Classifieds: The Bastard Son?

Classified Managers Strive to Train, Retain Employees.

Before joining the ranks of Icon’s classified advertising department in Iowa City this summer, Shane Dolbier toiled at Kansas City’s PitchWeekly for two years selling classifieds that pitched houses, cars, refrigerators and the like.

“We had an ongoing joke in Kansas City,” says Dolbier, who works as Icon’s classified manager. “The joke was: Classifieds is the bastard son of [alternative newsweekly advertising] sales.”

Not everyone who works in classified advertising at AAN-member papers shares Dolbier’s grim view of the vocation. However, when trying to find, hire and retain staff, many do deal with the perception that classified advertising is the paltry-paying, telemarketing underling to its higher-dollar, suit-wearing, four-color cousin, display.

So, how do classified managers buck this perception? How much training do they give new hires — even though this is a job class that has a history of high turnover? And when they do find productive people, what do they do to keep them?

The answers to most of these questions vary. But there is consensus on one point: Money talks.

Jim Abeles, Willamette Week’s classified and personals ad director, has 12 staffers working under his command. Nine are classified reps; three are responsible for personals.

This summer has been a revolving door in Abeles’ department. He’s lost two people to medical problems. A third left for a job at an advertising agency.

“With those people leaving and having to find new employees, the summer’s been tough,” he says. “But it’s not usually like that. I’d say in the last year-and-a-half, we’ve had little turnover.”

The paper’s classified reps, whose job training comes down to “baptism by fire,” according to Abeles, earn $7-an-hour plus commission. New hires receive three days of training and then get ongoing tutoring from co-workers. There’s also weekly sales/brainstorming meetings and an annual retreat. Willamette Week’s classified reps, he says, generally earn an annual compensation “somewhere in the mid-20’s.”

Abeles’ employees are split into two groups: half strictly work the phones, while the others split their time between cold calling and meeting with clients.

“I try to treat my classified people like display reps,” says Abeles. “They have goals, each has territories. A couple of them do auto and real estate ads, which means they’re making outside calls to clients. For me, it’s harder to keep those people who are only on the phone, making sure their job isn’t drudgery. The way I see it, the best way to keep good people is making sure they’re selling a lot so they’re making money.”

The paper has been more successful recently in retaining classified personnel than in years past, he says, because “today they’re making 50 percent more money than just a couple of years ago.”

Gambit Weekly Classified Advertising Director Eric Coleman turns over one to two employees annually in his five-rep department. Of Coleman’s reps, four work the phones while the other pounds the pavement peddling automotive ads. His new hires receive two weeks of extensive training that includes acclimatization to the computer system, the paper and its demographics.

However, he’s quick to add: “I wish we could have more training, but training is expensive.”

Classified reps tend to view their jobs as “entry level sales” positions, according to Coleman, who doesn’t consider that perception so much a handicap as he does an opportunity “to take them, grow them and have them learn to succeed.”

“Telemarketing has gotten a bad name,” he says. “I don’t consider [our classified reps] telemarketers. I consider them telephone sales people.ä The way I treat my department is like an advertising agency. I let my people know that they’re the ones responsible for prospecting clients, they’re the ones who need to incorporate their personalities into their job. I think it’s important that they know that they’re the lead person for this company. They’re the ones who are in touch with the most people — readers and advertisers — than any other department at the paper. I also think it’s important for them to take responsibility for their clients. I let them know it’s up to them not just to get the ads, but also service the clients, grow them and retain them.”

The notion that classified rep positions are low paying or merely a stepping stone job is bogus, according to Coleman. His reps at the New Orleans newsweekly can do “very well,” he says.

How well?

“Forty thousand a year,” he replies.

“You keep good people through giving them the freedom to do their jobs, giving them ownership of the classifieds and through paying them a fair wage and rewarding them when they do well,” says Coleman, whose reps earn a base salary plus commission plus bonuses.

Roxanne Cooper agrees that retaining good reps comes from “creating a fun work environment and compensating people well.” Cooper, classified ad director at LA Weekly and OC Weekly, says her 13 reps earn a base salary plus commission plus bonuses — plus contest prizes.

“Last year, for instance, when we were selling ‘Best of LA,’ we gave away a trip for two to Hawaii to everyone who met their sales goal,” she says.

Cooper won’t divulge annual compensation figures for her reps. But she does say: “They’re compensated just as well as any display reps.”

Cooper’s dilemma isn’t high turnover or baptism-by-fire-training. (The papers’ classified reps receive a thorough two-week education on computers, the Internet, the product and selling skills. They obtain additional training during their 90-day probationary period, as well as ongoing instruction for such things as special sections.) No, her predicament is finding workers with the right skill set.

“We have difficulty recruiting good people,” she says. “Lots of people can sell, but with the amount of technology we use, we need people who are Windows 95 literate, can type at least 35 words a minute — and can sell. In classifieds, you’re less likely to find people with classified advertising experience. But when you do, you’re lucky.ä

“Classifieds aren’t as sexy as display. There’s no national ads, no four-color, no club listings. But what people don’t understand is classified jobs can be just as fun as display positions and they can earn just as much money.”