Sales Survival Guide in a Tough Economy

By Sam Kariuki

Our Sales Numbers are Low. What do we do?

In the last 24 months this has been the most common question we have received. The economy is tough for most businesses. Selling in this economy is becoming harder and harder. It doesn’t matter what product or service you are offering it is harder selling now than it was a few months ago. Competition is stiffer. Price competition is the new normal. Government policies and regulations are not easing matters for business. Consumer and institutional purchasing ability is reducing.

Business people are problem solvers. They cannot sit and lament when there are bills to pay. So, they trying many solutions at least to remain afloat. Some have opted to hire new people with a promise to sell to replace existing non-performers.   Other have had motivational talks and trainings to see if they can light some fire in their sales teams. While others have changed sales management. Have the numbers changed. In majority of cases not much has changed. In some cases, they have deteriorated.

In good economic times most, sales teams tend to do well- even if they are not run well. They are on sales autopilot.

Sales on Autopilot

The autopilot approach is not reliable when going through the turbulence of tough economy and tough business environment. To navigate the challenges there are decisions and choices that have to be made deliberately. . These choices have to do with strategies to use, resources to deploy, areas to focus on among many others.

While this describes the experience of every sales leader and business owner the question remains: Is there anything I can do to improve my sales numbers?

Whenever a client confronts us with this question we have sought to go deeper and understand their core challenges.  Low sales numbers are symptoms of underlying sales problems. We open the hood to see how well the sales engine is running. We look whether there are aspects of sales are being ignored. We identify the resources that are being mismanaged. We figure out which ones need fine tuning. Since sales organizations are human organizations this diagnosis is rarely easy. It is intricate and complex. But over the years we have learnt which questions to ask and where to look.

In most cases we have found out the main underlying problems cover: Deployment and management of sales effort; Use of sales resources; engagement and development of sales people.

7 Ideas to Grow Sales

In this piece we give general solutions that we have seen work to help many businesses at least stop the downward spiral and others return to growth path.  The speed at which they work and how well they work is dependent on the extent of the disease and willingness to swallow the bitter pill of changing how things are done.

Without further ado here are some of the solutions that can help improve your sales numbers in the tough economy.

1. Review your sales plan

When did you last have a look at you sales plan- if you have one? When was it developed? What were the business conditions then? Do these conditions still exist? How much of this plan guide your actions today? It is important to check how relevant that sales plan is.

I have had businesses that have not reviewed their plans for years yet the businesses circumstances change every day. Many others made a plan which they don’t use.

Following a plan that is right for your current business situation and economic factors will make a very big difference on how your business will progress in the tough environment.

2. Harvest low hanging fruits first

I had a conversation with a client early in the year. We asked whether the business needed a sales first aid or comprehensive surgery. We agreed the business though it will need surgery it couldn’t afford to wait for it we opted for first aid. Recently we began conducting the surgery.

First aid involved picking the low hanging fruits which was going back to customers who had done business with them with better purchase offers. Surgery involved setting up a whole new organization.

We also had a customer in cosmetics business who was struggling and had asked for a lot of our strategy development and execution support. But they needed quick sales to meet their immediate cash requirements. We thought of the best first aid for the them which including the shop arrangement, purchase incentives and the putting more smiling hours on the faces of the attendants.

3. Focus your sales energies to maximize results from them

Sales effort can be costly especially if it is spread all over. In the tough economy, many businesses tend to spread their effort everywhere in the hope that they will not miss out on any new opportunity in the market. Unfortunately, by doing so they tend to miss out on a lot of opportunities. In tough economy the best approach is to focus on maximizing results by have your sales efforts focused on few opportunities.

For every minute, coin or any other resource the returns must be maximized. This requires careful consideration on what it will take to get the optimal result.

Working with one organization we looked at how much travel expenses by sales people are and how many people the called in a day. We recommended adjustments to call plan which was the easiest action. Then we moved in to focus on improving the quality of the call which involved refining the selling skills of the people. From the same number of calls sales went up four times.

4. Retain and develop average sales performers into superstars

When the going gets tough everyone wants tougher sales people. The go out to buy them. They hope the new ones will become miracle workers. While we have hired miracle workers for a number of businesses, they are generally rare and far between.

A better approach has been to develop the average players in your team. These are the C players in your team.  They normally carry their weight and, in most cases, they have a positive attitude. What most average performers lack are the skills and support structures to make them become B and A players.

5. Hire sale people intelligently, if you have to.

The worst time to hire is during a sales crisis. The next worst time is when you must hire. Both of these times are ever present during tough economic times.

There is probably no greater cost in sales than that of hiring wrongly. Many businesses engage is trial and error approaches to pick that stellar sales person who will come in and solve all their problems. They seek a highly motivated person. One who will work eight hours a day A fearless man or woman who is always chasing an opportunity. A masters of closing the deal. This super human is expected to operate even in the most disorganized situation or circumstances.

The person promises heaven and employer promises great rewards.

Unfortunately, the marriage made in heaven is short-lived. Both parties are disillusioned and frustrated within a short time. In the best of economies this scenario is replicated across many businesses.  During a tough economy it plays with every blinking of an eye.

The remedy to this is hiring intelligently. Intelligent hiring involves getting the best person fit for the role, having realistic expectation of what the person, set-up structures that enable the new higher to plugin easily and have a short rump up time. The person is then put through a program that puts him on the right footing to start producing.

Hiring right sales people is an investment with huge positive returns.

If you hire badly the total cost is massive in terms of lost business, wasted time and financial costs are massive.

6. Address sales de-motivators before trying to motivate sales team

Never keep a sales person if you are not willing to remove all factors that leave them frustrated.

Selling even in the best of economic times is not a very easy task. In tough economy where everyone is price sensitive and competitors are too keen to play the price card that difficulty is multiplied many times. In that case the sales person cannot afford to deal with systems, processes and policies that seem designed to punish bringing in the order.

It is acceptable that every business take care to avoid being conned but such caution should be exercised in a way that doesn’t communicate mistrust of the sales person. Not being trusted is one of the biggest demotivator for sales people.

Other demotivators include not as human beings; ignoring a salesperson concerns -even when they seem petty; disregarding feedback they have generated from the field.

You may not do anything to motivate with no self-drive but there is plenty that happens in businesses that kill off even the most self-driven person.

In a tough economy you don’t want wastage of resources. A demotivated sales person is a very expensive resource to maintain. You don’t want to be the cause of demotivation.

7. Align your sales incentives to business goals

Compensation structure is the most basic sales aspect that any business should get right. There is the fixed compensation and the variable pay which comes as a commission or any other incentive for achieving certain objectives. The variable aspect is the most important and need to operate as the fuel that powers sales effort.

I have seen incentive plans that work as brakes rather than gas pedal for sales performance. They reward mediocrity rather than excellence. Some are outrightly unfair while others are designed such that no one can benefit. Others are changed at the whims of the management. There are those that are opaque that no one can tell what they will earn even at the end of the month.

Losing sales people because of poorly designed and ineffective sales compensation structure is dumb. It is even more dumb if it doesn’t encourage A, B and C sales people to aim to maximize their pay.

In tough business environment the compensation structure needs to be well thought out to drive performance rather than hinder it.

Are these the only things that can be done to improve sales numbers in a tough economy? No. Are they all applicable in your business? Of course not. So which ones can work best for you? You can have your management team consider them or you could call us for free sales consultancy whereby we can help you choose the best course of action for your business.

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