Online Sales

The New Normal?

Understanding our business by following the recent headlines about digital publishers is like learning civics by binge-watching cable news.  Yes, there are real issues and struggles. But there is also a fair bit of handwaving, amplification and ginned-up drama.

Yes, it’s awful if your job was eliminated in your company’s recent RIF.  Yes, it sucks if the company’s recent pivot and reorg means you’re now doing a job you don’t like quite as much.  And yes, it’s lousy that your firm has gotten a big haircut in its valuation.

But no, this is not the beginning of the end.

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It will sound simplistic and reductive, but having spent a full quarter of a century in digital media has given me some perspective on our latest crisis of confidence.  And since perspective seems to be in short supply just now, let me share.

Hegemony is Not Forever.  We were once assured that winner in digital advertising was Netscape.  (I’ll pause while you look it up.)  Since then we’ve seen Infoseek, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and others come and go.  Consolidation is a fact of life – it has always been thus – but it’s also cyclical.  The biggest guys dominate everything for a while, and then the smaller, more specialized players make a comeback.

Don’t Think You Know.  Don’t compare your insides to everybody else’s outsides.  As we struggle with our own company’s glitches and limitations, we tend to romanticize the workings and success of others.  Having spent time in the backyards of close to 700 companies over the years, I can tell you that everybody has weeds and brown spots.

It’s About the Marketer, Stupid!  Put away your 2×2 competitive matrix and lose your copy of the latest analyst reports.  Obsessively pouring over The Racing Form won’t make your horse run any faster.  If you’re going to obsess, stay tightly focused on marketers and their immediate business problems.  There are audiences they can’t connect with and stories they can’t tell.  They’re confused and anxious and need your help.  Put your energy on them:  it’s their money.

People Matter.  Sure, great technology might win you some deals and make your company more valuable to investors and acquirers.  But the dirty little secret is that smart people paying attention to a quality process still matter.  A lot. Our customers are working with the lowest headcounts and brain-counts they’ve ever experienced.  Care enough and focus on the right things and you’ll earn far more than a spot on the plan… you’ll become an in-sourced department and you’ll be bulletproof.

Default to Action.   Every one of us has a finite amount of attention and energy.  Spend it worrying about your competitors or watching stock prices and industry headlines and see where it gets you.  Expect nothing…blame no one…do something.  You can’t control the outcome but you can control your own behavior and choices.  And feel great about the work you do…every day.

Face to Face, 2.0.

Sellers in our industry are tasked with explaining detailed technology, benefits and programs, and subsequently persuading the customer to act.  Each believes that — if only I could get the meeting! – he or she could make the case and make the sale.

Maybe.  Except you’re probably not going to get the meeting.  And you’re almost certainly not going to get it in time.

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Consider that clients and buyers have fewer available hours on the calendar and less administrative and staff support than ever before.  They’re looking for fewer face-to-face meetings and can erect barriers to contact more easily than ever before.  And the average client is getting literally dozens of requests for an hour of your time every day.

Some sellers continue to bank on getting that hour in the office.  Others give up altogether and do nothing but transact by email.  But there’s a third option:  the well-planned phone meeting.  Scheduling a call with a tight, focused purpose puts less pressure on the client’s calendar, is more easily scheduled or rescheduled sooner than a face-to-face might be.  For reps who are trying to shorten the sales cycle this means fewer I can’t make the meeting but I’ll see you in 3 months moments.

But there’s also a powerful hidden benefit to the phone:  intimacy.

Structure and execute your phone meeting properly (more on that below) and you can use the phone call and supporting visuals the way a storyteller uses a podcast.  Here’s how.

