What Makes a Great Salesperson?

4 top sales managers share the qualities they feel make the difference between good and great when it comes to selling

Chris O’Hara, Chief revenue officer, LookSmart, Ltd.

You cannot be a great salesperson these days without some profoundly advanced writing skills. Why do I say that? Every morning on the train from Cold Spring Harbor to Penn Station, for the bulk of the 56-minute ride, 70 percent of the people on the train will be doing some writing—mostly pecking at their mobile devices. That’s a big change from 15 years ago. Back then, writing was something that happened in a more formal setting, when you sat in front of your workstation and crafted a memo, or wrote a proposal after a sales call. Back then, your prospects mostly communicated by phone—and would even answer it once in a while.

What does that mean for today’s sales team? A lot. First of all, your prospects are online…all day long. They are answering emails, reading newsletters, browsing websites, checking their Twitter feeds, and updating their Facebook status. They let phone calls go to voicemail, and comb through their messages once or twice a day. If you are in my business [digital advertising], your prospects are being assaulted by 30 emails a day, all promising to solve the problems of modern media, each with their own compelling value proposition. So, how do you break through all that noise and clutter, and get your prospect to acknowledge you? Good writing.

What makes good writing? Good grammar, constructing a proper sentence, and being able to tell a story all help. What is especially important is avoiding the use of “internet casual” abbreviations in email correspondence. An email should not read like a text message. When you are asking for somebody’s trust and business, it is important to maintain a level of formality and integrity.

As important as writing is, being able to comprehend the industry your team is selling to is equally as important. You probably have four to five competitors that are calling on the same people, trying to sell them something quite similar to your product. What’s going to differentiate your salesperson from the salesperson down the street is not just your product, but what you are providing beyond the product. That thing is called information.

When your salespeople reach out to prospects, are they offering more than just a chance to buy something? If they provide interesting industry news, opinion, or perspective on an issue, or (best of all) a valuable industry connection or introduction, then they are not just selling, they are also building a valuable relationship. The ability to be that type of salesperson revolves around reading everything they can about the field they are in, and becoming an expert. Not everyone can do this, but the 5 to 10 percent of sellers who can position themselves as industry experts will be vastly more successful than the average seller.

Most of us don’t have the perfect, reasonably priced product that just happens to be ready exactly when the customer, money in hand, wants to buy it. Therefore, the key to sales is constantly being around, so that when this miracle of circumstance happens, your salesperson is on the receiving end of it. That translates to your sales team calling a lot of people to remind them that they have something to sell, going to a lot of trade shows, and constantly staying in touch with their prospects. Do this enough, and eventually someone will buy something. Why? Like you, the customer is naturally lazy and wants to get the maximum return on the minimum amount of effort. He has already gone through a lot of annoying work and plenty of bad table wine with you to get to the point where he is comfortable enough to buy something, and he doesn’t want to relive that process all over again. Therefore, even if your product is a little worse or slightly pricier than that of your competitor, he will sooner buy it from you than start a whole new relationship and, worse yet, fill out another credit application.

The number one trait to be avoided is the tendency some salespeople have to sell too soon. A real salesperson should do more listening than selling, especially on the first several appointments. Prospects can read PowerPoints, too. If that’s what your team is doing on sales calls, they should consider another line of work.

[This appeared in the October 2012 issue of New York Enterprise Report]

Notes from DPS 2011

Going Beyond Content and Delivering Value in a Multi-Platform World

Deer Valley, UT – If there is one thing I learned after spending several days at Digital Publishing Summit 2011, is that the people in this industry really love what they do. It’s not easy walking past world class spring skiing in what is arguably the United States’ best ski area, and enter a dim conference room to listen to a speech on “Auto-nomous Data Management,” but every session played to an SRO crowd of media and technology executives. The crowd was a veritable who’s-who of the “Digital Display Advertising Landscape” (LUMA) map, so I suppose you could argue that these guys got where they are today by skipping lots of fun, and building advertising and media technology instead.

Among the highly informative (albeit sometimes sales-y) content at the conference, there were some gems to be had. So, here is DPS 2011, organized by quote:

“Value is shifting from those that produce the content, to those that deliver the experience of consuming it.” – Saul Berman, IBM

Saul Berman’s keynote address touched upon the disruption happening in our space, but even the overhyped keyword “disruption” doesn’t touch upon the true chaos happening as publishers learn how to navigate the through all the new social media, exchange-based sales, and various technology partnering opportunities out there. Do you make Facebook Connect your friend (as Kristine Shine from PopSugar Media does), to drive new unique visits, and build your audience? According to Shine, for her organization, the call was to “go all in” with Facebook. For others, like Todd Sawicki, CRO of Cheezburger, Facebook can kill publications by migrating all of their native traffic (like message board comments) to their environment, without returning the favor.

