Woe The Digital Sale: I Can Hear You Calling, But...

Question from the mailbag: I sell ads for a blog network. We're fairly well known but there a re a lot of us out there, for sure. I call on agency and client media people. And when I say "I call," I mean I dial and the phone rings, but I don't get many connections. Email works, but a conversation would help too. Is it just me, or does everyone have problems with live phone conversations?
Jason says:

I am perplexed by phone messages that say, "If you have a rotary-dial phone, please stay on the line...." Does ANYONE have a rotary-dial phone in this country? And if they do, don't they just ride their horse and carriage to get whatever they need from the five and dime? I am afraid that getting "ear" time with a prospective client is an ever-increasing anomaly -- like rotary phones.

In fact, just last week, I was discussing a product with a former agency person, who said to me, "I would probably listen to this [if someone were to call and pitch it], but since I don't answer my phone, I'd just go online to see it." She said it so nonchalantly that it gave me an idea of just how de rigueur this habit is in the agency community.



Although it shouldn't really surprise me by, now since I have been on the other side so many times: Dial the phone, expect to get a voice mail, instead hear a live voice, and it is not an assistant! Maybe it's just a really realistic-sounding recording. Nope. It is the elusive media buyer herself on the phone, and now it's GO time. You adjust your headset, announce yourself as media salesperson X, and before you get your next line out, you hear the "sigh" on the other end. More often than not, she only picked up the phone because the caller ID looked similar to a friend of hers. Or she thought it was the deli calling to confirm the delivery address for her lunch order.

Whichever the case, she certainly did not want to speak to YOU. So now what? Resist the temptation to pretend that you are, in fact, calling from the deli. My best recommendation for you is to ask permission first: "Hi, Ms. Media Buyer. This is Media Seller from Company X. Do you have a few minutes now, as I would like to talk about a product I think would be great for you, or should I call back at a better time?"

Yes. You heard me. I suggest that you be willing to get off the phone right away. Why? Primarily, it is polite, and secondarily, if you just roll right into your elevator pitch, the person will most likely be annoyed, not listening, or both. If she tells you to call back later, ask for a good time. Even if you never connect again, you have cast yourself and your company in a positive light. Nobody wants to be known as that irritating guy from the deli.

Speaking of headsets, I would bet that the ratio of headset use in our industry is 25 to 1, sellers over buyers. Sellers use them when they sit down at the desk for that ever-present one-hour power session of rapid-fire dialing for dollars.

So Amy, what do you think? Ever see a headset in an ad agency?

Amy says:

Actually, the supply room doesn't carry headsets, it's a special order, which your supervisor has to approve -- so no, agency folks don't have headsets.  But even if we did, we would only use them for outgoing calls. 

Caller ID is definitely an agency buyer's best friend, and no one ever does pick up the phone.  Mostly because the phone rings constantly, and at least half the time it's someone from whatever new site or ad network just happened to launch that week.  This phone problem is one of the biggest complaints I hear in the industry from both sides, so let me share some of my thoughts on the subject.

As someone who has led many digital teams, this is a very tough issue.  I know that it is not good business to ignore phone calls, not return calls, or even just leave voicemail full for all eternity.  I have tried to impress upon buyers that their own reputations can be tarnished by not calling people back.  I have tried to tell them that business courtesy dictates a return call, or at least an email to complete the transaction in a socially respectable way.  Mostly this is to no avail, a situation caused , I think, by a number of reasons within the mind of the buyer, some more valid than others:

Buyers receive such a volume of calls that they could never keep up even if they tried.  I'm not sure about this one, though, as they have no trouble keeping up with their buddy lists and instant message throughput.

Buyers already know whom they need to be doing business with.  Being overly selective about whom they call back means they are serving their client's needs.  This is debatable, because the next big thing could be the answer the client is actually looking for; plus, buyers should be always trying to learn new things.

Buyers are not phone users.  A desk phone is an unnecessary and unpleasant, antiquated piece of technology for which they have no use.  This is closest to reality, I think.  Buyers aren't using the phone to talk to their friends and family, they are text-messaging and Facebook-chatting and sending status updates.  So the big issue may be that phones are falling out of favor as the communication channel of choice for most buyers.

I agree with you that getting off the phone is the right thing to do for a seller.  But what is the next step in doing business?  Email is the next best thing, and you have to follow the best CRM strategies regarding subject lines to get a response.  Or you need to work your network to see about getting in via instant message or Facebook.