  • Have Something Clear to Solve For. If the client won’t take a meeting just to be talked at, they’re not going to take a phone call either if that’s all you’ve got.  The incremental audience or enhanced ability to tell a crucial brand story will give your call purpose.
  • Share a Screen. Rather than a complicated video conference, choose instead to be looking at the same slides and images that your customer is.  A common point of reference can be more productive and less awkward for everyone involved.
  • Get to the Point and Keep Your Promises. If you asked for 20 minutes, then get down to business right away.  No glad handing early in the call.  Pace yourself and end on time.
  • Short and Simple. Two or three slides or diagrams is the most you should ever hope to convey in a phone conference.  Make sure they’re about the customer and the opportunity.
  • Ask for What You Want. If you can’t ask a question with a strong verb (recommend, approve, budget, etc.) then you’re not going to move the ball.  By respecting the client’s time and intelligence, you have the right to ask for clarity on where you stand.  Do it.  Listen to the answers and engage around them…that’s where the selling happens.

Don’t think of phone calls as just stepping-stones to in person meetings.  Nor are they something you’re settling for.  They’re a smart, effective tool that can speed up your sales cycle and help you compete in a time-starved world.


The reason your sales calls aren’t turning into sales may have nothing to do with preparation, content, fit or numbers. They might just be too big. Repeat after me:

Small meetings are always better than big meetings.

It’s counterintuitive, but very true. Many of us grew up doing classroom presentations, went on to practice doing the company pitch in front of our peers at sales conferences, and probably dream of someday doing our own TED Talk. So it’s understandable that we crave the spotlight that goes with a crowd. But in reality those presentations are not moving the ball down the field. And they never will.

Small meetings are always better than big meetings.

When you get a group of 3, 4, 5 or more people together in a conference room, the politics get bigger and the opportunities get smaller. People don’t share in large rooms. They are less curious, more guarded, less honest. People don’t surface real objections in a crowd. They may listen to you, but they don’t work with you. Collaboration never gets started. Everyone is polite (well, except those jerk-offs checking email on their phones of course) but no one is truly engaged.

Small meetings are always better than big meetings.

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In workshops with digital sellers, I preach the value of the intimate, collaborative, one-on-one or one-on-two meeting. With the right decision maker of course. You’d be better off having five small meetings on the phone with key customers than ten big lunch-and-learns. In small meeting about the right things, customers lean in, they share, they object, they tell you the truth…and they collaborate. It doesn’t just happen of course…you’ve still got to earn the opportunity and execute it well. If you go in and turn on the lawn sprinkler of PowerPoint and company bullshit, you’ll still get a bad outcome in a small meeting. But if you prepare and plan and focus on doing good things for the client’s business, your meeting will stand out like a candle in the darkness.

Small meetings are always better than big meetings.

Marketing departments, stop cranking out newer and slicker versions of “the company story.” Nobody wants to hear them. Start helping your sellers tell the customer’s story and the heroic role your company can play in it. Sales managers, stop confusing activity with progress. Counting the number of rooms filled with warm bodies is a fool’s errand. Sellers, focus on really deserving the meeting with the CMO or Product Manager or Group VP and you will get more of them.

And for God sake, keep ‘em small. Intimacy is the new power.

This post was first distributed in May 2016.  Rumor has it that there are still too many big meetings taking place.

Yes is the New No.

Nobody says no anymore.  But then again, nobody really has to.

Much of the lore and literature of sales has the seller managing the objection, tenaciously staying in the conversation and turning the no into a yes.  But most sellers today wouldn’t even recognize this kind of mano-a-mano customer interaction.

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First, most buyers effectively use technology to keep the seller at a distance until the time and circumstances of their choosing (like the very last minute when they need you to quote a price).  They hide behind RFPs, email, voicemail and other means of high tech cloaking.  If this was combat, the buyer would be operating a drone, far from the battlefield.  Most sellers have rather mildly accepted the terms of this new relationship and are paying the price for it now.

But even when they do get face-to-face or voice-to-voice time with the customer, sellers end up taking no for an answer … because the no sounds like a yes.

This is really exciting stuff.  We look forward to working with you guysTranslation:  I say this to everybody.  It’s a lot easier than arguing over merits or suitability. And you probably won’t ask too many questions. No one does.