So, for publishers, the challenge is not just continuing to produce quality content, but to make it for a multi platform world, where consumers are just as likely to value the way they are consuming it. That means having a multi-platform approach—and a multi-revenue approach as well. Why does a full song from iTunes cost $0.99, but a 10-second sliver of that song, sold as a ringtone, cost $3.00? In that case, it is the application of content in a clever way that adds value, a nice use case for anyone monetizing content in an experiential way.

“Media will be sold like pork bellies” – Frank Addante, Rubicon Project

There was quite a bit of discussion around pricing at the conference, and the founder and CEO of the Rubicon Project was not wrong in insisting that, without significant changes, media would indeed be as commoditized as the humble pork belly. Unfortunately, this trend has already happened. Addante was right to highlight the unfortunate fact that the same article in the NY Times commands a $20CPM in print as opposed to $2CPM online. That value gap, Addante argues, can be closed by “realizing the true value of digital experiences.” Rubicon would like to see one big gigantic “open market” that enables the industry to expand the digital advertising pie from $40b to $400b with full participation, but the details were cloudy. If that market concept involves having publishers suddenly not to sell their entire remnant inventory into an exchange, then maybe we can avoid the pork bellies fate.  Addante may be on to something, however. What the industry needs is one trusted third party aggregate high quality inventory, and create value around it, but that battle is in its very nascent stages.

That being said, a good bit of the conversation was around pricing. Both Saul Berman and Tim Cadogan of OpenX deployed the airline pricing scenario, to argue for dynamic pricing models. For Cadogan, three levels of inventory equate to three levels of seating: Exclusive (first class), Premium Guaranteed (business class), and Non-Guaranteed (coach). Just as airlines frequently change the configuration of their seating to account for their routes, seasonality, and passenger mix, so must the industry dynamically price inventory, based on its placement and value. The OpenX Enterprise server hopes to achieve that by putting guaranteed and real time exchange inventory into the same platform, and use smart decisioning  technology to maximize yields. A very smart idea.

For Berman, it was not only about “having 5 different passengers, paying five different prices,” but also about exploring entirely new revenue models, like Apple did in “switching the razor blade model” with the iPhone (expensive “razor,” cheap “blades”). Publishers must go beyond monetizing their content through advertising, and start looking at generating revenue from the larger  “marketing” bucket. Right now, that is called “selling apps.”

“Premium brands need to be associated with premium content” — Eric Klotz, Pubmatic

Truer words have never been spoken. Klotz explored some recent survey data which asked publishers and advertisers how the way they are buying media is shifting. The results were fairly predictable: more and more budget is finding it’s way into real-time bidding environments, as brand and direct marketers seek new ways to target their desired audiences. That’s nothing new. What is changing rapidly, however, is that all marketers are demanding more placement control, increased transparency, and brand safety. Brands want the same direct connections with publishers they have enjoyed with guaranteed buying, with the ease and cost efficiency of exchange-based buying. The takeaway? If you are a publisher, and not looking at building private exchange connections with your demand side partners, you are in trouble.

That sentiment was hinted at in a panel called “Selling in a Cluttered Market.” For Jonas Abney of Hachette Filipacchi, “general content gets beaten by specific content every time.” Marketers are looking for laser-focused, topical content that captures user intent, rather than more generalized content. Moreoever, today’s advertising sale is more educational than ever. For panelists like AdMeld CEO Michael Barrett and PubMatic’s Andrew Rutledge, a sales force cannot simply have media experience–they have to know the ecosystem, and be prepared to add value by educating clients. For Whitepages VP of Sales Craig Paris, it is simple math: Agencies get 100+ unique sales calls a month, from an increasing amount of new technology and media companies. Unless you differentiate yourself, you are not going to win business. “Thirty percent of your day should be spent reading the industry trades so you can have credibility, and provide insights to your customers.”

“Nielsen says people visit 2.9 sites a day, and one of them is Facebook” — Greg Rogers, Pictela

Last minute speaker Greg Rogers of Pictela provided some insights on how premium advertising units (specifically the new IAB 300×1050 “Project Devil” unit from AOL) can drive user engagement. If the above quote is true, it means that brands have to find a way to engage the user more deeply on the the sites they visit every day, and that way is through interactive units. Rogers has data that points to “dramatic” CPM increases from premium RM units, and makes a case for replacing three 300×250 units with the single 300×1050 “devil” slot. Patch and Huffpo have seen great results, and advertisers are getting good engagement, and plenty of reporting. Highly premium, brand-safe, engaging advertising…sounds like something from the past called “premium guaranteed.” I bet PopSugar’s Shine would agree. She has built a virtual in-house agency to build premium campaigns for her customers, and demands “150% control over every ad unit on the page.”

“Cookie Targeting Doesn’t Scale” — Michael Hannon, Aperture

Sort of a dark horse moment for me was Michael Hannon’s first slide, which threw down the gauntlet on cookie targeting. All the energy in the space for the last several years has been about  targeting using 3rd party data . But what if it doesn’t work? This is the 900 lb. elephant in the Ecosystem. Not only have many marketers had difficulties achieving significant scale when overlaying data on top of exchange buys, but the legislative tsunami of “Do Not Track” threatens to reduce that scale even further. Hannon makes an elegant argument for real audience measurement, and doing so in a cookie-less way.

