Commentary

Sales Isn't Always A Contact Sport

I remember when someone first presented the idea of "flag" football to me. My first thought was, "Why?" If I'm not risking a broken bone -- or, more importantly, striking fear in the hearts of others -- what's the point? Where's the excitement if there's no contact? Similarly, a connection is required to make sales happen. However, that connection does not have to be pre-ordained.

Frequently, you will get the question from recruiters looking to move you to another organization. “So, how good is your contact list?” They may be asking on their own. Typically though, this directive comes from the company for whom they are working. If you get this question, be afraid, be very afraid.

The art of sales, naturally, includes the ability to build relationships. However, a great relationship can only start as a result of representing a great product. The best salesperson in the world can only do so much while trying to sell something that is inferior to its peers, has small distribution, uses outdated technology and/or is of overall poor quality.

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Imagine you have spent the past 10 years working in sales for Pepsi. You know all the decision makers at every food and beverage store in Big City, and you get Pepsi great shelf space in all realistic sales locations. Can you quit Pepsi, take a job with a new flavored, carbonated drink called Wetsi and be a big success all over again simply by showing up? Nopesi.

It is no different in advertising. If relationships are all that matter, do the people at The New York Times suddenly not have any good relationships? The Chief Revenue Officer of that company can get into the office of any Fortune 500 Chief Marketing Officer in the country. Yet, for the first time in its history, circulation revenue has surpassed advertising revenue (and that’s not a great thing). What about all those sales pros at Time, Inc.’s magazines? Their revenue has fallen over 40% in the past decade. Should we assume that they know 40% fewer people now than they did in 2003? Or 40% more people dislike them than they did 10 years ago? Not likely.

So, people, please stop asking prospective sales hires whom they know, how many people they can get to see, and who their closest contacts on the buying side are before you even show them your product. Every time you ask this question, it only reassures the prospect that you think all you need to do for your product or service to be successful is get in front of a decision maker and the revenue will start to flow. And you think that all it takes to get in to to see these important people is for someone to have had a prior relationship with them. 

You might be right on that point. Many sales professionals can get in to see anyone with whom they have had previous successful dealings. But what makes you think your product is something they want to buy? Just because they will see the new Wetsi representative, that bears little correlation to whether or not that product suits the customer's needs.

Asking me if I have the right contacts intimates that you think this selling thing is all so easy. Further, it suggests to me that you think your product will not stand up on its own -- to the point where a new person can’t get an audience with a brand-new contact by representing your product on its own. That is probably the most troubling sign of all.

The folks at Time, Inc. and The New York Times are not having trouble selling advertising because they can’t get in to see the right people. They are in a bind because the product they are selling simply doesn’t have the same cachet of those currently turning the eye of advertising buyers. So, if you’re a salesperson and someone tells you that you need to have deep contacts in the business in order to work for them, reread this. I tried to warn you.

4 comments about "Sales Isn't Always A Contact Sport".
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  1. Olivia Gushin from Rodale, March 7, 2013 at 11:56 a.m.

    Kudos Jason! Very, very salient points! You can know the entire world but if your product is worthwhile the cash register won't ring.

  2. William Hodges from Tiny Circle LLC, March 7, 2013 at 1:37 p.m.

    Thank you for publishing this opinion. I've been saying this for years and it really helps to have someone take the time to put a well thought out, reasoned argument forward for this position. You're 100% right.. that question is the first sign of a poor organization.

  3. Dave Kohl from First In Promotions, March 7, 2013 at 3:31 p.m.

    Great point, Jason!

    There are times that one needs to be ready with the right response. "I asked my most important contacts about (your company) before this interview, but they didn't see their company as being a good fit. But I have some ideas of companies I would contact right away on your behalf."

  4. Scott Alperin from Betanews, Inc., March 7, 2013 at 6:12 p.m.

    There are a lot of smaller publishers with great product, but who struggle to get in the door at agencies. Taking this approach, you'd avoid many growing companies or bigger ones launching new products.

    Basically, you are saying that you only want a job where the hard work is already done AND the product is already proven.

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