How to Sell in a Slow Economy
Experts have declared a recession, and you can hear the collapse of sales funnels everywhere. Account managers complain about how difficult it is to close business in the slowing economy. This isn’t a big surprise.
Less than half of today’s business-to-business sales professionals have ever weathered a true economic downturn. These folks learned how to sell in the nifty ’90s, which saw one of the longest business expansions in U.S. history. It’s not that hard to hit quota with double-digit market returns and huge job growth—but what should you do when the economy starts to tap the brakes? What can sales organizations do to close more business in a weak economy?
Get back on the path to success by answering the three questions below. I can’t guarantee that they’ll work for everyone, but I can guarantee that they work.
1. HOW MUCH ENERGY AM I WASTING ON INSIGNIFICANT ACTIVITIES?
You’ve probably heard that business will improve if your account managers just make more appointments, increase the number of demos, give more presentations and ramp up their number of cold calls. Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with increasing these selling activities, especially if you sell low-value products to one-time customers.
But experience tells me that chasing everything that looks like an opportunity may keep account managers busy, but it doesn’t make them more effective. They’ll be working hard, but they won’t be working smart. Eventually, they will burn out their prospects and themselves. Start now by reevaluating every opportunity in the pipeline using the following questions. The quality of your answers determines the quality of your future business:
a) Why should this prospect buy? What compelling business reasons have been identified and agreed to?
b) Why would they buy from your company? Does the prospect understand and value your unique differentiators?
c) Why buy now? What negative consequences will the prospect experience if this opportunity stalls?
Focus your team on the best selling opportunities and invest there. You’ll create more success by investing the right resources in 10 solid opportunities than you will by chasing 25 half-baked leads.
2. AM I MAKING EVERY CONVERSATION COUNT?
Challenge your sales organization to create a list of compelling reasons why decision makers should give them 20 minutes. This list must focus on the real benefits in meeting with the account manager—not the account manager’s motivation in wanting to meet with the decision maker.
This is a challenging exercise, but it’s one that too many sales reps have ignored for too long. Get other members of your organization to participate and brainstorm ideas, then scrub them until they’re clear and compelling. These ideas are the springboard for getting in front of the right decision makers and motivating them to explore your ideas.
Clients should be impressed with the preparation around each sales interaction. When your team demonstrates that they’ve done their homework, prospects will become more willing to have an open and honest dialogue. When the economy slows down, people get nervous. They don’t want to waste time unless they see potential value and they’re comfortable that your reps aren’t just trying to sell them something.
Encourage your sales professionals to start client conversations with this simple statement: “In preparing for this meeting, I took some time to….” Then have them highlight the two or three critical things that they did to prepare, and watch what happens to the atmosphere of the call: Your team will blow away the last rep who opened a meeting with this prospect by announcing that he was just “checking in” to see if anything new was going on.
The goal is to stop trying to educate your customers. Unless they’re engaged, they won’t care. Talking about your company, your products and your reputation will not engage customers. Talk about them, ask about them, provide ideas for them and communicate in terms of them—not you.
3. AM I ASKING HIGH-IMPACT QUESTIONS?
Knowledge is a key ingredient in sales success, especially in a slowing economy. The more your account managers demonstrate knowledge, the more prospects will take time to listen. The best way to establish expertise is not by pitching features; it’s by asking questions that differentiate the value your account managers bring to every call.
Many sales professionals fall into the common trap of asking self-serving questions: “What does your purchasing process look like?” is a mind-numbing, self-serving question that doesn’t create new insights and adds zero value to the dialogue. Your customer hears these types of questions every day.
Instead, ask questions that get customers to stop and think. Ask questions they haven’t been asked before, so they’ll pause to say, “That’s a really good question.” Here are some examples to help jump-start your thinking:
“There’s a lot of information that I could share with you, but I’d like to know what your specific goals for this conversation are. What are the most important things you feel we should focus on to make this meeting a valuable use of your time?”
“At the end of the day, what’s going to be the biggest difference between the one representative that will win your business and the nine others that don’t?”
“What questions need to be asked that no one else is asking you?”
Creating high-impact questions takes extra time, but it’s worth every minute. Start investing more time in research and preparation, and less time running from sales call to sales call. I know this contradicts traditional wisdom, but today’s marketplace isn’t a traditional selling environment.
Don’t pick up the phone or walk into a prospect’s lobby until you’re absolutely ready to engage in a meaningful dialogue. You won’t get a second chance to impress anyone in the current economy, so make sure every conversation counts.
DON’T BLAME THE ECONOMY.
Companies still have to buy goods and services, no matter what the economy is doing. They may buy differently or less, but they still have to buy. If you can’t convince prospects that what you have to offer is a solid investment with a meaningful return, then maybe the problem lies closer to home.
The major objection most reps face during slow times is, I have no money. How is that possible? If your customers have no money, then they’re out of business. What they’re really saying is, Your ideas aren’t worth paying for.
TIM WACKEL is the founder and president of the Wackel Group, a training and consulting firm in Dallas, Tex.