What Makes A Great Salesperson In The Automated Age?

More than a few of you cheered when I pointed out last February that automated media bidding and buying would not eliminate the need for salespeople any more than the advent of computer traded financial products eliminated the need for stock brokers. 

But did you think about the implications for sales management and sales skills in a world where the advertiser doesn't have to call you to get a price quote?  Are the skills salespeople need or sales management should hire for, or develop in their sales team, different than they used to be?  It is easy to say salespeople need to "add value" in the process, but what does that mean? And what skills does it take in the sales process for the buyer to perceive, and to receive, this added value?

I can't count the number of conferences I went to this past year where buy-side panelists said some version of "we want partners who know our business."  What are the skills or characteristics we can seek or teach to salespeople that make them good "partners" in the media decision-making process?   And is it only a "media" decision these days, or are "partners" invited to suggest new ways to execute creative through crowd-sourced  and media-specific creative that may be developed outside the traditional agency scenario?



In the new media sales environment what skills should salespeople be concentrating on?  And what training or resources for sales should management be investing in?

Recently Jason Krebs wrote here about how he looks for sales talent over experience because it is "more difficult to accumulate meaningful experience" in an industry that changes so fast, adding that he likes to hire "great businesspeople with the relevant industry expertise."  OK, fine. But what is it that makes some salespeople great?  Krebs mentions the ability to enjoy a job where you "rarely get a phone call or email returned, and you barely receive feedback when you don't make the plan."  So a certain amount of TOUGHNESS and self-confidence to keep working despite rejection might be a key factor.

Inc. magazine says that one key attribute of successful salespeoplle is that they are "happy losers": executives who can remain upbeat like baseball players in the face of swinging and missing over and over.  Happy losers see rejection as the start of the process, not the end.  And they celebrate their victories since they represent overcoming the odds, or the resistance.

Jay Lauf, publisher of The Atlantic, a recent online success story, wrote that he has hired many women because he has seen more "caring" from women he's interviewed.  He believes caring about clients is a key attribute in a relationship-driven business.  But does caring really matter if salespeople can't translate their empathy into a sale?  And what other skill or motivation does that take?

Others would say that in a world where salespeople are told the parameters of what to propose through a Request-For-Proposal, the key sales attribute is creativity: the ability to package and repackage essentially the same thing or few media elements differently, in appealing new ways.  Is it all about repackaging a more or less standard group of alternatives into an original sounding solution when answering an RFP?  Can media be successful simply striving for a high RFP flow with a low success rate?

But what if the RFP is written to favor a competitor, or a completely different media category?  Isn't the salesperson's job to try to influence the parameters of the RFP before it is finalized? 

And where does creativity spring from? 

Some would say that valuable creativity springs from insight: original thinking that contributes to understanding.  Can media salespeople bring insight to clients and agencies through their knowledge of their markets and the potential customers in their markets that will add value to the sales process?  Can sales reps learn enough about how to use research, or even create simple research, to help buyers view the market in a new (and more favorable?) way that adds value to the client and increases sales?

Persistence?  Caring?  Creativity?  Insight?  What is most important?  Or is it something else? What about old-fashioned sales skills like cold-calling, engaging, persuading, relationship building and closing? Tell us what you think is most important on the comments board! 

8 comments about "What Makes A Great Salesperson In The Automated Age?".
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  1. Kate Lafrance from Hartford Woman Online Magazine, August 5, 2010 at 12:54 p.m.

    This is a very good article and everyone in media needs to read it. I recently put together a contact list for a client and was surprised that their main interest was in obtaining emails - I got them telephone numbers - because, in my experience, the "old fashioned" skills (cold-calling, engaging, persuading, relationship building) still close the sale and make for additional buys more often than the "click here to pay" does.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 5, 2010 at 1:50 p.m.

    In answer to your questions, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. In answer to your other questions, see the questions with the answers of yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

  3. Dana Todd from SRVR LLC, August 5, 2010 at 2 p.m.

    I had to chuckle a bit at this article...stirred up a bunch of internal commentary on this business of what people want/what they get.

    From my internal commentary, re: the quote "...we want partners who know our business..."

