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Strategies for Surviving the Economic Downturn
By Dave Stein, CEO, ES Research Group

A number of the very successful sales reps that I coach have a strategy for winning that is worth considering. They do what entertainers, sports figures, and politicians do-they brand themselves.

This is what an economic downturn sounds like: "Although we believe there continues to be strong demand for our solutions, several new customer contracts that we anticipated for the quarter were delayed due to the current economic uncertainties." Those were the words of the president of a company that provides supply chain software to manufacturing companies. The company's stock, which had already been lagging, along with the rest of the technology sector, dropped an additional 73% upon this news. But the real story for us is that one or more sales professionals didn't deliver the contracts that they had forecast. And unfortunately for us this is quickly becoming the rule, not the exception.

Salespeople Are Optimists

We salespeople are, by nature, optimists. Since our success depends partially our ability to paint a vision of success for our customers and clients, we tend to look at the glass as being half full, rather than half empty. That is not necessarily the best way to deal with what we are all facing right now, when our customers are hunkering down, sales have slowed, and no one really knows how much longer this situation will continue.

What's a sales professional to do?

Here are five strategies for surviving as a sales professional during these tough economic times.

1. Tighten Your Belt

The good news is that things are going to get better. The bad news is not right away. In general the securities analysts and press have not done a great job figuring out what is really going on. That means it is extremely unlikely the situation will improve before it has a negative impact on your commission check, if that has not already happened.

I hate to butt into your personal life, but I have been through this economic downturn thing before. We called it a recession. What you have to do just what your customers are doing. Reduce your expenses where you can, right now. If you are not on a budget, now's the time to create one.

The pressure is on, but you will be able to deal with it slightly better if you have taken whatever actions are possible to protect yourself and your family.

2. Dig Deeper into Your Customers' Business

Your customers are most likely focusing on expense control. That's what companies do during times like this. Their investments in new products and new revenue sources have likely been curtailed or will be shortly. Projects and initiatives are being scaled back or eliminated entirely. Organizations are being downsized.

You need to explore what it is that your offering does that can help them reduce their expense line, be more efficient or retain the business that they already have. If money is going to be spent, that's where it will go.

So the big question is, do you know, in specific and quantifiable terms, the contribution your product or service will provide your customer and by when they can expect those results? If you do, you could be in the right position to make a sale.

3. Track Multiple Industry Sectors

If you are lucky enough to be selling a horizontal product or service, ones that are applicable across multiple industries, you may be able to find customers that are not suffering the same level of economic insecurity. For example, as of this writing, companies in the health sciences sector are holding up rather well. They may be somewhat conservative going forward but may not be as unapproachable as companies say in the software industry, which has been hit hardest.

Another benefit of broadening your view is that you can keep tabs on the industries or consumer markets that your customers service. This will provide you with early indicators of where you need to be focusing your time and what the short-term revenue prospects might be. If your customers markets are going soft, so likely will they.

Watching the technology sector is a good thing to do right now. Some of your customers will continue to invest in technology going forward to control expenses or keep their customers. Others will wait until economic indicators start to show positive trends again. When technology projects start reappearing, you can interpret that as a good sign.

4. Make Sure Your Skills Are Fine Tuned

The fittest will survive. That not only goes for companies, but more importantly for individuals as well. How do you get fit? Make sure you are as competent at your job as you can possibly be. That means knowing your customers' businesses, their industries, your competitors, their competitors, their customers and their people. Your business skills need to be current, especially understanding where they are being affected by the economy and how badly.

Do you possess any wisdom about areas of their business where improvement or efficiencies can be achieved? If so, you could have a chance to provide products or services to help them along. If your products or services are not a fit for their immediate needs, staying close will provide you with the knowledge of when the timing will be right for you to sell them your offering.

My clients tell me that competition is fiercer than it has ever been. They say that due to the economy the pie is smaller, and because of a proliferation of competitors, there are more pieces being cut from that smaller pie. What a perfect time to really dig into learning about your competition. How do they sell, what are their strengths and weaknesses, how do they position themselves against you, and what can you do to beat them? If money is being spent, why shouldn't you be winning those opportunities.

5. Keep Your Customer Relationships Alive

Some of your customers may not be doing very well right now. They don't feel good about their own businesses and they are likely very uncomfortable about disappointing you. Whether it was an order you were promised that has been postponed or outsourcing your company provides that they have now decided to do in house, taking a call from you might be make them just too uncomfortable.

Sales professionals who have survived and even thrived during economic downturns will tell you that it is often the relationships with key people in their accounts that got them through-an order here, a referral there. Stay in touch, commiserate, and be patient-to the extent that you can.

Stay the Course

Most of us have had a pretty good run. Any many of will have that again. The challenge for us now is even while it is tougher to get an order than it has been in the last decade, we need to get better at what we do, stay close to our customers, become more effective competitors and keep a positive attitude.

Dave Stein, after 25 years in sales leadership positions and delivering his own sales training and consulting worldwide, founded ES Research Inc. ESR offers independent, authoritative advice on Sales Training and Consulting and the Companies that provide it through weekly briefs, in-depth reports, online seminars and advisory services. For more information go to or call 508.313.9585

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