Once you get to know someone, they may talk to you on the phone, but only if they really need something.  This dynamic of phone calls not working is not going to get better, it's going to get worse.  We need to rethink communication in general to solve this one.  Just give me a call if you want to hear more. :)

6 comments about "Woe The Digital Sale: I Can Hear You Calling, But...".
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  1. Adam Day, February 11, 2010 at 3:02 p.m.

    When I started in advertising and sales, I used a rotary dial phone and was happy to move over to an ATT push button phone and headset. The problem today with communication is that the more opportunities to connect the more disconnected we have become. The decision and communication process is being left to lesser experienced individuals who are not in a position to decide. I ask myself when calling on companies, "does anyone work at these companies?" if is hard for a sales person to get through, its hard for a customer to get through. Mix it up and call multiple departments within the organization and use the web to get names of people that are in a position to make a decision.

  2. Sarah Zielie, February 11, 2010 at 3:33 p.m.

    I've been a media buyer for 7 years, 3.5 of which have been focused on the digital space. With hundreds of publishers, rep firms, portals, services, rich media vendors and vertical networks knocking down our doors, the volume of cold calls and emails is overwhelming.

    I am one that does not answer my phone, but I do prompt the caller to email me with information. I file these emails away for when I have a free hour (which may be a month later) but always give them some time to read the material and respond. If I see a fit with a client I try and set up a call.

    The phone is not extinct. It should be used to get into a conversation that can't be done efficiently through email. We simply don't have time to treat it as otherwise AND get back to everyone who calls.

  3. Kathleen Krantz from Bolin Marketing, February 11, 2010 at 4:05 p.m.

    I'm the only digital media person in my office. If I answered my phone and returned all my calls, I'd never get any work done. I totally agree that we should always be learning new things...but more often than not the call is not about something new.

  4. Diane Politi from Reel Centric, February 11, 2010 at 4:09 p.m.

    In my sales career I've called on all types of decision-makers from media buyers at agencies to clients directly. I agree with Adam when he says "the more disconnected we have become". It's more challenging than ever to get the opportunity to talk to the person you need to reach in order to succeed. Email v phone is not necessarily the answer either because we all receive more email everyday than we can possibly respond to properly. In fact, maybe if we weren't reading our email, texting and updating our Facebook page, we would have more time to answer our phone and really talk to people. Just a thought....

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 11, 2010 at 5:37 p.m.

    It's not just phone calls that are ignored. Sure there are volumes of offers on the table for clients. Many are not even on the remotely on the radar, but a buyer never knows what they may need for that client or another the next day. There are massive doses of disrespect here which begin before the buying experience began. That does not get agencies off the hook. Either they hire the staff needed, pare down what they think they do and charge clients accordingly. If the buyer does not explore ALL of the possibilities offered, even when just a short explanation of a no thank you, is required to do the job they are getting paid to do.

  6. Britta Meyer from Loomia, February 11, 2010 at 8:13 p.m.

    Being on the receiving end of sales calls a lot, and at the same time building a business that is based on direct sales, certainly has me thinking about this very problem and the role of the phone in sales efforts.

    Do I always answer? No. Not if I can avoid being "caught" by somebody who doesn't fit in my tightly packed schedule, interrupts me and takes up my time and patience. Why? Because it's such an intrusion and it's hard to get out of. If the offer is also irrelevant and the sales person obviously didn't research us, it's simply annoying. Have I thought about just hanging up or faking technical issues? Shamefully I admit I have. Retrieving messages? Too much effort. Writing down details and numbers and returning the call? God, no! And I consider myself to be friendly, professional and courteous.

    So, when it comes to reaching out, I'll try to avoid the pain of all of the above. First of all, being very targeted and doing the research helps. I want to make sure I know the company I'm calling and the person I'm trying to reach. Have they just won/lost a major account, received funding, had layoffs...? Then use the information wisely, to qualify a target and to personalize the message. As with any 1:1 communication, personalization works, mass messaging won't.

    Lastly, respect where the call fits in the communications chain. It is a very personal medium, just short of an in-person meeting. Especially since the emergence of the social web, there may be more appropriate channels to start and foster a relationship before the call. Joining LinkedIn groups, engaging on Twitter or Facebook, and good ol' networking in a digital world may actually do the hard work for you. Get to know your contacts, gauge their interest and readiness. In the end, when we can reduce our calls to those we know are wanted, that's when the phone will be an effective sales channel again.

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