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What a sales rep wants, needs

Mar 1, 2001 12:00 AM


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Having spent a good deal of my career selling advertising in business-to-business magazines, I have a great deal of empathy for the guy or gal who sells printing. I can still remember more than 40 years ago when I was first asked to sell. I had studied journalism and had worked for about six months or so as an editor. When my publisher first asked me to move into sales, I declined. I told him I knew nothing about sales and that I was a creative person. He persisted, and eventually I gave it a shot.

After a few months of wearing two hats (editorial and sales), I found I liked selling. It could be just as creative as writing, and although I had to learn to face the lows of rejection, the highs of making the sale more than compensated. But I realize now that I was winging it, making it up as I went along. I was given no formal training — experience was my only teacher.

All of that reminiscing brings me to the crux of this month's column. For the past quarter of a century, this industry has been enamored with the newest technology and equipment. Meanwhile, it has given short shrift to the person who calls on the clients to make the sales that generate the revenues that create the profits that eventually pay for those new technologies.

In the past, research has been conducted on virtually every aspect of this industry. We study the future, the past, technology, trends, management skills and standards. But we hardly ever study the area of sales. In the spirit of research, we've attempted to report on a number of those other studies on this page over the past couple of issues of AMERICAN PRINTER.

THE UNSUNG HEROES

Now, finally, someone has recognized the sales rep and surveyed those often-unsung heroes of the printing industry. I've just finished reading the “2000 Graphic Arts Sales Rep Survey Report,” co-sponsored by the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation (GASF) (West Chester, PA) and Hammermill Papers (Memphis, TN).

Dick Gorelick, who is now a fellow columnist on AMERICAN PRINTER'S pages (see “Industry needs plan for all seasons,” p. 54), and a leading industry consultant who also oversees GASF, wrote in the letter accompanying the survey, “As far as we can determine, there has been no national survey of sales reps prior to this research.”

In the study's preface, Gorelick observes, “Many employers wrongly assume sales reps are… motivated by greed and avarice, and communicate with them solely on the basis of their performance.” I concur with his assessment. We salespeople considered ourselves to be professionals and were motivated by the challenge of helping our customers do a better job promoting, rather than by commission.

Another confirmation that Gorelick may be right on track is the fact that about 2,000 sales reps (from 14,000 questionnaires mailed) took the time to complete the nine-page survey, yielding a respectable response rate of 14.1 percent.

STEREOTYPES VS. REALITY

The research covers sales performance, management, compensation, support, responsibilities and company performance relative to competition. Here are several facts revealed in the survey that impressed me.

The average sales per rep was $1.22 million, and more than 90 percent of the respondents had an annual sales volume of $500,000. Less than 40 percent of those sales reps felt they were respected members of their organization, however, and only 20.9 percent strongly agreed that they were computer literate. Considering that salespeople are often asked to advise customers about the preparation of electronic files, database management and other activities, this response cries for more computer training for reps.

Following the statistical data are observations and recommendations. Here are a few memorable excerpts:

“Price competition is not a root cause of challenges in the graphic arts industry. Instead, it is a symptom of commoditization, the prevailing (and growing) perception in the marketplace that a good product, delivered on time at a competitive price, is available from many resources. Technology has leveled the playing field and contributed to this perception.”

On the other hand, there is no question in my mind that a top-notch salesperson can create a degree of differentiation simply by showing his or her customer that he or she truly cares.

The study further suggests, “The stereotypical salesperson is a tough individual, ego-driven, able to handle rejection, and is persistent and very knowledgeable about the product or service he/she is selling.” Yet, “results revealed an unequivocal call for help. Salespeople are hungry for relevant information for both themselves and their customers.” That, of course, is the role of management and the owners of printing companies.

The segment on sales compensation is very revealing, but the analysis of how sales reps view their companies is even more insightful. Most respondents strongly agreed with the statement, “My company truly believes in building long-term customer relationships.” And respondents listed “integrity” and “quick production turnaround” among their companies' five top areas of competitive performance. In most graphic arts companies, however, “salespeople engage in dialogue with other departments only in the case of a problem, extraordinary demand or a controversy,” according to the study.

Contributing editor and president of Footprint Communications, a Fort Lee, NJ, consulting firm for the printing and publishing industries | mrvinocur@aol.com

The full report costs $275 and can be ordered by calling (610) 431-9780.