That leads me to a great conversation led by Alan Chapell, a lawyer specializing in just these types of issues. In a room full of ad publishing and ad technology executives that depend on using data to identify target audiences, there was a great deal of confusion regarding how our industry is getting on top of what may be a very severe problem. More direction from the IAB in the form of specific self-regulatory principles and mandates is needed, and needed fast. For Chapell, inaction may cause the “privacy disaster, which enables Google, AT&T, and Facebook to own all the data,”  leaving the rest of the industry on the side.

[This article originally appeared in Adotas on 4/4/11]

Looking for the Best Salesman? Find the Best Writer.

Today’s Dependence on Written Communication Means Your Next Great Salesperson May be an English Major

A headhunter recently asked me if she could help me recruit some new salespeople to our organization, and asked me what qualities I was looking for I told her, “Find me a great writer, and I’ll make a salesperson out of him.”

Why a writer? Look around. I’m riding on the 7:17 AM train from Cold Spring Harbor to Penn Station right now and, for the bulk of the 56 minute ride, 70% of the people on the train will be doing some writing—mostly pecking into their mobile devices. That’s a big change from 15 years ago. Back then, writing was something that happened in a more formal setting, when you sat in front of your workstation and crafted a memo, or wrote a proposal after a sales call. Back then, your prospects mostly communicated by phone—and would even answer it once in a while.

What does that mean for today’s online sales organization? A lot. First of all, your prospects are online…all day long. They are answering internal e-mails, reading newsletters, web browsing, checking their twitter feeds, and updating their Facebook status. They let phone calls go to voicemail, and comb through their messages once or twice a day. If you are in my business, your prospects are being assaulted by 30 e-mails a day from new start-up companies in the space, all promising to solve the problems of modern media, each with their own compelling value proposition. So, how do you break through all that noise and clutter, and get your prospect to acknowledge you?

Good writing.

Did you ever read an e-mail that made you laugh right off the bat, or had such a compelling subject line that you simply had to open it? How about an e-mail that felt like it was written exactly for you, or one that automatically answered a business question you’ve been asking for a while?  Those are the e-mails that get opened, read past the second line, and flagged in your inbox for later action….the ones that break through all the noise and make a connection. They are hard to write, and finding the people that can write them is even harder. But in a world where the written word is truly king, those that can communicate the most effectively in writing will be the leaders.

For Randy Daux, a recruiter with Howard Sloan Keller, the leading retained search firm in the media space, it’s all about knowing your audience. “Writing allows for a connection between writer and reader and is a demonstration not just of intelligence, but empathy and understanding, as well.  How many times has each of us read a cover letter or marketing email which, directed at a broad audience and without an understanding of our business objectives, we simply moved to the trash?  Competent, targeted, and emotive writing is capable of cutting through our increasingly frenetic and multi-tasked lives, and really making someone stand out.  Moreover, with everyone tied to a computer or iPhone (or Blackberry) 24/7, there’s little excuse for lack of communicative capability.”

Luckily, finding the best writers among your prospect list is fairly simple: look at their cover letters and judge them on the merits. Few candidates understand that, in sales, the easiest thing you can sell is yourself. If you can’t make a compelling argument for your own employment as a salesperson (knowing the “product” as well as you do), then I don’t want you selling something of mine. The cover letter is your gateway to understanding the way a good candidate thinks and, more importantly, expresses himself in written form. Here are some things to look for:

* Your Name: Did she get it right? Or are you “Whom it May Concern” or, worse yet, “Hiring Manager?” If your company has an “About Us” section, then your candidate should know who is in control of the hire, and address the cover letter appropriately. Even if you are not listed on the masthead, if your company has a phone number, then your candidate should be able to get the name and e-mail address of the hiring manager or HR person in charge of the hire. Would you let a salesman send a “To Whom it May Concern” e-mail to a prospect? Of course not.

* The Knowledge: Does your candidate know the first thing about your company and its hiring needs? Does she spell the company’s name correctly (don’t laugh…this is not uncommon), and know what the company does? Does the cover letter reference the actual job title in the body of the e-mail? Hint: if you get a cover letter for a “Sales Director” position that talks about “the exciting Director of Business Development position,” then you’ve just been mail-merged. Would you allow a salesperson to send 20 strategically important prospects a canned cover letter like that? No, you wouldn’t. Randy Duax, whose firm recruits for Pointroll, the Huffington Post, and The Knot, expresses a similar sentiment:  “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve Googled a sentence or two from a cover letter a candidate sent me to find it was copied and pasted from a stock cover letter/resume website.  If someone is going to put minimal effort into interfacing with me in such a fashion, how are they going to act when they’re actually in a sales role?”

