Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What’s the weather
like in your company?

Sunny and clear? Fair, or overcast and dreary?

Be objective before you answer, and understand this is a trick question.

Several years ago I was in a sales meeting with a client company leading a discussion about the difficulties the economy had imposed on revenue efforts and how the staff might respond, when the publisher spoke up. “Say what you want, but January and February are going to suck, we’ll be lucky if we’re only down 20 percent,” he said.

If I was sitting next to him I might have kicked him under the table, or worse.

Rather than say the company needed to be creative and work even harder, in effect he gave the staff permission to have two lousy months, and they did.

I can’t say he programmed it that way or things would have been different if he hadn’t made that remark. But by announcing his expectation he created the weather in that department. Break out the shovels. Heavy snow followed by sleet and freezing rain. And yes, January and February sales tanked.

In our frustrating economy and undoubtedly the most severe selling conditions the publishing industry has ever endured, you see managers creating a lot of bad weather when they need to be working on sunshine. I know because I’m the voice of experience. 

As a newly promoted publisher who came up on the news side with an unfortunate natural resentment for the sales department, I believed our weakening sales were a function of people slacking off. So I got on the sales director who in turn jumped on the regional sales managers and pretty soon our 28 member display department was in a tizzy and sales got even worse. 

As I dissected the issues, I was at least 51 percent of the problem. I had never sold an ad in my life, and I soon learned that managing a sales department was probably the toughest job in the company. Tell someone in the news department to cover a meeting or interview a Congressman, the assignment and expectations are generally clear for an experienced professional. Tell the pressroom and mailroom they need to be out two hours early to beat a predicted blizzard, they adjust and make it happen. 

You can’t demand sales. There is no silver bullet, you can’t push buttons, and there are too many variables. To be effective you must both lead and support and it’s a skill set that eludes many managers. Our sales increased when I better understood the conditions our sales reps were operating in and I learned to support instead of scold them. What I thought was “excuses” were conditions and obstacles the reps needed big help with.

Now before you jump to the conclusion that news guys are like that, take a good look in the mirror. Most sales managers got where they are because they were good salesmen not because they had tons of management expertise and experience. Great salespeople are not always good managers. Plus, the qualities that may have created sales stars five or ten years ago are in the trunk of your father’s Oldsmobile. It’s a whole new world, and sales challenges are constantly changing. 

I’ve done triage on battered sales staffs from coast to coast and the common denominator is the weather, the operating environment created by management. Call them lazy, dummies and incompetent (I don’t make this stuff up.) and they’ll begin to believe it. Keep shaking your head in sales meetings and you’ll get a response. The first sign is bowed heads, followed by quiet and most lijely even less production.

Good bosses lead, inspire and support. They should be there to help because good leaders and managers create an atmosphere for success and do everything they can to remove the obstacles. 

Style and execution will be driven by the situation but my first choice of management style is consensus. It’s WE, not YOU or I. You’re in it together and equally invested in the effort. The other side of the coin is the autocrat who demands and drives the staff and I’ve seen very questionable results with that style. When people feel they have participated in the discussion and plan, they’ve got a stake in the results. If reps believe, they sell better.

The good manager is upbeat and positive but not phony. Save the backslapping because any rep worth her or his salt will see right through it. They sell too, remember?

A good manager is close to his staff. Whether that’s a quick conversation on the run or regular weekly sit-downs or call reports, the manager is in touch with their daily activities, problems and victories. His or her door is open and they’re approachable. Asking for help should never be considered a weakness. Smart managers ride with their reps.

A healthy sales department has a team environment and that’s helped in large part with regular and constructive sales meetings. Ask reps to come to each meeting with a success story and see the dynamic that creates.

Good managers need to teach, but few of them do, and this is a common weakness amongst many companies I see. This is also confirmed by surveys I’ve conducted for several professional associations. Only an average of one out of five companies reported they had any training component, including for new hires and my guess was a good portion of them were stretching the truth.

The companies who think an inexperienced rep is ready for prime time after spending a week riding around with other reps will generally reap what they sow. Mother said you only get one chance at a first impression and we all know she was right. If you’re a prospective advertiser how much confidence will you have in a rep that can’t explain the rate card or discuss mechanical requirements? How soon will you be willing to commit thousands of dollars to any program he or she suggests?

