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How to Hire a Good Ad Salesperson

Posted on Friday, October 30, 2015 at 5:21 PM

Q&A: What to look for when interviewing potential sales staff.

By William Dunkerley

Q. I'm going to hire an additional ad salesperson soon. We're a monthly magazine in a special interest consumer field. The ad department now has two people. There's a longtime employee who does the sales. She started out in the editorial department. But three years ago when our sales rep left, she asked if she could move over to the ad department. That's worked out fairly well, but she's not as productive as the last guy. I think an additional salesperson could bring in enough sales for the hiring to be worth it. The second person now in the department is an assistant who handles the administrative end of things. My only reservation about hiring a new salesperson is how to find someone who will be really effective. Do you have any tips?

A. Some people believe that certain personality types are ideal for sales work. The stereotype is the gregarious, back-slapping guy with the gift of gab. Someone who could sell anyone, even if the prospect isn't out to buy anything.

My experience in hiring and training sales staff tells me that this kind of person can indeed be very effective. But this isn't the only kind of person you should consider. For instance, your current salesperson moved into the job from editorial. That background gave her a lot of knowledge of the field you're publishing in, and that probably contributed to her level of success, even if she isn't a back-slapper.

Many publishers look for applicants who already have a lot of good sales experience. That can be helpful. But it can also be a disadvantage. Highly successful ad salesmanship requires an understanding of a complex process. Basically, it is probing to find out the business needs of the prospect and then convincing the prospect that those needs can be best achieved by advertising in your publication.

That may sound simple. But I've seen a lot of people who just don't get it. And most of them have been new hires with a sales background. Common sense would say that an experienced salesperson will be more successful than a newbie who must be trained from the ground up. The flaw in the expectation is that there are a lot of salespeople -- even ones with magazine experience -- who have learned bad habits. Ultimately, those bad habits limit their sales effectiveness. And trying to extinguish those bad habits can be a more difficult task than training someone from scratch.

There are a few things that I've found to be universally valuable qualities in a new ad salesperson. These are attributes that I've found to correlate closely with high productivity.

The first is intelligence. This one is probably more important than any other predictor of success. In fact, it is so important that I suggest you not simply make an off-the-cuff judgment about an applicant's intelligence. I suggest that you actually administer an objective test. There is a variety of relatively simple IQ assessment instruments available. Pick one and use it.

The second attribute is the person's level of energy and work ethic. I don't know of an objective measurement tool for this one. So when you talk with the applicant's references, try to get their sense of the candidate's energy level and work ethic. Don't ask outright about these qualities. Instead solicit descriptions of how the person went about his or her job, asking probing questions to ferret out the information you're looking for.

And the third consideration is how well the applicant can tolerate rejection. Ad salespeople experience a lot of rejection in their work. If they are doing a good job of prospecting, they'll be communicating with far more people who reject their overtures than ones who are ready to buy.

How can you assess the ability to tolerate rejection? I suggest two things. Observe the applicant's overall demeanor. Does she have a steady, upbeat style? The most telling test, however, is a role play. Describe a hypothetical advertising prospect to the applicant. Then you play the role of the advertiser and let the applicant try to sell you. In the course of the presentation, react with rejection. Try to really stress out the applicant. Does he get flustered or angry? Does he give up easily? Or does he persist in the presentation and remain upbeat? Those are the qualities that will pay off for you: persistence, cheerfulness, and optimism in the face of rejection.

Good luck with your hiring process. It is always far better to invest the time to thoroughly evaluate your candidates than to make a wrong choice and end up wasting untold time in trying to make a success of someone who lacks the potential.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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