    My opinion is that this statement is a combination of two emotional dialogues in client brains - 1. "please do my work for me" (clients are busy, they expect their agencies and vendors to provide the creativity they don't set aside time to foster); and 2. "most salespeople are idiots and don't add value to the process - and don't do my work for me but rather add work because I have to second guess their recos" (a lot of media reps are young and don't actually have experience in any business but media sales, so they really can't provide a business or creative framework for buying their product).

    I have been on both sides of the purchase, and I find this situation to be pretty universal sentiment. I'd improve it by hiring people who care, as you say, but also specifically look for "problem solver" personalities who more closely resemble account managers than salespeople. I actually believe you can train an AE to sell more easily than you can teach a salesperson to be a creative problem solver. They're totally different personality types, but once you teach a talented account manager or problem-solver to feel comfortable with money, setting goals, asking for sales, prioritizing closes, etc. they'll be your biggest producers in the long run and will provide more retention of the customers you paid to acquire in the first place.

  4. Diane Politi from Reel Centric, August 5, 2010 at 2:46 p.m.

    "We want partners that know our business" can be a double-edged sword. In my early days in sales, I had my !%*@ handed to me for having the audacity to act like I knew their business! Be careful with this one.

    I've been in sales, sales management and sales training roles for the last 25+ years, and yes, I've still managed to survive in the automoted age.

    Here's my list of key success factors, in no particular order:

    Don't wait for the phone to ring, or the RFP to come to your in box. Be proactive. If you have a new idea, or a new product, get out there and tell people about it. I think there are a lot of "order-takers" masquerading as salespeople. Heck, I've worked with a lot of them over the years. But, the most successful salespeople are always talking to customers and prospects to identify new needs they can fill.

    This takes a lot of initiative, too. But, it pays off. People are busy, especially buyers. And they are inundated with the solicitations. Keep your name and your product in front of them.

    Always under-promise and over-deliver. Your word is your bond, so don't exagerate or use smoke and mirrors. If you want to build trust, always do what you say you will do, and when you say you will do it. Identify and meet needs, don't sell per se.

    Outstanding Customer Service
    Did you ever buy something then need help? Couldn't get it? Got the runaround? Never, ever do this to your customers. Always ask what you can do to help. Return phone calls and emails in a timely fashion. Anticpate needs. Will they need reports? Feedback?

    Match benefits to needs. Think about the goals that the client has set, then develop a plan that meets those needs. PS. Be able to demonstrate this value, and then make sure you ask for the business/close.

    Obviously, there are many attributes that make a salesperson great, but these are at the top of my list.

  5. Rick Biros, August 5, 2010 at 3:44 p.m.

    Very good article. What's important? All of it! Persistence, caring, creativity,insight, cold-calling, engaging, persuading, relationship building and closing. They are all important and none really can work without the other attributes. This, coming from a proud member of the happy losers club! :-)

  6. Rich Benci from Benci Consulting, LLC, August 5, 2010 at 6:05 p.m.

    The key to a great sales person is the ability to build a relationship over time to create value. Most times -- no matter how great the rep is or the offering -- you need to start by first getting a small order to prove yourself and your company's offering. Then over-deliver, use the results to find out what else the client desires, then add to the initial order. By doing this over a period of time (I found it takes 18 - 24 months in the media world) a great sales person can grow a $25k 3-month buy into a 7-figure annual account.

    Unfortunately, most sales reps never learn how to build that business and constantly do the safe thing by just staying within the constraints of the RFP ... and forever stay in the $25k, 3-month buy cycle. That's the difference between being just a sales rep and being a great account executive.

  7. Wendy Hidenrick from AwesomenessTV, August 6, 2010 at 8:49 a.m.

    I think it's important to ask these types of questions, and ponder the answers, which I admit could only be subjective opinion. But I would have preferred some succinct opinions from the author instead of a large list of questions. The examples helped somewhat.

  8. Christopher O'Hara from Krux, August 6, 2010 at 9:50 a.m.

    Today's media salespeople are depended upon to be the MOST creative and dynamic people in the entire media process. 90% of the digital media plans in the space are authored by smart sales directors and packaged by agency media personnel with little experience. Not only does a great salesperson have to deal with a lot of rejection, but must also be a great communicator, presenter, media planner, account manager, and (often) analyst. I guess I am a little biased, but this is one of the best articles I have read in a long time.

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