* What Can I Do For You? Too many cover letters focus on the needs and skills of the salesperson, rather than the needs of the company that is hiring. You don’t have to be trained in the Huthwaite methodology to know that the first rule of sales is to get to know the customers’ problems before you try and solve them. The candidate that leaps right into his pitch without demonstrating knowledge of your needs is like a salesman who goes into a meeting and immediately leaps into a 30 slide PowerPoint. Do you want a salesforce that “sprays and prays,” or a consultative seller that can break down the digital media ecosystem, and explain your company’s place in it, relative to the issues your prospects are facing? The latter, of course. If your candidate leads by putting your needs before his, that’s one sign of a seasoned seller.

* The Close: Last, and never least, is the close. What is the “ask” your candidate is making? For an interview? Is the candidate’s “collateral” being left behind (her resume) compelling? Does the candidate reference anything besides her resume, or lead you to a place where you can find out more about her (a article or write paper she wrote, her LinkedIn page, or even an industry article you might be interested in)? Being a good salesperson means always getting a yes, no, or a continuation. Look at your candidate’s close, and see if it makes you want to take the next steps. If she can’t get to second base with you (an engaged “prospect” if there ever was one), then it’s likely that she can’t get there with one of your customers, either.

There are a lot of good salespeople out there, but few great ones. The great ones in the modern era are going to be the ones that can break through the clutter, and deliver the messages that your prospects want to read. They are the ones who not only communicate through e-mail the most powerfully, but the ones who write the Twitter messages that tend to get retweeted, and maintain a blog with their industry observations, and post the Facebook messages that don’t make you want to immediately “hide” them. The best salespeople know what you want, and deliver the content that addresses that need. Finding them is as easy as being a great reader.

[This article originally appeared in Adotas, 4/28/10]

SalesRants 14: Pigeon Feed

Swat ’em away, but they’ll still keep coming — those ‘pigeons’ of corporations that can’t stop flocking to consultants’ birdseed

Remember that television commercial featuring the two consultants talking to a corporate guy? It went something this like this:

Consultants: First you need to optimize your sales force using a state-of-the-art CRM tool, align your marketing message across multiple media to drive your quarterly goals, and implement a company-wide monitoring system to insure message optimization across multiple business units, resulting in huge gains across multiple metrics. This plan is sure to turn your business around.

Corporate Guy: Great! When can you start doing it?

Consultants: [Break down in gales of laughter]. We don’t actually do anything… we just tell you how to do it! [They dissolve in paroxysms of malevolent laughter].

Anyway, you get the drift. Despite the almost universal reckoning that corporate consultants do little more than sell glorified PowerPoint presentations full of the latest business jargon, companies such as my beloved Big Media Company continue to employ them. Let me introduce you to the very best consulting scam ever invented, one that Big Media Company fell for hook, line and sinker.

 

Scarily enough, it’s called “SPIN Selling.” “SPIN,” of course, is an acronym. Let me save you $500,000 and give you the S.P.I.N. Selling overview in a nutshell: First, find out what people want before you try and sell them something. Then, tailor your sales pitch to address their needs. Sounds simple, right?

Instead of barging into some agency, breaking out your media kit, and telling your customer your circulation, readership, and what special issues you have coming up, why not sit down over a cup of coffee and ask him a bunch of questions. Like: How is your business? (a Situation question); Is the price of paper leading to an increase in your costs? (Problem); Why is it important to solve this problem (Implication); and, If I lowered your rate, would this help you reach more potential customers? (Need/ payoff).

So, you SPIN a customer, slowly walking him through his situation, how it affects his business, and how you — his savior — may solve his problems using whatever it is you happen to be selling. It’s how probably 90 percent of all salesmen and 100 percent of successful ones approach their business. It’s called consultative sales or, put more simply, selling something that people need. What the company that sells the SPIN program offers, however, is more ingenious than anything that’s gone along with products I’ve ever hocked. They take what is a very straightforward and simple sales process (ask questions, provide answers) and pile a bunch of meaningless process and acronyms on top of it, creating a sales pseudoscience that, like Boggle, is “easy to learn, impossible to master.”

Let me tell you how it works (applicable not just to SPIN, but all bullshit media sales consultants and sales consulting in general): The Consultant comes into Big Media Company (the Pigeon) with a long list of corporate stooges who have used their product (IBM, Honeywell, or any Fortune 500 client whose size exceeds that of the Pigeon, and whose CEO is likely to be impressed by). The Consultant says they can increase sales by 20 percent a year using their new patented sale methodology. The Pigeon’s CEO cuts that estimate in half and still figures he’s up a few million net, even after paying the Consultant a healthy $500,000 fee. Soon enough, the Pigeon signs up, and mandates sales training for everyone on staff.

Naturally, since the test is based on the yet-untaught sales principles offered in the coursework, the results are terrible. Pigeon’s people are way behind the curve!

