Why advertising telesales needs to get smarter

September 2010

In over 35 years of being involved in marketing and with 9 of these in my own business, I’ve had very little to do with advertising in local and regional consumer press. Yes there have been a few things for a few clients, but nothing which brought me regularly into contact with the ever-eager telesales person hell-bent on selling page space and whatever it takes to do so.

Then four weeks ago I acquired a new client based close to where I live, who, amongst other major business assets, owns an interesting, major and exciting tourist attraction which also draws in crowds from the resident population, and for a good distance from it – in fact from 30 miles or more and largely on the strength of its very good restaurant and shop. Just over a week into the contract, I suggested to the finance manager (who’d been holding the fort on the advertising since the tourist attraction’s manager had departed a few months before) that I took over the control of the advertising along with the work I was already doing to pull together a brand and marketing strategy. On reflection my offer didn’t seem to take much selling (even to this well-seasoned trained accountant), and it was probably only on day three of my new-found responsibility that I realised just why this was: ten ‘phone calls a day and even more emails to sell me advertising (well, my client advertising) and the vast majority of it pointless and without a sound commercial foundation.

So after several weeks but with no regrets for making my offer to take the job on and largely because I’ve already saved my client many thousands of pounds in expenditure by cancelling nonsensical advertising, it’s time to take the world of advertising telesales – at least for local and regional consumer press – to task.

Okay let’s have some broad and sweeping statements about how these people work: they prey on the stupid; they prey on the naïve; and they prey on the business manager, or even owner, with more money than sense. Don’t believe me? Go and buy a copy of your local or regional newspaper and you’ll find the content littered with ads which make no commercial sense to be in there in the first place. And because the telesales person targets people in business with little or no marketing knowledge (typically sales people themselves and who therefore rarely get even the basic concept of marketing beyond a simple brochure, or ‘brand’ beyond a logo), they don’t have to understand marketing themselves. And their ignorance of even basic marketing is simply staggering, and actually seems irrelevant to them – despite the fact they’re selling, in advertising, an often fundamental marketing tool. No, it’s just about getting a sale and regardless of whether it’s in the business customer’s interest, or indeed in the interest of their paying readership. Let me give you some examples…

Telesales person proposes that I spend many thousands of pounds on advertising an event for the tourist attraction which I know will be over-subscribed anyway – all I need to do is announce it and the crowds will come (yes, a nice position to be in but that’s the strength of this particular attraction). I say I want to spend a fraction of that and her response: “Is there a particular reason why you don’t want to spend the allocated budget?” (The ‘allocated budget’ having been agreed with the now-departed manager with apparently little or no marketing knowledge.) “Yes there is” I replied “It’s because it makes no commercial sense to do so and my announcement for the event will largely be made on radio, with my (smaller) press ad with you giving some useful detail.” Then follows a scathing attack on radio as an advertising medium (well, ‘advertising medium’ weren’t her words, more “I never listen to the radio on my way to work…” and my attempts to explain the benefits of an ‘integrated campaign with each media and channel having its role to play’ might well as been uttered from my mouth in Swahili for all the understanding it received.

But it gets worse: a telesales person from the same publisher, but different title, also tried to sell me space and when I questioned whether she thought the readership of her tabloid title aligned itself with the customer profile of my client’s paying customer, I was again confronted with a silence which could only mean I was talking in the same, or possibly another, rarely heard African language. So, and given the basically decent sole I am, I took time to explain the rudimentary rules of socio-economic groups to her (well, okay, I was having some sport now…). “Do you have any data on that?” I politely asked. And “If you can send me some data on how your readership aligns itself with our target customer then I’d happily consider advertising with you.” (Knowing full-well I wouldn’t because to do so would be like taking a full page in The Sun for a 75K Jaguar XK.) “I’ll speak to my manager and get back to you” she nervously told me. And I don’t doubt she did just that, but the problem is that her manager would also have been a sales person and with no more knowledge of basic marketing than she had – probably just a bit more cocky, pushy and confident. She didn’t, of course, come back to me, but I don’t doubt that won’t stop her giving me another call next week with the same ‘read off a script’ bollocks about the great discount I can have for a half page in next week’s paper and how great this is going to be for the profile of my client. Try a proper thought-through business case, Luv, and I just might take the time to listen and consider it.

So now I’ve got that off my chest – and I kid you not that the vast majority of local or regional press telesales people I’ve had contact with in the last few weeks are like this to a lesser or greater extent – there are some very serious points to be made here: First up would be that the world of marketing has changed forever and a telesales person needs to grasp that as much as their clients do (and, ideally, both at the same time). Secondly, would be that whilst it must be tempting to fleece the uniformed client of every penny they have in their marketing budget for an ad which makes no commercial sense, taking a more professional view for the sake of a longer term relationship and keeping the client in business, might actually be a better approach. Thirdly, when someone tells you that they’ve been in marketing for 35 years, then accept they might just know a tad more about advertising than you do.

Rant over.

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