Bad-mouthing competitors has a way of coming back to splatter you.

Pardon the oversimplification, but there are two kinds of people in the business world. One believes the way to elevate one's reputation in the market is to stress the accomplishments, features and benefits of one's own business. Others believe in bad-mouthing the competition.

People in the know understand that the former is a better business tactic than the latter, but judging from the amount of trash talk one hears around the industry, it seems the majority of wholesalers are not in the know. Either that, or their baser human instincts trump their business sense. Or, they just don't believe it's true that bad-mouthing competitors can backfire. They would do well to heed this tale of serendipity.

Serendipity is a fancy word defined as making a meaningful discovery by accident. Thanks to the Internet, the term has come into play quite a bit in recent years, because search engines often take you to wondrous places that have little to do with what you're searching for.

So it was that while researching an entirely unrelated subject, I ended up reading about what people who hold PhDs in psychology call “spontaneous trait transference” (STT). If you're a salt-of-the-earth type like myself, a metaphor that might come to mind is something all males know better than to do against the wind.

Whatever you wish to call it, the phenomenon pertains to the way people form impressions. For example, think of the low regard the public holds for the news media, especially TV reporters. Sam Donaldson and his ilk are constantly on the tube casting aspersions on various public figures. But lo and behold, surveys always show the viewing public giving very low marks in trustworthiness to the Sam Donaldsons of the world.

STT (or PATW in the saltier version) helps explain why this is so. We tend to attribute traits to people who attribute those traits to others. The phenomenon is related in some ways to the bearer of bad news syndrome, where we tend to dislike those who tell us things we don't want to hear.

It seems to defy common sense that people would attribute traits to you that you ascribe to somebody else, but STT seems to be supported both by academic studies and, like the news media example just cited, real world experience. Spontaneous trait transference holds lessons for people in business.

Accentuate the positive

Advertising experts say negative advertising doesn't work as well as positive pitches for one's own product or service. STT may have something to do with it. Keep running ads that say bad things about competitors, and the public is likely to attribute those bad things to the company that says them.

(Political commercials turn this rule on its head. Every campaign season the tube is inundated with mud-slinging commercials that seem to achieve their desired effect. It could be that the short duration these ads run don't give enough time for STT to kick in. Or it may be that when everybody is calling everyone else a scumbag, negative effects cancel out. Personally, I've always felt that the only time politicians tell the truth is when they're blasting one another, but I digress.)

STT does not pertain only to advertising. It comes into play with any statements made to an audience, even an audience of one. Wholesalers as a rule don't do much advertising, but they frequently chat with customers, suppliers, other business associates, the trade press, etc. In these conversations, it's not unusual to hear potshots at real or imagined shortcomings by competitors.

Chickens home to roost

And maybe that has something to do with the fact that people from other sectors seldom have anything good to say about wholesalers. In doing my job, I'm always asking folks around the industry to tell me of wholesalers who perform exceptionally well. Rarely do names roll freely off the tongue. More common are responses along the lines of: “They're all pretty much the same … everyone sells only on price… they all give lousy service.”

I know that's not true, because I've witnessed plenty of exceptions. But fair or not, the reputation of PHCP wholesalers has hit the skids compared to the prestige they enjoyed in the 1970s and '80s, when they frequently called the shots in bringing products to market, and when manufacturers, reps and contractors were quick to name their favorite distributors.

Can this be because it's rare to hear a wholesaler say something good about a competitor? Can there be something to this STT stuff? Isn't it time to check for wind direction?