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10 painfully common mistakes that salespeople make

10 painfully common mistakes that salespeople make Andrew Ettinger

If media buying is the cross-section between art and science, then selling advertising must be an art unto itself. Having to deal with media buyers like me, salespeople do not have it easy. As a rule, media buyers are an exacting lot.

Throughout my career, I have worked with all types of salespeople, from the eager novices to the expert old-timers. Based on that experience, this article explores 10 of the most common mistakes that sellers make. These are not necessarily the most egregious errors -- just the most common.

10 painfully common mistakes that salespeople make

My goal here is to enlighten and help, rather than to merely cast aspersions. To be fair, media buyers are not exempt from many common mistakes too. Therefore, I will address 10 of those in another article next month. (I promise to give equal shrift to my common errors too.)

But back to the task at hand. Let's get started on the most common salesperson blunders.

Selling meetings, not media

Too often salespeople concentrate so much on setting up a meeting that they lose focus on selling me media. They push and prod to meet with me so that they can then talk about their products. They are so focused on getting a meeting that they actually stop pitching their wares. This is a huge mistake.

A 60-second elevator pitch conveys the most important points about a company and ignites a spark of interest. This is more important than a meeting. It can be done via phone call, email, or even a carefully constructed mailer. So many people mistakenly prioritize meetings over pitching.

With literally hundreds of vendors out there, I could spend 40 hours a week just meeting with new salespeople, not to mention current vendors. Moreover, while meetings are nice, they are not a necessity. Sometimes a media kit will suffice to move to the next phase of the sales process.

As my colleague Dan says, focus on what really matters. Sure, meetings are nice, but they are not a requirement for me to buy media. Don't sell meetings -- sell media.

Showing up and throwing up

Great meetings should be conversations, not monologues. Don't show up and blindly recite the presentation. Listening is underrated. The best sellers know when to stop talking.

Novices often try presenting the entire deck just to check it off their list. They don't understand that the best sales meetings are conversations about capabilities and needs. Sometimes I am sold after just a few questions. Usually, after just a few slides, the discussion will veer off course. That is OK because the answers to my media problems aren't in a canned PowerPoint presentation.

Even with my own clients, as long as the meeting was productive, I don't care if we reviewed the deck. The presentation is immaterial; it is the outcome that matters most.

Ignoring the RFP

Requests for proposals (RFPs) are integral to the media-buying process. (I will leave the question of whether most agency RFPs are good or bad for other columnists.) RFPs communicate the basic outlines of the project -- budget, flighting, etc. Some of these details I control as the media buyer, while others are out of my purview.

It is really important that the sales proposal reflect the guidelines set forth by this document. Submitting a proposal that does not reflect the RFP wastes time and energy. It certainly tests my patience. If a salesperson has an idea that strays from the RFP, the best solution is to ask the buyer in advance. Blatantly ignoring the RFP is never a good idea.

Failing to proofread the proposal

Once I receive a sales proposal, I tear into it like a kid into presents on Christmas morning. Here I am rooting for the seller -- I want them to succeed. After all, a great proposal makes me look like a rock star.

This is why proposals must be proofread. The numbers have to add up. Any wrong number betrays confidence. For instance, impressions must be whole numbers. I cannot buy a half of an impression, so make sure impressions do not end in decimals. The 0.1989 of an impression might make the budget come in to the penny, but it is all the same a careless error.

Sloppy work becomes evident quickly and raises doubt. In this vein, it is super important that my client's name is correctly spelled. Mistakes happen; we are only human after all. However, I cannot overlook another client's logo where my client's should be. This hurts a salesperson's credibility, especially if the presentation is for a "custom" sponsorship that supposedly has never been offered before. No, this isn't the end of the world, but it definitely makes me think twice about moving forward.

Forgetting to confirm

One of the most common mistakes involves simply replying to email. On really busy days, media buyers might deal with dozens of different vendors. Therefore, it is really important for salespeople to confirm emails. Acknowledging that someone has received my email is essential to the buying process.