The Consultant comes in for about a month, and trains everyone, 20 at a time, using the same off-the-shelf Powerpoint presentation, with Pigeon’s name sprinkled throughout for that customized look. People are asked to take a test before the training to establish a “baseline” of sales effectiveness. Naturally, since the test is based on the yet-untaught sales principles offered in the coursework, the results are terrible. Pigeon’s people are way behind the curve! Compared to (insert Fortune 500 company’s results here), Big Media Company is a non-player in the 12th percentile!

The training commences, filled with obscure terminology and acronyms designed to turn what is essentially an easy-to-understand concept into something on which you can slap a patent. After the trainings are complete, another test is administered to make sure Pigeon’s salespeople have absorbed the expensive, mandated training. Lo and behold, the results come in, and Consultant has really made an impact! Compared to the initial baseline results, the latest monitoring shows that Pigeon’s staff is really embracing this new sales dynamic! Sadly, however, there is still work to be done. We show that IBM’s salespeople achieved a 15 percent higher result on their post-training assessment, so we recommend a further dose of advanced training (at a discounted rate of $250,000).

You get the gist. By the time Big Media Company — or any other Pigeon — realizes that their sales are about the same as last year, and that Consultant’s package is perhaps better suited to selling something like consulting services, rather than classified advertising, it’s too late.

Moral of story: Never buy something from a salesperson who is full of more shit than you.

[This post originally appeared in MediaBistro, 8/30/2006]

SalesRants 13: Between a Rock and a Sales Guy

When it comes to sticky sales scenarios, no conundrum’s too convoluted for Secret Sales Guy

First off, I want to personally thank all the readers who have written me to make suggestions and tell me how much they enjoy the column. In this round of questions, however, I swap the reader queries with some thorny scenarios I’ve heard fellow salesfolk puzzle over during my two decades in the field. You won’t find insights like these in your corporate handbook or at the next training, so read on for guidance that cuts through the crap advice usually on the media sales menu.

I am the associate publisher of small agricultural magazine that does around $3M a year in display advertising. Print sales are off, so we’re looking to add more banner capabilities to our Web site and hire an online salesperson to sell them. What qualities should I look for in this employee? Also, not being well-versed in matters online myself, can you recommend training for me?

It sounds as though your company has been bitten by the “new media” bug, and is getting ready to flush a shitload of cash down the toilet in the interest of “staying competitive.” As an avid reader of Pig International (and many other obscure controlled circulation trade magazines to which I subscribe just for the hell of it), I can tell you that the new media future in your farmers’ market looks dim for years—if not decades—to come.

The first thing to do, as your magazine’s AP, is set a really high commission plan for your salespeople (to incentivize growth) and, more critically, make sure you’re receiving a healthy override on all sales. The second thing is to discourage your company from hiring a “specialist” to sell this online advertising manure. Just because a guy can differentiate among rich media banner units and delivery systems doesn’t mean he’s worth a $75,000 base. Instead of gifting some nerd with nearly a hundred grand a year, hustle one of your sharper print guys into a Learning Annex course, then throw him some extra dough to make more online sales happen. You’ll wind up giving away half your banners to your best print advertisers as “value added,” anyway.

I’m the sales director for another big media company, managing the sales of three trade magazines, several Web sites, and a few supplements. I’ve been in the job for about three years now, laboring under a boss who is totally unsupportive. In fact, his decisions seem totally unrelated to the business, and I suspect he doesn’t really know what’s up. I’m afraid to go over his head, but I can’t take this situation. What should I do?

Obviously, what you should be doing is trying to get your boss canned, but that’s a complicated and lengthy process fraught with peril. As entertaining as it may be to load your boss up with faulty information and start planting mutinous seeds for a staff-wide revolt, such tactics are probably how your current boss got his job, and he may smell a rat. Remember, your incompetent boss was probably once just a soldier like you: young, hungry, and willing to upset the status quo to “make things happen.” Now he is a fat, corporate pig who’s been feasting for years from the management salary trough—neither willing nor able to snap at the hands that feed him.

If you have a modicum of talent and the willingness to trade your immortal soul for a shot at the bonus pool, you’ll be wind up in the same position someday. If all goes well, you will laugh cynically at this query and realize how naïve you once were. For now, you need to compare your political smarts with those of your boss and examine your situation from the perspective of senior management (i.e., “What’ll happen if we shitcan Mr. Fatcat Manager and replace him with Young Frustrated at a cheaper salary?”). If you can figure out the answer to that question, you’ll know what to do.

I’m thinking of getting into sales myself, but I wonder if it is fulfilling enough. What are your thoughts?

Is driving a brand new BMW 5-Series fulfilling? How about lingering over a $90 bottle of crisp French wine over a dozen oysters at an overpriced Hamptons eatery with a hot date? Or, perhaps, dropping $800 on an accessory sure to go out of style in three months? Are those things fulfilling? Of course they are. They are also the kinds of things that a successful career in sales can bring you.

