An Interview with Steve Grossman

Steve Grossman, a well-known Chicago-based sales consultant, first contacted my company to measure our interest in taking over ad sales for a group of consumer titles, which eventually happened.  It seemed odd that this important role had been assigned to someone outside of our industry; we tend to work mostly with publishing specialists.  However, as we worked together, I realized that most of the challenges I hear about from both small and large publishers are not really unique to publishing sales.

Yes, there are some distinctive characteristics of the ad sales business, such as multi-channel sales points with client and agency involvement, but Steve had run into similar problems in other industries.  I thought that our readers might benefit by exposure to sharp thinking from someone who is not “in the bubble” with us.  Steve agreed to share his thoughts:

JIM ELLIOTT:  In publishing sales, we often hear publishers complain that growth falls short every year making it the norm for most salespeople to fail to meet goals. Is this a common problem?

STEVE GROSSMAN:  Yes, unfortunately, this is an all too common scenario. Actually, this, like all the other symptoms we will talk about, Jim, belong under the heading of “Shortfalls in Leadership.” How can you accept subpar results year in and year out and then accept that as the norm as opposed to finding out what is really causing these results? And what do we need to do to get back on track? This can spiral into a real impact on your sales organization; most of the folks out there selling for you feel like losers because they are not hitting their goals. So, after a while, that just becomes inbred in the culture.

The answer is not typically to just lower the goals; that may be the answer, but typically it’s more than that. For example, are we sending the wrong people into the wrong sets of customers? Are they ill-equipped? Do we have a gap in management capabilities, so it’s not really the salespeople we need to upgrade, but the environment around them starting with the management process? Or, do they need more training, more enablement tools in order to really excel with their customer base? Is the value proposition wrong? It’s really looking at the whole sales model to understand what is the gap that is really causing this to happen? It’s rarely a simple, “Gee, let’s just lower our goals.” 

One thing that we find in a lot of these situations is a reluctance of senior management to pay star salespeople a lot of money (sometimes more than they make). That ends up causing the salesperson to ask, “Is it really worth my time and effort to go from 98% of goal to 110-120% given what it’s going to take to do that versus the reward?” On the north side of 100%, sometimes the payout curve really flattens and it’s just not worth it. 

So that’s one place to look. But generally, it’s the broader sales model where we tend to find the issues and gaps that lead to this kind of scenario. The most troubling part is when senior leadership accepts this year in and year out and doesn’t really address it in a proper way. We’ve seen this in the ad sales business, the media business, as well as across all these other industries that we’ve worked in.

JIM:  Do you see cases where senior management tries to micro-manage the sales process?

STEVE:  Yes, we’ve seen that when senior management takes a strong position in driving the sales effort and really turns it into a numbers game as opposed to a real sales capability, value proposition game. They specify exactly how many calls each salesperson needs to make in a given day, without looking at quality. So, it becomes just a numbers game and people become very mechanical. That’s not a real competitive advantage over the long term since, if it does work, it’s relatively easy to replicate.

They do that because of analytical evidence that if they make 100 calls they’ll make 10 sales, so let’s make a thousand calls and make 100 sales.  The data supports that, but it really strips away the human side of the sales organization and the sales effort. And that, from our perspective, is just not a sustainable way over the long term to drive a sales effort, because you just strip out all the judgment—all the human emotional part of it that really contributes to success over every sales effort that we’ve seen—with the exception maybe being a pure dialing-for-dollars telesales effort.

JIM:  Steve, off of that, have you also seen a new sales manager, formerly the leading salesperson for the organization, who tells his salespeople, “You set up the calls and I’ll make the close.” 

STEVE:  Yes, that is all too common as well. Often, you’ve selected the wrong salesperson to elevate into a sales manager role. A lot of your superstar salespeople are exactly that and it’s tough to make the transition to a real strong sales leader because they’re used to doing it quite well themselves. It becomes a different game when you’re elevated to a sales manager role—where you’re leading, not doing everything for your salespeople because they won’t learn that way. 

JIM:  What about the sales leader/VP—the top salesperson—having an inability to communicate the TRUTH to the president or senior leadership in a company. 

STEVE:  Yes, that is the other extreme when you go up the management ranks where that top sales leader, in a lot of respects, is still a salesperson. They carry all of the characteristics that made them great salespeople into the sales leadership role and just don’t elevate above that, so they are always putting a spin on the data rather than really saying, “Okay we’ve got a problem here. Let’s attack it,” because it suggests weakness and that’s something strong salespeople rarely do.

JIM:  Have you noticed that salespeople are viewed almost mystically or not understood, with a real disconnect between senior management and the sales leadership and sellers?

STEVE:  Yes, particularly when the CEO or senior team comes up through operations or finance and not through sales or doesn’t have the exposure to sales to really understand or appreciate the value of the sales effort, the salesperson and sales leadership.

JIM:  We, in publishing, think we are so unique because of the changing environment, the new media, new sales measurement tools, and so on. Are we really unique or, in your travels—you have many large manufacturing clients—is sales changing in most industries?

STEVE:  No, it’s not changing in most industries, it’s changing in ALL of them and in many ways that parallels what you’re going through in media sales. Whether it’s technology-driven, like what you’re facing with digital vs. print, there’s a technology play in every industry. It’s either the product or service that’s being sold or just the way it’s being delivered, the way it’s being monitored. You look at some relatively grungy, if you will, industrial businesses, whether it’s distribution or manufacturing, they’re all going through that transition and they’re struggling with it. Some of them get out ahead of it, but if you think back 15-20 years ago, the Internet was expected to replace all salespeople. You look at it today and, obviously, the Internet did not replace all salespeople. It did, however, change how every company sells. It provided opportunities to lower the cost of sales. It’s also provided opportunities to enrich the role of the salesperson as you replace the “talking catalog” function of the salesperson to somebody who is really delivering value to that customer because the catalog is represented on the website. So, it’s dramatically changed every sales role that I can recall over the last 15-20 years, not just in media ad sales.

JIM:  I think my last question is that, when you became involved with the relatively large consumer media company, did you find that you had a steep learning curve in media or was it similar to much of the other stuff you’ve done in your career?

STEVE:  It was not a steep learning curve. It was very similar to what we go through with every new client or different industry or segment that we get involved in. It’s really more of a terminology challenge to overcome. It’s not so much, “Gee, this sales effort is so different from anything else that I’ve ever seen.” It’s not. The emphases are different but it’s kind of the same set of variables. The customers’ characteristics are different but, again, it’s still a customer looking for a solution provided by somebody they trust to deliver that solution in the right way at the right time at an acceptable price. And that’s universal.

JIM:  The learning curve is in the language of the industry—the terminology they use. On the digital side—when we’re dealing with some of these web companies for instance—it’s not that complicated, but they use a new vocabulary, right? Native advertising, which is the same thing as advertorials back in the day. And in the B2B sector, they’ve got Big Data. How complicated is that? I think that might get a lot of peoples’ attention.

For more than 30 years, Steve Grossman has consulted to senior management teams globally on sales and organization performance issues.  Steve was a partner and leader of Mercer’s Sales Effectiveness and Aon Hewitt’s Sales Effectiveness consulting businesses before starting Steve Grossman & Associates in January, 2015. A Certified Management Consultant (CMC), Steve holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tufts University and an MBA from Boston University.