What Can Modern Marketers Learn From —- The Panama Canal?

Home / What Can Modern Marketers Learn From —- The Panama Canal?

In 1876, on the heels of the successful completion of The Suez Canal, the French undertook the creation of a canal across the isthmus then under the control of Colombia. They had every reason to believe they would be successful, having more experience in digging canals than any other nation, and enjoying the popular support and funding of the French public to the tune of $400 million dollars. In 1889 the company was bankrupt, having spent some $234M and seen the deaths of an estimated 22,000 workers. So what happened, what did the US do differently, and what in the world does this have to do with marketing?


The original effort by the French was likely doomed from the beginning. The workforce was decimated by disease, accidents, and rampant alcoholism. The living conditions for the workforce were unsanitary and led to massive outbreaks of Yellow Fever and other tropical diseases. After a long period of negotiations and the resignation of the first engineer, John Frank Stevens took command.
Stevens recognized that to achieve the construction of the canal, he had to start with extensive infrastructure investments. He rebuilt the housing, cafeterias, water systems, hotels, warehouses, and repair shops needed to service the canal workers and all the heavy equipment that would be used on the canal.


With the town rebuilt you would expect him to immediately start digging. He did not. He proceeded to rebuild the Panama Railroad, laying not one but in some places several lines of track. On these tracks ran a massive fleet of freight trains and steam shovels that were used to finally dig the canal.


They appointed a chief of sanitation to solve the disease problems, Colonel William C. Gorgas. He too went at his task systematically, insisting on revamping the water systems, fumigating the structures, deploying mosquito netting and extending his efforts beyond the town to mosquito breeding grounds. With two years of effort he virtually eliminated mosquito born diseases.

So what, you are asking yourself, does any of this have to do with marketing?


Many modern marketing organizations are measured by the number of leads that they provide to sales. At first glance this seems like a good KPI. After all isn’t it marketing’s role to generate the leads and sales job to close them? Unfortunately, the tendency is to immediately go for the “close” and move unqualified inquiries over to sales in large quantities.


This leads too often to low sales acceptance rates, decreasing credibility for marketing and an overall perception that marketing doesn’t provide any value. Like the workers on the canal this can lead to reduced budgets and cause the exit of our marketing team mates. Like John Frank Stevens, we need to carefully build our demand generation infrastructure first, before we can dig our own canal. We need to deeply understand what our sales colleagues define as a qualified lead. Do we need to establish BANT? Is it enough to document the business pain of the prospect? Are there unknown limiters? I worked with one sales team that refused to engage with any lead that used a free mail address. Right or wrong, once we knew the requirement we were able to obtain business e-mail addresses and improve sales engagement.


We need to finish the job. Inquiry generation is critical to the process, but we need to own the fact that our job is not over until we complete the qualification of that inquiry. Readers of my other articles will know that I am a proponent of tele-qualification. It provides speed to response and some of the highest qualification standards possible. However it is not the only method to complete qualification available to the modern marketer. Multiple touch campaigns with progressive data collection can provide you with AQLs, or Automation Qualified Leads. It requires testing and optimization as does tele-qualification, but can get the job done.
Finally, you must continually calibrate your qualification efforts with your sales partners. This tightens the working relationship between sales and marketing and promotes buy-in from sales on your qualification efforts. This in turn raises credibility and engagement with your leads.


Putting the right marketing processes and infrastructure in place will serve you well as you dig your own “canals”.
Don’t worry if you get critical feedback from sales. As Mr. Stevens said, “A collision has its good points as well as its bad ones — it indicates there is something moving on the railroad.”


Happy digging!



Bruce Lehman

Hidden Forge

Leave a Comment