so many of your neighbors here have signed up already, we have a lot of resources deployed in this market segment. We can really leverage that. It’s going to be very, very high-service. Total cross-platform synergy, total integrated solution. War story: You know, back in the old days, no criminal would so much as pass intestinal gas in South Philly, because every mob grandmother lived there, and nobody let anything happen in that neighborhood. You’d just get crucified if you tried a little purse-snatching. You know what the safest big city in America is today?
Shopkeeper: Not Philly.
Salesman: Honolulu. But Honolulu’s like a weird outlier. You know what the second-safest big city is? El Paso. Right across the street from a warzone, and you’d never know it. Peaceful as feathers rustling on the wings of Hallmark-card angels floating above the beds of sleeping children on Christmas Eve. And that’s because all the cartel guys killing each other in Juarez go to bed at night in El Paso, and that’s where their moms and their wives and girlfriends are. It’s like that old cartoon with the wolf and the sheep dog, clocking in to work: “Mornin’, Sam,” “Mornin’, Dave.” They kill each other all day, but when they’re off the clock, they’re off the clock. We create your own private El Paso, a safe oasis.
Shopkeeper: This sounds great. And I’d love it if somebody could do something about the graffiti. But there’s a flaw in your business model, I think. You get more and more assets deployed in the neighborhood the more of us sign up. And, of course, you want to expand your market share. But think about it: What if everybody signs up with you? You essentially become the police department. And the police department doesn’t do much for us when it comes to things like graffiti, and vandalism, and vagrants, and general order on the streets. Your innovation contains the seeds of its own destruction.
Salesman: You know, the guys at Bain really helped us think through that, because we’d had the same thought processes. And that’s what I was saying earlier about the police and the business space. We’re in the same business space as the police, but we’re not in the same business. The police are in the business of solving crimes and punishing criminals. We do some of that, too, but the police have the deliverables all wrong. The deliverable is preventing crime. The police treat solving crimes and punishing criminals as ends in themselves, but they’re just means. And what those dinosaurs don’t get is that they’re not the only means. What you care about isn’t so much whether the guy who mugs you gets caught and does 28 days in the can and six months supervised release. You don’t want to get mugged in the first place. You don’t want your dog raped in the first place.
Shopkeeper: . . .
Salesman: Right. You take the mafia, subtract accountability and competition, voilà, you got government. And crimes like vandalism are really hard to solve, and there’s no special reward for solving them, so they just basically ignore that. But you don’t want your property torn up or your neighborhood to go, as we say in the business, into the craptastic crapper. So what we do is partly the old Policeman Patty routine, walking the beat—on foot, for real: Like I said, it’s high-service. But we also use statistical analysis, both active and passive surveillance, vast databases, the whole range. We are the nightwatchman that the police used to be before they settled into being a, well . . .
Shopkeeper: Paramilitary bureaucracy?
Salesman: I was going to say monopoly. But, that, too. They do like their toys. If we ran that kind of overhead and those capital expenses, Corporate would go nuts. And that’s what Bain really helped us understand: We’re not going to make the same mistakes as the police, because of two things. One, we have to earn your money—not like in the old days, where we could just demand it. Two, we have competitors. And that’s really where the police are victims of their own success: They just hijack your money through taxes the way we used to do with those nice-little-place-shame-if-anything-happened speeches. And they have no competitors, so they totally blow you off when it comes to anything less sexy than armed robbery or murder. That’s what really makes me rant. I mean, we’re out here busting our value-adding butts on fulfillment solutions, and these guys—did you know that the vast majority of the murders committed in this city are committed by people who already have been convicted or a felony or arrested for one? Nationwide, about 75 percent of murderers have a felony arrest record, with an average of four arrests. Or take the 9/11 hijackers: mostly here illegally, overstayed their visas, but the police did jack, because overstaying your visa is a small, unsexy crime. But what’s that mean? Here we are spending hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars and losing thousands of lives fighting wars around the world on the theory that this will prevent the next 9/11, when rudimentary law enforcement would have stopped the first 9/11. That’s the police: worst business practices ever. You get a medal for killing bin Laden but nothing if you just make sure nobody’s ever heard of him because he’s an obscure nobody who never did anything anybody would notice. Same goes for regular crime: Think of all the surveillance they do looking for drugs, and then think: They don’t do p-diddly in terms of surveiling the felons who commit basically all of the murders and serious violent crimes.
Shopkeeper: Thus creating a market opening.
Salesman: Bingo, bango, disco. Thank you. So, as we say in the sales racket, what’s it going to take for me to get you into this Buick?
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.