Whether they're sending an RFP, insertion order, or traffic instructions, buyers need confirmation. In the fast-paced world of digital media, confirmations save time and frustration. Certainly if I don't hear back from a salesperson, I worry that no one is working on my plan, and I begin making other arrangements. It is time consuming to track down vendors just to confirm receipt. A simple one-word email (e.g., "received") does a world of good in building trust and moving the project forward.

Cheapening the mix

Negotiating a media mix can be tricky. Buyers want cheaper, and sellers want more expensive. One easy way to reduce the CPM is to bastardize the mix -- that is, to replace premium inventory with cheap junk. At first glance, this reduces the CPM. But in actuality, it makes the buy less productive.

Often I see revised proposals that have simply cheapened the mix rather than actually reduced the pricing. Plans that create value are more likely to be renewed even if they are more expensive.

Forgetting an email signature

When I need you, I need you now. It surprises me how many salespeople don't have email signatures with basic information like name, title, address, and phone number. Buyers hate searching through emails for a salesperson's phone number.

Simply including contact information in the email signature makes my life easier. Sometimes it is the small stuff that makes all of the difference. Similarly, some reps still do not leave an out-of-office message in their automatic reply. It is so frustrating to learn that someone was away for a week and is only now starting on a project.

Online media is a fast-paced game. Make sure you leave contact information on your email, or you'll get left behind.

Confusing blind with transparent

Whenever I work with a new vendor, I ask about the level of reporting we can expect. Specifically, are they a transparent or a blind network? Too often salespeople falsely believe that their network is transparent because they provide a list of potential websites. At best, that is opaque -- but certainly it is not transparent.

The only way to be transparent is to report all of the sites that were actually on the buy and how each performed. Given the rise of DSPs, this will only become more important as time progresses.

Putting lunch before business

I love celebrating a completed media buy with a sales rep over a nice meal and good conversation. It is a definite a perk of the job. On the other hand, I almost never go to rep lunches before the deal is completed.

Please don't ask me to lunch while we are negotiating. It feels inappropriate having business on the table figuratively while we are literally at the table. Not all buyers agree with me, but I would like to believe that the really good ones do.

Offering to buy me clothing

This might be the most controversial of all the mistakes I have identified. Sellers naturally want to impress buyers and create a good relationship. However, sellers sometimes offer inappropriate gifts, such as new shoes or jeans, to buyers they hardly know.

I am not saying this is ethically wrong; however, I think it can cheapen the buyer-seller relationship. It has always made me uncomfortable to accept gifts from vendors with whom I don't already have a good relationship. Certainly if I haven't already done business with them, I would never accept such an offer. There is a fine line between a thank-you gift and begging for business. Indeed, so many salespeople use this tactic that some buyers cannot remember who bought what for them. Unless the activity furthers the relationship in a meaningful way, I would recommend against it.

Andrew Ettinger works in digital media planning and buying in New York.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet

"Pick or choose me" image via Shutterstock.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Marielle Hanke

2012, May 15

Thanks for sharing, super interesting and helpful! Would you mind giving an example of a remarkable yet appropriate 'thank you' gift?

Commenter: Rich Johnson

2012, May 08

Shoes and Jeans seems a bit across the line. Not sure why when for example a trip to a football game can be more expensive, but buying a pay of $200 jeans and $400 shoes for a buyer (regardless of the relationship) just seems like bribery. Then what do I know... I will easily spend that on a bottle of wine for someone who is shelling out cash. Was surprised is all! Great read. Thank you.

Commenter: Marlo Huang

2012, May 07

Couldn't have put it better myself. The meetings/media part is particularly on point.

Commenter: Adam Kleinberg

2012, May 07

"I am not saying this [sellers buying clothing for buyers] is ethically wrong"

Then what is? I'm sure the client who just paid for a media plan that was influenced by what kind of jeans their agency planner gets to wear for free would call it ethically wrong.