A sales canvasser is often a foot soldier and is treated as such. It is very rare for someone to take interest and explain to him the business drivers of a sales campaign. It is not relevant to build engagement levels on these terms with teams who are hired for the short-term on rather mercenary terms. It reflects in the attrition trends as well since the canvassers are also on a perpetual look-out for a ‘better opportunity’.
During my summer holidays I worked on a local newspaper’s sales campaign that was aimed at signing up subscribers for a 4-6 months period. To entice the readers, the paper included guaranteed gifts and it was targeted on converting readers of the competing newspapers.The paper had run the campaign for a few years and it was well-known to the readers as well. One did wonder whether the loyal readers were ever upset about being excluded from such offers.
It was in this context that I had an interesting meeting with a newly hired Management Trainee who had just passed out from one of the IIMs. Her induction programs included getting an exposure to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of selling and she had been assigned our beat to evaluate the direct marketing campaign’s efficacy. She accompanied me for a day on my calls and made her notes. She had a very hands off approach and did not intervene during my interaction with the readers. I merely introduced her as a colleague who had recently joined the newspaper.
And yet she kept taking notes in a copious manner so I was piqued about her work. We eventually took a break from work and had a nice chat over Coffee. We relaxed a bit and exchanged a few personal notes. She was also interested in knowing the challenges we had at work and was quite familiar with the typical cribs of low engagement levels, a high level of rejection by potential customers, constant churn in the team and the lack of growth opportunities / learning in the long-term. And yet we had our reasons to do the job as well – flexible and limited working hours, our earnings were handy to pursue our other interests, we did have good friends in the Group and occasionally met some interesting customers as well.
It was then that she chose to confide in me and explain some of the mechanics that went into our campaign. It helped me understand the business better as well.
Campaign cost per se was not justified –
The campaign unit was like a direct sales army – the average productivity and cost mattered to determine its efficacy. Back of the envelope calculations showed that the average monthly revenue per canvasser was Rs 20,000 against an average monthly cost of Rs 2,000. That is a direct cost of 10 % and makes no economic sense. This does not factor in the other expenses such as Management time, cost of the gifts being given to the customer, payment made to the newspaper vendor to accept out subscription coupons etc. And it is well-known that papers were sustained by advertising revenues – the price of the paper was Rs. 2 and it cost Rs. 10 to produce. Ads were hugely influenced by circulation figures so the campaign was meant to garner new customers and create visibility in the minds of readers.
Campaign did not impact existing readership significantly –
Like clockwork our campaigns went back to neighborhoods where the previous subscription had ended recently and quite often we enrolled the same customers who had again stopped subscribing to our paper. Some of the loyal readers saw this circus unfold twice every year. And we told them they were not eligible for the offer. Did they mind being excluded? The paper’s belief was that they did not stop subscribing to our paper on account of this and so the strategy continued for the present. No one could predict what will happen in the years to come.
Campaign was not meant to provide us a career –
The campaign activities peaked during summer and winter breaks wherein mostly High School and College students participated in this part-time activity for 2 to 3 months. The teams ran as low a cost set up as possible by meeting at prominent public places and disbanding when not required. Attrition was high too as people who got a hang of direct selling moved on to sell more lucrative deals like ‘Pagers’, ‘Credit Cards’, ‘Vacuum Cleaners’, ‘Water Purifiers’, ‘Yellow Pages’ etc.
I thanked her for providing me the insights. I told her that my father who worked all his life in a Central Government office could just not understand my work. I had told him about visiting a Post Office once to observe a near absence of customers. I could observe 10 staff in the office but no one was manning the desk selling stamps. I requested the nearby person who grumbled for 5 minutes before serving me. My father saw nothing wrong in the clerk not wanting to multi-task – work for him was clearly defined and delineated roles and responsibilities. No wonder he failed to appreciate the ‘Amoeba’ like organization of our direct sales unit.
And things have evolved now – papers are not bothered about running direct sales campaigns as mentioned above. Often they engage the newspaper vendor to pitch similar subscription schemes on their behalf. They try to obtain sales promotion desks in Organization to catch the attention of the target audience. Some offer a free trial period to their readers. Papers are even more interested in offering their readers ‘digital’ online versions to retain their patronage. There are myriad new ways to reach their readers in the new world. A foot soldier is no longer in anyone’s plan to make the buck!