There are thousands of very spiritually rewarding careers out there that can pay the bills—and some of them can earn you top dollar. However, for the average person without a load of specialized skills or an advanced degree, sales is the fast-track ticket to wealth.

With sales, someone basically sets you up with a computer, phone, desk, health insurance and an expense account, then prays that you can pull in four or five times your salary. The rest is up to you.

Look at me: decent enough education at an exclusive “you didn’t get into Yale, but…”-type Northeastern college, pretty good writing and social skills, and a smattering of business experience culled from a variety of mid-level positions at various publishing companies. Fits neatly into your typical mediabistro.com reader demographic, right? I’m pretty smart, but I’m certainly no genius, and since I opted out of paying another $60,000 for an MBA, my choices are limited: If I aspire to make some “real” money, it’s either sales or starting my own business.

With sales, someone basically sets you up with a computer, phone, desk, health insurance and an expense account, then prays that you can pull in four or five times your salary. The rest is up to you. If you are insanely motivated (by greed, mostly, but that’s okay), then you’ll find a way to move whatever it is you have to sell. Then you can watch the BMWs roll in. It’s a pretty fulfilling life. Make enough dough, and you can assuage your privileged guilt by giving some of it away to charity.

[This post originally appeared in MediaBistro, 8/23/2006]

SalesRants 12: Ask Secret Sales Guy

Answering your questions, Secret Sales Guy spills his own beans for a change, instead of everyone else’s

The “Ask Secret Sales Guy” question box saw its share of action at mediabistro.com’s recent marketing party in New York. Maybe I saw you there, submitting a question to your loyal and dedicated Man on the Inside. Though I received a number of intriguing questions, both at the party and via e-mail, this column has me speaking to the most basic ones.

Who the f*ck are you?
This was, by far, the most popular question. Unfortunately, it is also very difficult to answer. Secret Sales Guy is just another corporate wage slave. A former editor who put down the pen for the ad page, I have dedicated the last 10 years of my life to print and online media, and now manage a fairly profitable magazine group focused on consumer electronics. On the personal side, I am the father of two adorable children, and the husband of a cranky, yet cute, wife. I spend about three hours a day commuting from Westchester to go to Big Media Company. I enjoy fishing, writing, smoking, and eating foods heavy in saturated fats.

Considering the question more existentially, I guess you could say that I am a bit of a frustrated writer who turned to sales to support his family, but still yearns to make a respectable living with his pen. This hasn’t happened yet, but I still harbor fantasies of writing the Great American Novel or, perhaps moving to Armenia and taking a crack at the “Great Armenian English-Language Novel” if they don’t happen to have one of those yet. For now, I am grateful to be afforded the ability to offer my observations on the publishing business from an insider’s perspective and hopefully provide insight into the amusing world of advertising sales.

Where do you work?
I work for Big Media Company* here in New York City. Big Media Company began as an obscure family-run textbook publisher and gradually gobbled up enough companies over the years to become a huge, multinational corporation with dozens of offices, thousands of employees, and more bureaucrats than you can shake a stick at. Like all big media companies, mine dabbles in a bit of research, some television, a bunch of magazines and books, and this newfangled thing you may have heard of called the Internet. We are prone to laying employees off, selling portions of our company, and making extremely poor internal business decisions concerning technology.

Like all large media concerns (and many oversized corporations in general), my company operates under the ridiculous belief that we can create “synergy” across the wide range of companies that have been slapped together through decades of acquisition. The idea is that the television company can help drive sales at the magazine company, which can generate data for the research company, who can populate the magazine company with interesting, cutting-edge content, and then we can put everything on the Web and charge people $15.99 a month to be “informed and entertained.” Of course, since everyone at Big Media Company inhabits their own little selfish worlds mandated by our compensation policies, there is really no good reason to share sales, data, or anything else with another division of the company—unless, of course, you can both figure out a way for it to boost your respective bonuses. With the submarket salaries Big Media Company lays out, you sure as hell aren’t going to go to those lengths out of loyalty.

 

Despite this, Big Media Company is a great place to work—especially as a line manager. You make Big Media money, and they’ll humor you with a decent enough salary and bonus package to make sure you only send your resumé out a few times a month, rather than a few times a day. Fuck up, and you are out the door with a pleasant reference and a storage box for your picture of the wife and kids, along with those trade show knickknacks on your standard-issue office bookshelf.

How much do you make?
This was the second-most popular question. As my products’ top sales guy, I have a pretty decent base salary. However, a good part of my compensation comes from commission. Because I am the sales manager, I also get to assign myself several accounts. Naturally, I give myself the largest and most important—and most lucrative. Even better, I get an “override” on all sales that I oversee. Like a pimp, Secret Sales Guy makes money when his crew makes money, providing me with a powerful incentive to make sure my sales team is as happy and productive as possible. Add everything up at the end of the average year, and I’ll probably wind up with about $XXX,000. If I have a knockout year, it could be more. If I worked for a consumer publishing company, rather than the business-focused media company I work for, I would probably be making triple that. Anyway, because I live in New York, the $XXX,000 I make feels more like $50,000. But it’s enough to pay for beer and Skittles. It is also substantially more than I would have been getting if I had accepted the coveted editor-in-chief post at a top-tier trade magazine that was offered to me a decade ago.

