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by Michael Sansolo

There are three words I hate to use: I was wrong. Sadly, I have to use them today.

A while back I wrote that there was nothing we could learn from Congress as I mocked one recent debate. I used public comments by two senators to make a point about technology and those who claim glory in avoiding it. The truth is we have a lot to learn from Congress, especially to understand why many Americans loath that institution.

In response to my column one reader suggested Congress is no longer necessary. Armed with today’s technology, this reader argued, Americans can simply vote on everything Congress currently handles. It’s not an idea I’d agree with (as you’ll see later in this column.) But I think the argument presents an interesting lesson for any company or individual: Are you relevant and necessary ... or do you just get in the way?

In today’s world computer-enabled consumers can do everything for themselves. Armed with everything from Amazon and Alice to Zillow and Zappos, they can find every manner of product from chewing gum to homes, sneakers to cars. Today’s shoppers can download more information than most sales people used to have and can make informed and wise decision.

Of, course, that’s only if they have the time and motivation. More correctly, they’ll do it unless someone else does it better.

Years ago, supermarkets used to live by a simple motto of being the purchasing agent for the consumer. That was no small statement or objective. In short, supermarkets had to sift through a wide variety of products to assemble a store featuring the products and services that shoppers would desire. Back then, shoppers couldn’t possibly know of all the varieties or choices that weren’t shown and were dazzled in fact by the choices they had.

That changed. Too many decisions started getting made more on the basis of the buy instead of the sell and in the age of the Internet traditional stores saw erosion in cherished shopper relationships. This didn’t just happen in supermarkets though. Today’s shoppers program their own music through iTunes, their own television through DVRs, their own cars through Edmunds and on and on. Faith in institutions has eroded and shoppers increasingly trust in themselves first, whether it comes to collecting nutritional or medical information or selecting political candidates shunned by party leaders.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even in the midst of the age of chaos, there are companies who successfully serve as a purchasing agent for the consumer. Visit any Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to get a sense of how a retailer can tailor product mix to fit a certain clientele. It’s an instructive lesson and it happens to be right in our industry. Shoppers overwhelmed by the range of choice can be guided and directed if they have a sense of trust in the purpose of the institution.

It’s worth remembering this as the debate rages on concerning assortment or direct to consumer sales by manufacturers. The bottom line is that if you bring value to the experience you can win. If you don’t, well, then you appear to be a middleman adding nothing to the experience but cost and time.

And that’s where Congress gives us the lesson. In all honesty, we need Congress. The American people may be well intentioned, but the thought of us voting on every issue of importance is scary. (Just look at our choices on American Idol!) It strikes me that both parties have done a dismal job of explaining their decisions and thinking and both have managed to find new and creative ways to erode our trust.

Sometimes politicians are supposed to take difficult stands, unpopular stands or far-sighted stands that should be explained to us in adult terms, not sound bites. That’s called leadership. So you see, there is a lesson from Congress.

Prove you matter or get out of the way. Because whether it comes to buying a product or voting for a candidate the choices are wider than ever. Either you add something or improve the experience or you don’t. And we vote.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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