Classified Departments Emphasize Selling, Web

By: Randy Dotinga

Not too long ago, classified department employees were known as “ad takers” or, in a bit of old-fashioned chauvinism, the “girls in the phone room.” Spelling and typing skills were all-important. Experience in sales was nice but far from necessary.

Now, as newspapers struggle to keep their share of the classified market, those glorified typists are a thing of the past. Phone rooms are passe, “call centers” are all the rage, and workers must know how to type, spell … and sell.

“We’re in the business of trying to give customers the advertising that gets results for them,” said Gayle Timmerman, classified advertising director at The Oregonian in Portland. “It’s not just about a two-line ad with as many abbreviations as you can fit in.”

The rewards of top-notch selling skills can be good for both the newspaper and employees. With base salary and commissions, classified ad representatives can make $46,000 or more a year at larger newspapers. Those who rise to the executive level can look forward to making typical salaries of $70,000-$90,000 a year at papers with circulations between 50,000 and 100,000, according to a 2001 survey by the Youngs, Walker & Co. recruitment firm.

Just 25 years ago, classified jobs didn’t hold nearly as much potential, at least at the lower rungs. Commissions existed, but they weren’t always big boosters of salaries or morale. At the Richmond Newspapers in Virginia, for instance, the classified sales staff received commissions out of a general pool, not individually. “You look back now and you think, how could you do things like that? It’s demoralizing to the high producers and it’s no incentive at all to a deadbeat to improve if they’re going to make the same as someone who’s really busting their chops,” said Charles Diederich, former classified ad manager at the newspapers and current director of marketing & advertising for the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), Vienna, Va.

These days, individual commissions offer the potential of higher salaries. Along with the extra pay, however, has come more work. “The whole business of marketing is more complex,” Diederich said. “It takes a person who not only understands newspapers but also the increased numbers of products and vehicles for reaching consumers, whether they’re the standard classified section, special pages, free distribution, even direct mail.”

Customers have evolved along with the jobs of classified department employees. Just a few decades ago, callers weren’t very demanding, Timmerman said. “They’d wait a half-hour before they’d get someone to take their ad.”

Now, callers are in a hurry. But technology is there to help both them and the bottom line. Telephone systems can automatically direct callers to specific salespeople, such as those who work on legal ads or help wanted ads, said Amy Hannon, call center manager/coach at The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee. And the hold time for customers might depend on what they want to buy. “An employment ad might be prioritized over an automobile ad,” she said.

Nowadays, of course, customers can bypass live people entirely and place their ads with the assistance of the Internet. So far, fairly few people seem to be taking advantage of Web services. At The Oregonian, for example, only a small percentage of classified customers place their ads online.

But classified managers are preparing for the time when more customers tap the potential of the Net. In April, NAA issued a report calling upon newspapers to adopt the Internet as the “core platform” for accepting and disseminating classified ads.

But what about the fate of those people who take the calls or work at the classified counter? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that it costs 90% less to take an ad online than through a telephone call. And NAA certainly made some executives flinch by reporting that it costs an average of $2.26 — and in some cases, as much as $45 — to take a classified ad by phone.

But outdated technology and tradition-minded customers seem likely to keep most classified employees in their jobs for a while longer. And the best sellers will certainly never have to worry about the unemployment line.

“The technology is a great tool, but it doesn’t take us out of the picture,” Timmerman said. “Even if you have a regular customer like a real estate company that sends material electronically, you have to talk with them about special sections and to let them know what you have available.”

In other words, the most effective selling still needs a human touch.

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