Backing U!

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It’s All About Passion … and Selling!

200px Billie Piper in October 20061 150x150 It’s All About Passion ... and Selling!

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In my post of February 26th, we looked at the current media fascination with the economics and ethics of the oldest profession, particularly at the top end of the scale. 

What does it take to become successful in this business, and are there any lessons for the rest of us? 

Let’s take it from the top.  As set out in my book, Backing U!, this needs to be done in two stages.  You first set out what the needs of the customer are, and then you consider what the provider needs to do to meet those needs and run a successful business – the key kapabilities (“K2s”). 

Let’s take a stab at customer needs.  At the top end of the market, he (let’s keep it simple, it’s usually this way round) is probably looking above all for three things: excitement, safety and cleanliness.  He may also be interested in things such as specialties, conversation, comfort.  Only a few, at the top end, will be concerned by price – though this will be very different at the bottom end. 

To satisfy the most important needs of the top end customer, the provider needs to have the appropriate package of looks, attitude and technical skills, convey a sense of security through site location – an apartment or hotel with plenty of CCTV cameras? – and be scrupulously hygienic.  

She may also need to develop skills in certain specialities and develop a line of banter and/or intelligent conversation, as required.  Dr Brooke Magnanti, alias Belle de Jour, in an interview with Billie Piper (pictured), the actress who played her in the TV series, stated that she specialised in a particular technique inappropriate to mention on this blog – though that would hardly have differentiated her from the street provider.  She also acquired a highly diverse wardrobe – making sure that “working knickers and the rest of my knickers never entwined” – and was at the least on an intellectual par with her clients. 

All this, however, just gets you to the level of competent provider.  To excel, you need something else: passion.  Magnanti seems to have had it.  She thoroughly enjoyed her job.  She had no guilt at all.  [“It's OK if someone goes home and has sex with someone they don't know for free. But it's not OK if... there's some money involved, which is something I don't quite understand.”] She needed the money and this was something she was good at, darned good at.  [“You left a client and thought – yes, I nailed it!”]. 

But even passion isn’t enough to run a successful business.  There are the management-related K2s to consider as well, over and above those related to customer service.  In a service such as this, marketing and distribution are critical. 

As for all self-employed professionals, if no-one knows you’re there, you won’t get your share.  Allie, the call girl interviewed at length by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in SuperFreakonomics, relied exclusively on web marketing for her business.  She got into it by accident, through visiting online dating sites and, after one such date, finding $200 left on the dresser: “I’d been giving it away for years and the fact that someone was going to give me even a penny – that was shocking!”  From then on, she focused her investment on online marketing – that was her distribution channel. 

Magnanti chose an alternative channel – an agency.  Less effort, more secure (due to call-to-office security checking pre-appointment), but more expensive – the agency would lop off one third of charges for commission. 

Either way, the distribution channel chosen was highly instrumental in the business success of these two entrepreneurs.  When you look at the channel pursued by those at the bottom end of the profession, that of walking the streets, you can see the advantages.  The street hooker has the benefit of free distribution, but at the cost of maximum discomfort, minimal security and rock bottom prices.  It’s a desperate model. 

At the other extreme, Allie’s web-based marketing and distribution model was extraordinarily successful.  She was able to exploit her bargaining power to hike up prices, work less and earn more.  How many professionals can do that?  Even Magnanti couldn’t have done that, being reliant on a third party distributor and marketer. 

No-one in their right minds would recommend a young woman to embark upon such a career, even where the need for ready cash borders on the desperate.  There must always be an alternative.  Happily, both these call girls came through and moved on successfully.  Magnanti is now a best-selling author and TV personality, on top of her highly respected job as a research scientist.   Allie went on to take a university degree in, of course, economics and even gave guest lectures at Levitt’s University of Chicago.  Levitt records that some students said she gave the best lectures ever – she had them hooked!  It is unlikely that these two are the norm. 

But these top practitioners in the oldest profession can remind us of two vital tips for the self-employed: it’s all about passion… and selling.

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