We’re getting budget and direction soon and we’ll make sure you get the RFP.  Translation:  Sure, we’d send an RFP to a ham sandwich.  It doesn’t even cost us a stamp.  Knock yourself out slugger. You’ll never know if we’ve never read it.  In the meantime, ignorance is bliss.

Be sure and see my agency with this.  Translation:  If it was really something I cared about, I’d stay with the deal.  Let them be the bad guys.  There’s zero upside in me rejecting you directly.  I might need you someday.

Let’s get a master services agreement in place. Translation:  That should keep you occupied for a while. We pass out MSAs like free thumb drives. I’m not going to bother telling you that it won’t move a single dollar and that the hard work is all still ahead and it’s all on you.

Will you send me a proposal on this?  Translation: This is the 21st century version of ‘send me your media kit’ and ‘I’ll keep your information on file.’  I’ll ignore it later.

There’s zero upside for any customer to communicate a negative outcome.  At best, they’re inviting an argument and at worst they’re causing their team more work.  You’ve got to ask and then ask again.  You’ve got to stay in the conversation just as it’s starting to get uncomfortable.

Yes is the new no.  And you can’t take yes for an answer.


The Interview That Doesn’t Suck.

If human talent is the killer app in our industry, why do we suck so badly at attracting, evaluating and retaining the best people?  And how does a flawed candidate manage to slip through the interviewing gauntlet that you and the rest of your management and HR team have set up?  Clearly these are huge topics worthy of books, not blog posts.  But I’ve never met a topic that I couldn’t try to oversimplify, so here goes:

Your interviewing process is misguided, your execution is awful and you’re focusing on all the wrong things.  But please, let me elaborate…

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Interviews are Not about Fact-finding:  Make your minimum standards on skills and experience clear to your HR team or recruiter.  Then leave the candidate’s resume in your desk.  Too many interviews end up being about the facts on the page (“…so you worked at AOL?”)  You’re wasting a lot of time confirming data points, which could be better spent on higher order discussion.

Focus Instead on Understanding the Candidate’s Process:

  • Tell me about an important deal or achievement at your last company:  what would not have happened if you hadn’t been part of it?
  • Tell me about the last time you had to deliver really bad news to a customer:  how did you handle it and where did things end up?
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to manage conflict with someone in your organization:  were you able to turn the situation around?

Seek Beliefs and Core Values:  The best hires and most-durable employee relationships are always built on the overlap between what a candidate believes and what the company stands for.  But we learn very little about what our candidates truly believe because we don’t ask.

  • Tell me something you believe in very strongly that’s not about religion or family.
  • Looking out at the next 10-15 years of our industry, what’s a trend or behavior that you’d bet your career on?

Stop Acting Like Lawyers:  (Please no hate mail from the Bar Association.) If you ask a dozen lawyers to review a document or agreement, each will find something to disagree with or object to.  Likewise, if you subject your candidate to a dozen different interviewers, each will only feel valid or whole if he or she finds a flaw.  First cut down on the number of interviewers; after a certain number, the evaluation doesn’t get bigger, it gets worse.  Second, make it OK for other interviewers to say “neutral” or “nothing to add.”

This is Not a Democracy:  Try to get everyone to agree on a candidate and you’ll end up with a very safe, very vanilla, compromise candidate.  No edge, nothing strong, nothing special.  Agree ahead of time who “owns” the hire and who he/she should truly consult with. (Hint:  who will be economically dependent or physically close to the new hire?)

Listen for Intent:  There’s one more thing we also fail to ask potential hires:  Do you want to work here?  Of course it’s probably not smart to signal your own intent to hire this person, but you can certainly find out whether they’re really into you – of if you’re just “one of their safety schools.”

  • We’re not there yet, but if it all came together tomorrow and the package and responsibility lined up, would you jump at the chance to work here?

Notice that this is the only “yes or no” question I’ve suggested.

I’ll be eager to hear how your next interview goes.  Happy hiring.

This post originally ran in 2014.  Unfortunately too many interviews still suck.