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Old dogs, new tricks?

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Past is no longer prelude in b-to-b media sales. The seasoned seller with a bursting Rolodex was once a plum hire if a publisher could afford it.

Can a seasoned media salesperson adjust so that those past relationships are enhanced by new metrics, skill sets and services? Many have. But when they don't—or when an opportunity to hire arises for any reason—what are b-to-b publishers looking for in salespeople today?

Doug MacDonald, executive director of online sales development at Penton Media, described the ideal candidate as someone "with a minimum of three years experience selling b-to-b or consumer online media," he said. "Having a print background is a plus, too, because every form of media serves its own purpose in an integrated program."

If a publisher can find this ideal b-to-b media salesperson, though, it will likely be expensive. "It's exponentially competitive to find someone really good with online sales experience," MacDonald said.

But having a really good selling history is not enough. "Because the online medium is evolving so quickly, we need people to constantly go outside their comfort zone, to be hungry for more," MacDonald noted. "We need an `A' player who wants to be an `A+' player."

Some b-to-b media executives believe younger people who have grown up using the Internet have an edge over previous generations, MacDonald said, adding, "I don't believe that at all."

Steve Lincoln, VP-advertising and national group publisher for ALM's legal division, said, "Everyone will have to come up to speed in some area," including people with online sales experience who will have to learn about the legal industry. "What people have sold in the past is not as important as being able to focus on the client."

While he has seen some salespeople come to ALM right out of college and succeed, Lincoln noted that a veteran media salesperson, about 70 years old, also has made a successful transition to selling online.

However, when Heather Mikisch, publisher of Thomas Publishing's Managing Automation, saw her print sales suddenly plummet by more than $1 million over the course of a few months earlier this year, she made a drastic change to her sales organization.

"We were very top heavy with experienced salespeople and high salaries," Mikisch said. But the long-term, consultative, relationship-based sale "is no longer required in our market." The number of clients wanting to advertise only online had increased dramatically, while the sales cycle for those accounts had compressed to a matter of days or hours.

Simply put, Mikisch needed to trade integrated expertise for online-only focus to "speed up the sales cycle and deliver the program offerings the advertisers want without confusing the conversation with things they don't want," she said.

So Mikisch let all but one of her seasoned salespeople go. The remaining VP-worldwide sales now handles accounts that are actively advertising in print, events and online, as well as new integrated business.

Three new salespeople with no prior media selling experience started on the same day in September. These online specialists "focus on `B' and `C' accounts, defined by budgets that are roughly 90% online," Mikisch said. "The online sales specialists have three to four packaged programs offered on a six- or 12-month basis, and they should know these programs inside-out. Because the programs are priced to sell, they should be able to close quickly."

The new people spent their initial weeks in intensive training with Mikisch and the VP-sales, so they are just starting to sell on their own. It's too soon to tell how they will do, but Mikisch pointed out that the risk of failing with this strategy, which is still unproven, is much less costly than trying the former strategy with another team of expensive salespeople.

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