What’s your No. 1 tip for making sales?
There is no secret to making sales. The best way to make a sale is to have something that someone wants to buy. If you have something like that and it’s priced exactly right, and the person who wants to purchase it has the money to do so, you will make a sale. It’s that simple. Even if you are a sleazy soft-brained, scumbag with half a community college education, so long as your product meets the aforementioned criteria, you will succeed.

Like you, your customer is a lazy bastard who wants to get the maximum return on the minimum amount of effort. He has already gone through a lot of annoying work and plenty of bad table wine with you.

Of course, most of us don’t have the perfect, reasonably-priced product that just happens to be ready exactly when the customer, money in hand, wants to buy it. Therefore, the key to sales is constantly being around so that when this miracle of circumstance happens, you are standing at the bottom of Cash Hill with your catcher’s mitt on. That translates to calling a lot of people to remind them that you have something to sell, going to a lot of trade shows, and drinking lots of bad table wine with your prospects.

Do this enough, and eventually someone will buy something from you. The beauty of this is that, once that an initial transaction occurs successfully, you may find yourself in for plenty of repeat business. Why? Like you, your customer is a lazy bastard who wants to get the maximum return on the minimum amount of effort. He has already gone through a lot of annoying work and plenty of that bad table wine with you so as to get to the point where he is comfortable enough to buy something, and he doesn’t want to relive that process all over again. Therefore, even if your product is a little worse or slightly pricier than that of your competitor, he will sooner buy it from you than start a whole new relationship and, worse yet, fill out another credit application.

Hang around. Bore yourself to tears at trade shows. Have something to sell. Drink bad table wine. That’s about all there is to it.

Secret Sales Guy is always here for you with his no-bullsh*t policy in effect, so please email with any questions for which you seek a truly honest answer.

[This post originally appeared in MediaBistro, 8/16/2006]

SalesRants 11: In Memoriam: The Three-Martini Lunch

Secret Sales Guy reminisces about a kinder, gentler era, when men used the table talk of business to hunker down over lunch and a cocktail… or three

Life can be incredibly cruel. You are violently birthed, thrust from your mother’s womb into an insecure world, passed through the meat grinder of primary and secondary school education, flung into puberty, tossed into college, and then unleashed—utterly naïve and likely scarred from years spent pursuing an ultimately useless degree—into the world of business. Once your parents kiss you off, you face the unappealing and scary business of marriage and, eventually, rearing children who will eventually face the same daunting journey described above.

The sickest part of it all is that, during the prime of your life, you will devote approximately 40 years of thankless labor to an uncaring corporation just so you can pay your mortgage and eat meat once in a while. Your wife will constantly nag you, as will your kids, once they reach about seven years old. Sure, you may take up a hobby such as golf or stamp-collecting to ease the tension, but you and I both know it: You are statistically bound to live a boring, stressful and annoying life.

“No, no, Secret Salesman,” you may protest. “Surely, life is what you make of it. Life is beautiful—there is love, art, writing, sex!”

Silly, silly media person. You do not hear the truth when it is shouted in your ear, but hear only your own fantastical whispers of hope. Except now—in a modern world where there is a pill to numb every discomfort and a self-help book to aid any perceived ailment—your nonsensical attitude can prevail. But life is a brutal endeavor. Even in this great country, families are starving, people are ravaged by untreatable disease and—worse yet—magazine employees continue to be underpaid and underappreciated. Such is the nature of this modern existence.

But, sit back, while I spin you a tale. There was a time not too long ago, a Golden Era, if you will, when life was better for the media salesman. We call it the 1980s. [I cannot speak of the 70’s or 60’s because, lamentably, I wasn’t in this line of work back then]. Back in the 80’s, there was a tonic—a soothing panacea—for the fear and ennui engendered by modern life.

They called it the Three-Martini Lunch.

You may have heard of it. Back in those Golden Days of media sales, there existed the time-honored tradition of the Three-Martini Lunch (or, as we practitioners like to call it, the TML). An oddly styled and peculiar ceremony, the TML was long heralded as one of the most effective tools in the intrepid media salesman’s bag. Suitable for use on new prospects and haggard clients alike, the TML was a way to spend quality time with a customer and talk a bit of business—all while idling away a good 50 percent of your actual workday. Should a return visit to the office be required after the TML, one was inebriated enough by that point to tolerate the rest of the afternoon. Although labeled with a somewhat misleading moniker—since the cocktail of choice didn’t have to be martinis, nor were participants limited to three of them, for that matter—the TML persisted as a serious business tool from the inception of print media until roughly 1988, when Reagan left office. Setting aside its restorative benefits to the media sales employee, the TML was, and remains, a potent tool for developing business relationships. What you don’t know, however, is that the TML was never merely about drinking.

