Training Could Be the Answer to High Turnover


Rob Leydon walked into his new sales gig at a Seattle cable operator six years ago, excited and anxious about learning the intricacies of selling local ads on cable. But his new manager doused that enthusiasm. He threw a phone book at Leydon and said, “Have at it.” It was sink or swim.

While Leydon survived this cutthroat indoctrination – typical for a cable account executive – one of his colleagues didn’t. He quit less than a year later. That’s half the company’s money and time spent on new sales hires down the drain.

Five years later, Leydon came up with an idea for slowing down this employee burn. As general sales manager for AT&T Broadband Media Services (which took over the Seattle system in June 1999), Leydon started a formal training program for account representatives (also known as sales support staff). The program helps new staffers learn the unique ins and outs of cable, essentially creating a warm-up bench for the account executive team. After all, who in their right mind knows that the Weather Channel’s top three demographic groups are the disaster crowd, the planners and the weather nuts? (The second group, mind you, is a more attractive advertising target than the third.)

Weatherphiles aside, Leydon’s training program points to a larger trend within the cable industry – training for local ad sales staff. It’s growing, and it’s producing results.

Cox Communications, which last year began training its account executives in a program called Fast Track, found that the trained staff sold 30% more new accounts than those who didn’t go through the program. In fact, Fast Track was so successful that the cable operator plans to launch a training program for its support staff next year.

Gary Tietjen, director of local advertising sales and marketing for the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, says he’s training more than 700 account executives on average each year these days. That’s up from a few hundred trained in 1997.

Why the increase? Cable demands it.

“If you sold NBC or a radio station in your previous sales life, all you had to know is that station’s programming information for that one network,” Tietjen says. “When you’re selling cable, you’re responsible for 20, 30, 40 networks. It is totally different than any other media. The sales people have to know the product.”

To help with this effort, CAB tries to impart insights about each cable network during training.

Take the Discovery Channel, for instance. Most account executives immediately recognize the network’s audience as upscale and educated. But many overlook Discovery’s strong male turnout during prime time, says Kevin Barry, CAB’s VP of local sales and marketing. Discovery, therefore, easily can be included in an advertising pitch with ESPN.

Despite CAB’s increased training, more cable operators are taking training into their own hands, Barry says.

Steve Litwer, corporate sales director of advertising sales for OnMedia, the sales arm of Mediacom, will start testing a new training program for Mediacom’s account executives next week. The four-week program will include online and field elements, combining knowledge and research with on-site skill development, he says. And Charter Communications is currently revamping a video program to include hands-on operations, production and billing training for its account executives in its Eastern division, says Todd A. Stewart, Charter Media’s VP of advertising sales for the Southeast region.

Contrary to some of his colleagues, Time Warner Cable’s advertising sales president Larry Fischer sees training for account executives on the wane. Rather, cable is finally picking up seasoned sales managers from broadcast television, he notes.

If needed, Time Warner can tap Jim Doyle and Associates to teach senior ad executives how to get more money from existing advertisers, Fischer adds. Cable’s demand for Doyle’s seminars has grown to between 40 and 50 sessions a year, up from about five per year in 1997, says Jim Doyle, the company’s president.

Regardless of these senior sessions, a cable operator always needs to keep its account executive positions filled. With a turnover rate somewhere between 10% and 25%, training programs may prove to be priceless. “If you’re fully staffed, it’s going to show up in your budget,” CAB’s Barry notes. “Better to have a body than to have zero, as long as it’s not an ax murderer. It really does make a difference.”

Andrea Figler’s column on local ad sales appears monthly. Send ideas, comments and questions to

COPYRIGHT 2002 Copyright by Media Central Inc., A PRIMEDIA Company. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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