Flexible Selling

In the October issue of Publishing Executive, Jim Elliott talks about flexible selling. (To see the full digitial issue click here.)

Modern salespeople must be agile enough to adapt to the ever-changing ad sales process.

For years, I have been noticing a trend in advertising sales which I have described as a transition from relationship selling to transactional selling. When I discuss this topic with publishing executives, most agree immediately, because they have observed the same change. However, some of the comments made in response to my article in the April issue of Publishing Executive led me to realize that I need to explain my thoughts more completely.   

Some readers took my use of the term “transactional” as demeaning to the role of today’s salespeople. This was not my intention—I meant to convey that the focus is moving to be more between the buyer and the product, instead of the buyer and the seller. Since it is hard to have a personal relationship with a product, “transactional” was the best description I could think of to define the seller’s position. Friendliness is still important, and rapport does certainly help, but most buyers are no longer highly influenced by their personal relationships with the sellers. If nothing else, the accountability that comes from greater use of metrics and public discussions of advertising buys work to reduce cronyism.

Some readers mistook my use of the term “transactional selling” to mean direct sales through telemarketing and call centers. Although this kind of selling is most definitely transactional, it’s not exactly what I meant. We are not advocating abandoning personal calls by advertising salespeople in all, or even most cases, or making a wholesale shift to a call center, except in very specific situations. While there certainly is something to be learned from this type of selling in terms of discipline and quantitative goals, the campaign-oriented “dialing for dollars” approach requires a different mindset than longer-term key account development.

The larger point is that sellers need to sell the way the buyers want to be sold. This concept is as old as selling itself, but one which salespeople forget at their peril. The changing nature of the advertising buying process has resulted in buyers with all sorts of different expectations.    

I believe that the most important skill a seller can have is flexibility. There is an old saying: to the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We must choose the right tool at the right time depending on the signals the buyer is sending.

Even within one account, with several planners and buyers involved, there may be a dozen different preferences. Some agency people want to receive everything via email. Most only want to hear from the salespeople when something occurs that is related to a current buy. Some buyers want short phone contact. Others want annual in-person presentations.  Many rely on social media to varying degrees.

Most client ad managers let their agencies screen out unwanted sales approaches, and some of them may still be open to personal calls or even entertainment from time to time, especially with salespeople who do a lot of business with them. Sometimes even golf, or sailing, or tennis, or dinner still might be called for. You just never know.

Whenever possible, we try to get our salespeople face-to-face with buyers, not only because that is the most productive way to make a strong impression, but also because that’s by far the best way to pick up information about their preferences and their current state of mind. That is why we still maintain offices in the major advertising centers.

Sellers should embrace a philosophy of selling to advertisers the way they want to be sold. I realize this sounds very simplistic—but as a former buyer, and a manager of many ad sellers over the years, it isn't. Not every seller is equipped to do this.

The need for versatility has complicated the recruiting process. Not many years ago, it was fairly easy to pick highly successful ad salespeople for major magazines out of a crowded agency lobby. All you had to look for were the well-turned-out people with great social skills.

In the current environment, we are looking for more agility: people who can sell transactionally by phone or email, are adept at social media and have the ability to nurture relationships when it’s appropriate. In addition to telephone and in-person interviews, I’ve employed a psychologist for the past two decades to help me before we make an offer. (We also use the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire or 16PF.)

To judge a prospective seller’s agility we look for proven success on complex assignments. This provides us with some reasonable assurance that the person has the capacity for an account that will surely require more complex selling. We don’t have a single assignment today where the publisher isn’t thinking about changes to their products that will invariably add to the seller’s challenge.

This new breed of salesperson must be able to express herself in writing, and understand and be able to communicate mathematic concepts quickly. There are two methods we use to gauge a person’s mathematic ability. First, the 16PF testing includes some basic math problems. It’s a simple screen but one that’s very telling. In addition, every interview today includes discussions around pricing since price is an essential part of every selling situation, especially since the publishers’ product menus have become longer with varying audience sizes, product frequencies and, hence, costs.

We find that writing skills are easy to judge because candidates have multiple opportunities to express themselves throughout the application process: the cover letter, the thank-you note after the initial interview, and perhaps the most overlooked tool—the interview itself. When you have a candidate who butchers syntax in a face-to-face or phone interview, you can be sure that person will be equally troubled with the written word. And, poorly crafted proposals always have a predictable ending.

I will probably continue to say that we are moving from relationship selling to transactional selling, but in essence what I mean is we are renewing our effort to sell the way buyers want to be sold. These days, that means a lot less emphasis on old-fashioned relationships.