Keep their chins up

The best medicine to cure a sick profit & loss (P&L) situation in your company, of course, is an increase in sales.

Yet, in a downturn, the trend is to chop support from the sales staff. “You’ll have to generate your own leads now, and also do your own correspondence and customer service for your accounts. We’re moving your administrative assistant into HR for the time being. You know, things are tight.”

Internally, this dwindling of support for sales results in less face time with prospects and customers. The salespeople actually need more time with those people, because in the target market where there used to be a solo decision-maker, in a downturn the decisions are typically made by committee and are scrutinized by many. So, presentations need to be made several times over instead of once. The customers take longer to get to a buy decision, and typically buy less per order.

Your sales staff feels the squeeze in house and in the marketplace. And still, you need the salespeople to be radiating confidence. A tough call.

It is tough, as well, to winnow out the star performers on the sales force from those just going through the motions. That doesn’t mean you have to send the non-performers packing, but you do have to be sure they are committed to upgrading their sales skills. You want to provide continuous training in all steps of the sales process, the simple laws and principles of selling.  That might even be enough if your business is rocking along in a hot market, if you can hardly get the orders out the door fast enough and if somehow you know that’s the way it’s going to be forever.

In other cycles (well always I’d say), each person on the sales force needs to be on a mission to sincerely help the prospect. Long before a focus on closing the sale, you want the focus to be on an in-depth understanding of the problems and concerns facing the prospect. The salesperson is building and maintaining a relationship at all times, and will enrich that relationship by bringing to the prospect creative ideas and pertinent data to help solve problems. Authenticity, honesty,  presence – all the golden qualities of relating – make the difference between someone who walks though all the steps of a sale and one who deepens  trust and respect with each contact. The science plus the art. I believe both can be learned if the heart is willing.

You may have a head of sales who exhibits these qualities and inspires them in her staff. If so, congratulations. Stay in close communication about navigating these times successfully. Have lots of conversations with other departments about company-wide support for sales. Listen deeply to the salespeople about ideas for new product development and anything else related to growing your business.

If instead, your sales staff is producing a chorus of moans about the times we’re in, if they’ve practically given up trying – you’d better make it your highest priority to turn that around. Yes, we are in a difficult economy. Everyone is affected one way or another. Buying slows – but it does not stop. Your customers still have problems that you can help solve. There are opportunities beckoning in any economic environment, including this one.

And you have an opportunity to truly claim your place as a leader. Reach inside to the qualities that you know are there, the qualities that make you uniquely equipped to guide your organization through stormy times as well as sunny days. You may be remembered forever for rising to the challenge and steering your business safely through this crisis. You may even surprise yourself. 

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