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 5: The 2.5 Percent Solution

Swapping an editorial gig for ad sales in order to write? Doesn’t make sense to Anonymous either, but he’s living it

“Shut the F@#$ up, Trudy!”
More training today. this time on CRM. That’s “customer relationship management,” by the way. The way it works is, Big Media Company spends a few hundred thousand dollars on a piece of software that tells you when to call your customers. You put in names, addresses, your client’s daughter’s name and age, underwear size, etc. Then, when you give him a ring about the August issue, you can bullshit a little and pretend you care about his family, all the while looking up his sales history, sock color preference, and any other thing they can load into the program through SAP or whatever general ledger software Big Media Company happens to be running.

During the class—mandatory for anyone earning over $50,000 at the Company, incidentally—some lady named Trudy* actually starts bitching about it. Things haven’t been right since we rolled up the new CRM application, she says. There’s no help desk. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Does this ridiculous, menial, little peon—from accounts receivable, of all departments—really think she is “speaking truth to power” here?

The CRM consultant—who happens to be a Big Media Company Player through and through—issues Trudy the old “let’s talk out your work-related issue, even though you and I both know nothing will change the software rollout” invitation, and asks her for more information. It’s a damn shame he can’t say what his eyes are telling me he wants to say.

 

His exact words are, “That’s an interesting observation, Trudy. I’ll bet, when the rollout is complete, we can find you a CRM software person to sit down with your team and get everybody up to speed. Let’s discuss this in more detail offline, and we’ll get to the bottom of this training issue. Anyone else want to share a similar experience?”

What he wants to say goes a little like: “Shut the fuck up and read the manual like everyone else.” But he doesn’t cave to the urge. Oh, well. Can’t wait for the “Violence in the Workplace” mini-session next week!

The 2.5 percent Solution

A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another “i,” Bob Cratchit.
—Charles Dickens

I love Big Media Company. After capping annual raises at 2.5 percent a year sometime back in 1973, we have editors at our company who literally bring a can of Friskies to work for lunch. With gas at $8 a gallon, the price of cigarettes going through the roof, and the general expense living in New York creates, the 2.5 percent raise policy means that, with inflation, the Big Media employee effectively gets a pay cut each year. Half of our guys live in Brooklyn—and not the nice part either (unless you know something about the J train that I don’t).

Not everybody’s hurting, though. The sales guy who’s consistently bringing in the cash isn’t complaining—and when he is, the boss usually busts his ass to find that extra $10 grand to placate him so he doesn’t have to go through the hell of hiring and training somebody else.

Editors? Slap them in front of a Mac and a telephone, and throw them a decent pizza party every once in a while, and you’re good to go. There are a billion budding Noam Chomskys ready to “cut their teeth” with some “good writing experience” at Big Media Company. It makes me sick.

That’s when I knew publishing was a big racket. It was also when I knocked on the publisher’s door to switch into a job selling ad space.

I used to be an editor. I remember the day I switched to sales. It was when I recommended a guy I knew as a salesman for a job at my magazine. He came in knowing fuck-all about the Industry, and started off making about $40,000 more than me right off the bat—all before he had even sold his first ad. That’s when I knew publishing was a big racket. Not coincidentally, it was also when I knocked on the publisher’s door to switch into a job selling ad space.

Although I still regret the day I left editorial, it’s pretty much been steady roast beef on a roll with extra lettuce and tomato every since, and that Friskies can hang out in the cabinet until I get a cat.

I guess my English teacher knew what he was talking about. He told us to get a job as a garbage man (or anything providing a steady income), so we could afford to write. If you want to be a writer, why not be an ad salesman to pay the bills?

[This post originally appeared in MediaBistro, 6/28/2006]