By John Graham
Stunned. Confused. Shocked. These are the reactions of countless salespeople to the dramatic drop in their numbers. All of a sudden they hit a wall and don’t know what to do.
Riding on a record of closed sales, a competent insurance producer doesn’t know how to cope with a $28 commission check.
Needless to say, the sales ranks are thinning daily.
No one really knows what to do. The answers from the sales gurus are lacking, nebulous, or less than convincing. One such “expert” has his audiences rolling their eyes when he tells them it’s time to ask for referrals. Referrals are tough to come by in good times, let alone a recession.
Here are some important lessons from the dramatic selling situations that just about every salesperson is currently going through.
1. We’ve run out of “silver bullets.” Many salespeople start looking for the next gimmick the moment they encounter a problem, whether it’s getting leads or setting up appointments. As one salesperson said after working on a new market for less than 60 days, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll need a different mousetrap.”
For the past 15 years or so, closing sales has been relatively easy. Customers have been plentiful and most have been in buying mode. Unfortunately, many salespeople thought it was their skill that was driving their success, when it was like they were taking orders more than anything else.
Now every salesperson is faced with the stamina test — “Do I have what it takes in a recession?” Instead of looking for a fantasy solution, the place to start looking is at ourselves.
2. Stop looking for a ray of hope. Optimism is the salesperson’s drug of choice. Without it there’s no getting up in the morning. Optimism works — as long as there’s another sale in the offing. But there is no optimism when the orders dry up, when no one wants to meet or even talk, or when every day is a dead zone.
Hoping things will change, hoping the next call will be different, or hoping the old magic will return is not only a waste of time, but avoids developing new strategies and ways of approaching and reaching customers.
For example, astute life insurance producers saw an opportunity when many people lost a considerable portion of their retirement funds in the stock market decline. These salespeople are suggesting that life insurance can make up for what has been taken away.
Instead of always hoping things will change, focusing on how to work with the hand we’re dealt produces the best results.
3. Reposition your message. Failing to change a sales message to fit the new economic reality is fatal. A human resources firm talks about “investing in retaining valued workers” at the very moment layoffs are mounting. This approach may resonate with companies when there’s low unemployment, but not now.
Leonard Lodish, a Wharton School marketing professor, made this comment about sending the correct message: “If your company has something to say that is relevant in this environment, it’s more efficient to say it now than to say it in better times.” The task is figuring out a message that addresses the customer’s situation. Nothing else works!
4. Do something new, but don’t cut prices. Yes, the fashion industry has slashed prices, including on the normally sacred high end. This was the right move since retailers were faced with high inventories. The fast food industry also got it right fast. Wendy’s, for example, offers three “waaaay better” 99-cent sandwiches, but the price hasn’t changed on its regular products.
In the same way, Apple is said to be readying a new iPhone, a lower-priced nano version. It certainly makes sense since the nano iPod became a huge success.
5. Keep the right perspective. There’s nothing worse than phony optimism. Everyone can see through it. If we were to go to the Web sites of The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Financial Times and any one of a dozen others, there’s good reason for pessimism. Here were the top headlines in the Financial Times recently: "Consumers rein in spending,” “Fears over jobs and falling home values,” "Wall Street downbeat on stimulus fears,” and “Boeing and 3M lead blue chips into negative territory.”
Duplicate this news day after day and it takes a toll on anyone, particularly those responsible for making sales.
While bad news infects the air we breathe, it is still true that more than 90% of the workforce is on the job, the freeways are packed morning and night, homes are being bought and sold, and bars and restaurants are filled to capacity in many places on Friday nights. In spite of all the bad news, the economy keeps on going.
No matter how much bad news there is, the cup is far more than half full.
6. Avoid trying to convince customers what to buy. The best way to lose a sale is to tell the customer that you have what they need. That may have worked in the past, but it’s the wrong message now.
A sales rep from a major radio station in the Boston market called to arrange a “20 minute” meeting. “I think we’re a good fit for your client,” she stated.
Unfortunately, she did not get the memo that states clearly that what a salesperson “thinks” doesn’t count. She made no attempt to communicate that she understood the client’s goals. Even worse, the “product” she wanted us to recommend to our client was being touted to a variety of businesses. The bottom line was that the station expected the client to fit its program.
What may be a “good fit” for the radio station may not meet the client’s requirements.
7. Educate endlessly. The fact that today’s customers are more suspicious and less trusting than they were before isn’t a message that salespeople want to hear. Like it or not, it not only takes time, effort, and patience for customers to become believers, it takes timing.
TriFactor, LLC, a leading material handling integrator in the Southeast, understands the sales benefits of educating both current customers and prospects. They describe the company’s new Web site (trifactor.com) as “The Learning Center.” The company is committed to sharing its experience and expertise. It’s built into the culture. They see the business as a total learning center.
Customers today connect with information, not sales pitches.
8. Invest in tomorrow. Salespeople have a long history of being what might be called “today” people. Their focus is on what’s happening now; they’re not known for thinking about the future.
There is always a need for agility and adjusting to short-term objectives. At the same time, a study by Dr. Gary Lilien of Penn State’s Smeal College of Business makes the point for a consistent approach to marketing and sales. “Companies that have been looking at marketing as an investment and not an expense, and have been running their business through customer knowledge, are the ones that are going to come out of this [recession] really, really well.”
One of the best examples of this is Amazon.com. Even when their competitors were suffering, Amazon was doing well by using their extensive knowledge base to stay close to their customers by providing products and services that were based on their unique interests.
It’s a poignant lesson for every business.
Selling is more about understanding the customer than about skill or sales techniques. Those who take seriously the challenge of connecting with customers in ways that speak to their issues and meet their needs will prosper, whatever the economic circumstances.
John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for a variety of business publications and speaks on business, marketing, and sales issues. Contact him at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170; 617-328-0069; firstname.lastname@example.org. The company’s Web site is grahamcomm.com.
Eight ways to get serious about making sales in today's economy
By John Graham