 

Back in the very early days of the media (think beleaguered Bewitched ad exec Darren Stevens) there was no such thing as the Three-Martini Lunch. It was just lunch. Because men were involved and, incidentally, happened to run the universe at that time (or at least they thought they did), they had the freedom to order what they wanted—be it a glass of tomato juice, a refreshing lager, or an 8-ounce gin martini. Lunch was a time to get together with a trusted colleague or old client, ask him how his family was doing—and really mean it. It was just a couple of guys both facing roughly the same situation and able to commiserate about their jobs, college tuition, the wife, and just about everything else under the sun. It’s what men have done since the dawn of time: They gather over large hunks of blackened meat, knock a few back, and share something deeper and more profound than last night’s Yankees result.

Then when it came time to follow up with a post-lunch phone call, when you went through your Rolodex (since replaced by ACT, Goldmine, or some other equally annoying “CRM” application tool), you didn’t have to check your notes to remember that your client’s wife was named Sally, and he had two boys, a baby girl, and an affinity for power tools. TMLs gave you time to get to know your client—hell, maybe even like him—and share that most intimate of manly moments: an extended workday lunch.

These days, the TML is a thing of the past. On the odd occasion that you do have the time to sit down over a meal with a client or prospect, there are many things to be considered. First, there’s a 50 percent chance that your client/ prospect will be female. This can be beneficial if both you and your client are women, as you’re then likelier to have things in common. However, this puts the male salesman at a disadvantage. One potential wrinkle: Your client may be hot, which puts you immediately in the uncomfortable position of being in a somewhat intimate setting (a nice restaurant), and makes your ham-handed attempts at smalltalk seem (at least in your own mind) like the verbal fumbling of a first date. Due to the discomfort this spawns, talk tends to immediately shift to business, meaning that any chance of developing a strong personal rapport are sunk. There’s no opportunity to bitch about the wife or job (since don’t want to seem bitter or lame), and there’s less of a chance you’ll chat about sports, the conversational glue that holds male friendship together.

If (as a male) you’re fortunate enough to have a lunch meeting with a male colleague, the chance to bond and create a meaningful personal relationship remains exists, but it is still remote. The first moment of brutal, searing discomfort starts when the drink order is taken. As the host, you are obligated to glance at Jim, your client, and say, “What are you having Jim?” Jim, clearly pained, orders a Pellegrino with lime—or, worse yet, a Diet Coke (God forbid he go regular). The drink order takes a lap around the table and results in another sparkling water, and a “water’s fine, thanks.” So you, sitting at one of Manhattan’s better restaurants and about to order a steak that practically screams for a hearty Cabernet or Bordeaux, are stuck. The meal is already ruined.

Then, food ordering commences. Likely, you are sitting with two or three other men, all of whom are dying to have the steak, veal parmigiana, or some other extremely tasty and unhealthy dish (because Lord only knows what’s awaiting you at home tonight). Instead, Customer #1 orders a salad. Not even a Cobb, for Chrissakes. He orders something that, when it finally arrives at the table after 20 intolerable minutes of business conversation, looks like the weeds from my backyard with a Zabar’s gift basket spilled over them.

Be a man and order what you want. You wife is not here and, judging from the looks of you, this could be the first salad you’ve ever ordered in your life.

Come on! Be a man and order what you want. You wife is not here and, judging from the looks of you, this could be the first salad you’ve ever ordered in your life. Face it: You ordered the salad because you are a fat fuck, and you are too embarrassed to order the ribeye smothered in Gruyere. And, you know you want a beer. Yes, you do. How about you buck up, and have two of them? That way we can relax, and everyone doesn’t have to pretend that they are so indispensable that a few mugs of suds could steer the beloved Company off course when you return to your cubicle. Trust me on this—the stock price isn’t taking a hit because some mid-level marketing manager “let his hair down” at lunch and banged a few back with his rep.

You’ve been there, so you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s like the Blackberry phenomena—these days, your identity and self-worth is so tied up in your work, that to be human for a minute may tip someone off to the fact that you’re not the next Jack Welch. Well, you’re not. So relax, order a beer and a big plate of pasta, and forget about work for a few minutes. There’s plenty of time for that when we get back to the office—you know I’m going to be calling you for an ad in a few days, anyway. So for now, why don’t we try being friends, have some red wine over a nice, thick steak, and bitch about our home remodeling projects or the price of gas a little bit—anything but work. That way, when I call you up, it’s a lot less like someone trying to sell you an ad, and a lot more like two guys who happen to work in the trenches together doing a little business.

Waiter, a martini, please—and keep ’em coming!

[This post originally appeared in MediaBistro, 8/9/2006]