Sales: Read the signs

A short while back, I wrote about the plethora of how-to-sell-in-a-down-economy sales articles. It was as if there was a collective, “stop the presses” shout while all sales-related articles were repurposed (i.e. re-titled) to prescribe expert guidance on the subject.

My response to the universal prescriptions being offered up was that a down economy is just less forgiving of bad selling … selling doesn’t change.

During any economic macro cycle, every salesperson’s account base is going through its own economic micro cycle. This is the cycle that matters!

Within this economic microcosm there are always threats and opportunities for salespeople that are based on the normal ebb and flow of these firms’ fortunes. A broader economic downturn merely shifts the balance of ebbing and flowing.

Since that balance right now might be shifting more toward the ebb side of the tide, let me identify what I believe are the five most common changes – changes that most directly affect salespeople – that take place in a company when it is experiencing or anticipating harder times.

Before I start, let me offer a blinding insight into the obvious. When one company’s fortunes are declining, there’s often another having a banner year. Seen the wait at a cobbler shop lately?

Aside from the predictable cost-cutting measures, below are five of the most common philosophical and cultural changes to look for. Some clearly present threats, while others just as clearly present opportunities.


1. Decision-making authority moves up the chain of command.

Back in the early ‘90s, a friend of mine in a very low level job at Cisco Systems was quite literally making multi-million dollar buying decisions. Today, those same decisions have to go to John Chambers, Cisco’s CEO.

2. Companies solicit more bids and entertain more vendors.

One client had a customer who hadn’t gone out for competitive bidding in 10 years until six months ago! You need to drill deeper on this one, though, because some crafty buying departments just go through the motions of getting additional bids to show senior management that they feel the company’s pain. In other cases, there’s a mandate from above whose violation is a serious career incident.


3. Companies look closer at outsourcing.

This one’s a no-brainer to many companies. Tread carefully here, though: the very person who’s been your “contact” for years may be at the top of the list of outsourceable jobs. This phenomenon can take odd twists. At one extreme, your contact is defensive and less approachable. At the other, he’s looking at you as his potential new boss.

4. Everyone becomes more risk-averse.

This takes many forms. At the executive level, it might mean killing new-product development and other big initiatives. At the street level – your contacts – be mindful of No. 3 above. But also prepare for an overall reticence as everyone shifts into safe mode.


5. Incumbent suppliers become more vulnerable.

I know, it shouldn’t be this way. After all, who can possibly understand this account’s needs better than you? It’s just that people need to show management that they’re “doing something.” And replacing suppliers that have gotten complacent (whether it’s true or not) becomes a political agenda that is just too delicious to pass up. This can be a time when you find out what your relationships are really worth. And if I can be blunt: prepare for disappointment!

What skill will help you most in these troubled times? Seek Mode: the ability to step back, leave the product at the door and go into homework mode. And if ever there was a skill that is harder than it looks, this is it (Trust me, I know. I’ve spent a career showing salespeople how to do it).  n


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