Sales, marketing, stability and change: How do we connect the dots?

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trust jumpIn a recent posting, I observed how the most effective salespeople conduct themselves in a manner that (at first) seems to defy logic. They succeed by “not” selling — focusing instead on delivering value and connections, contributing to worthy causes and supporting relevant associations (without worrying about “return on investment’).

Yet, experience has taught me this is only part of the story. And it is this unsolved puzzle that is still challenging my goal of building a truly successful and successful larger business.

First, the basics. We have systems for hiring and developing sales reps. The hiring systems are reasonably robust. All new sales representatives are asked to prove themselves with a very short-cycle sales success for which we provide compensation regardless of results. (If they don’t succeed, we pay them for the few days, and say goodbye.) We also use a proprietary sales aptitude test. The test we use has an unlimited license for our own use, but we cannot share it with others. Previously we used salestestonline.com. This service is much less expensive than some of the other (very expensive) commercial profiles on the market. We’ve cross-tested the test we currently use and salestestonline.com and both appear reasonably valid.

However, despite these systems, our “sticking rate” — that is, our true sales retention and results level — isn’t as high as it should be. If we choose to think of sales as the business lifeblood and future, then our failure to grow our sales team effectively could be an explanation of why the business hasn’t grown.

Alas, just saying “if only we could find a few more great sales reps” has some of the same characteristics of the posting where I described how poor sales people think they can solve their problems by making just a few more calls. In any case, if we wish to ascribe this marketing-focus and allow truly long-term relationship-building before a representative makes even a single sale, our business would need to visit the bankruptcy trustee soon (or the sales representatives would need to be truly strange people, willing to live for several years and incur great personal expense, for no immediate selfish return.)

On top of this, I need to overlay other challenges. The publishing industry is changing. In an era with increasingly diverse (and inexpensive) advertising options, is there likely to be growth in the years ahead? We’ve seen how some traditional and even “new” businesses have risen, then crashed, including printed (and then paid online) encyclopedias and video rental stores.

In the late 1990s, we discovered what seemed to be (and still largely is) the magic bullet to thrive — selling ads through relationships, and designing the program so upstream suppliers support the advertisers’ marketing costs.

This crafty model bases its success on how money flows and how clients can exert influence on their suppliers much more effectively than suppliers can “change” clients. We started publishing editorial profiles, and obtaining supplier lists from the profiled companies.

This concept worked wonderfully at first. Alas, scuzzy competitors started exploiting the same idea, and (worse) we failed to truly see the need for underlying community service, relationships and value generation. We survived the near-death experience in the middle part of the last decade, and now have a reasonably solid base of satisfied clients, who sustain the business.

However, when we seek to enter new markets, we face the challenge that the bad competitors have been there before and thus, the marketplace rejects the idea of publishing special advertising-supported features, especially if a new sales rep seeks to push the idea. So we have the vicious circle — sales reps can’t make enough money, or get increasingly desperate to find some business, and fail before they can build the trust, relationships, and marketing power that we have proven to be successful in our established markets.

I realize I am showing my warts here and describing a problem that our business hasn’t been able to solve yet. My frustration is tempered by recollections at meetings of outwardly successful business leaders who, safely out of public sight and among their peers, let down their hair and (all) said their greatest single unsolved challenge is finding, recruiting and retaining great sales people.  Maybe, of course, we are all asking the wrong question. Again, I wish I knew the answer.

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