I know of a company with a new rep who made 50-60 in-person calls his first few weeks alone but sold only a few ads. A significant number of the accounts were regular advertisers so it puzzled the ad manager. As we questioned the rep the answer became clear. On the majority of those calls he failed to see the decision maker. No one told him he should have an appointment or call ahead to be sure the key person was available. And yes, many of those accounts who wanted to advertise were upset.

Some companies will say they cannot afford training, but I maintain you can’t afford not to train at some level. Because I’m in the business I advocate the high road for professional customized training or seminars sponsored by a trade association. But at the very least companies need to include some element of training on a regular basis. Rotating that assignment amongst members of the sales staff is a good start. You can tap into the individual’s expertise and it can also be a great morale booster for the people involved to be recognized for their skills.

The good manager is also sensitive (but not weak), fair and consistent. The good manager has no pets and treats everyone equally. The smart manager nurtures morale and knows it’s not good to keep changing goals, commission and spiff plans.

The wise manager is one mindful that every word out of his or her mouth will never be forgotten and that everything they say or do or don’t do, contributes to the weather in their department.
Managers, good and bad, reap what they sow.

Next: Why do so many new initiatives and sales projects fail?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Smart sales operations channel business

“The best time to plant a shade tree was 25 years ago.

The next best time is today.”

--Old Chinese proverb

Read that a few times and then think about using it as the quote of the week for your next sales meeting.

That little nugget is the difference between a successful sales department and one that’s stressed and struggling.

Successful reps manage their business, stressed reps react to it. Both types could be working very hard-- the stressed ones maybe even work harder. The difference is results. The smart rep has already planted the tree; the stressed one is looking for a shovel and a place to dig.

The smartest reps I know have created a pipeline of business because they know you lose accounts a whole lot quicker than you can ever sign new ones. That ten year regular could be gone in a heartbeat but it generally takes weeks and months to develop a good new advertiser.

Several years ago Ottaway Newspapers, now Dow Jones Local Media Group, surveyed its community newspaper sales reps about how much of their time they spent reselling existing business versus developing new business. The answer for new business was somewhere between five and 10 percent. I’m betting the five percent was a stretch for some.

Account turnover is inevitable. You know you’re going to lose business. People are going to cut back, drop out of the paper or go out of business. In the old days you might have been lucky with new store openings, but save those stories for your grandchildren.

I’ve seen plenty of companies that churn over 30 percent of their business annually. So if turnover is a given then planning is your insurance.

Business owners aren’t sitting around waiting for the rep to drop by so they can place their order. If they were convinced advertising in your publication was good for them they’d likely already be in it. Sales are a process and it takes time to move people to action. It’s highly unlikely you’ll drop in and walk out with a six-month contract on your first visit.

Done right and in the interests of creating credibility and trust, not to mention creating an advertising program that works, the process takes time. I advocate a three call process that starts with a drop by to make an appointment to conduct a needs analysis at a time convenient for the prospect. Go there in person, it gives you a chance to look over the store and you’re not a stranger for the next meeting.

It might be a week or two before that meeting happens, then a few weeks before another meeting to make a presentation on what you learned in that first meeting. People aren’t quick to go from spending nothing to committing to serious money. They may want time to think about it, or they may want to try a less expensive test to see if the paper works for them. Time passes. One month, two months, maybe more. It takes time and effort to educate them and move them from indifference to conviction.

The channel or pipeline approach understands and compensates for that timeline. It acknowledges that the process takes time. The first appointment may not produce a meeting for several weeks and it may be a month after that before you reach the proposal or decision stage. But the smart rep is out there making appointments and having meetings every week, moving the process along.

If you’re not doing anything like this start off slow. A minimum of two new accounts per week is certainly reasonable. The two appointments will eventually become meetings and then presentations. The key is getting the ball rolling so activity is constantly evolving and replenishing itself.

In a perfect world all of this should happen naturally, but we know it doesn’t. So absent self-motivated and ambitious sales reps, someone needs to make sure it happens right, and to do that you need to track it. Week by week, and step by step to be sure the pipelines get filled with activity.

Success comes with tracking. That dirty word, I know. Tracking means paperwork and just about every sales rep or manager I’ve met In 40 years hates paperwork. I haven’t found any better way to accomplish this, but you can make it pretty simple and painless like the example that accompanies this article.

To make this work, managers need to offer comment and suggestions because the process is useless without it. It’s not busy work or the publisher’s new quirk of the month. It should be the starting point for meaningful conversations about revenue development and that should be in everyone’s best interests and a company goal.

Email if you would like a free example of a good tracking report.

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