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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Selling: Defining business practices

In looking back on the list of mistakes I made over the past few years, clearly one of the biggest proved to be allowing this company's previous strong salespeople to define our business practices. The sales leaders were certainly effective in bringing in the business, but I allowed the business direction to be determined by their values -- forgetting, to my great cost, the damaging impact that "effective selling" can have on how the marketplace perceives our business, and the quality of long-term relationships.
The reason: Each of the salespeople used their skills to achieve a primary goal -- selling advertising, largely through advertorial features, which continue to be this company's main source of revenue. Properly done, these features indeed reflect and represent real value for everyone involved -- and they are proving sustainable even as advertising shifts from print to online media. The reason is that the features can cement relations and assist the market development of successful businesses.
Fair enough; this stuff works, but how are we seen in the marketplace? Here we paid a big price in product quality and market acceptance by forgetting the larger picture of where we stand in the community.
My number one Canadian salesperson, for example, effectively 'connected' and convinced people to do business with her. She did virtually everything over the phone; even though she worked from the Ottawa office, she never went to local industry events, social functions, or simply gave 'face time' to her clients and the community-at-large. This proved to be the editor's responsibility. And when I began cutting costs, and my editor (wishing to maintain his freelance income) cut his 'face time' with the clients, things went from bad to worse. We began being seen as money-grabbing greedy people, simply taking what we can from the marketplace.
A somewhat similar dynamic operated in the U.S. I remember great efforts to 'court' a local construction trade group with the hope we could make some money through an advertising feature with their consent. When the idea died at the association's board table, my local staff just picked up and moved on -- not realizing the golden opportunity to forget the 'take' and emphasise the 'give'. They needed to bring in the sales, the features, the cash, and this soft time consuming committee work wouldn't get them very far!
I certainly don't blame my former salespeople for these errors -- responsibility, always, rests with me. Pushing for good current numbers, coupled with my philosophy of allowing much freedom and independence to employees, I didn't correct the issues -- in fact, I grew lazy myself. "I don't need to attend these meeting because either my staff will be there or we can pick up the information later by phone," I said. And so relationships eroded, people felt left out, and (I discovered later) long-established high quality connections were dissipating in an environment of acrimony and frustration.
In the past year, as working editor as well as publisher in our much smaller market, I've been able to get closer to the clients and correct things. In fact, I now see how important it is to spend time, money and resources on activities that have nothing to do with bringing in cash. Our brand image, for want of a better word, is improving rapidly. Notably, it is also resulting in new and profitable sales from markets we had previously thought as 'mature'.

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