Selling in a Downturn

From the keyboard of Doug Cowan  |  August, 2013.

Selling in a downturn can be a very difficult and stressful time for many sales people. Success is often found in doing some straight-forward activities that look obvious but get lost when the pressure is on.

Here are eight suggestions to help sales people get through recessionary times and come out stronger than they were going in.

1.       Stay Positive.

The power of positive thinking is an acknowledged tactic in helping people get through the toughest of situations. Staying positive not only helps you, but it also benefits those around you, including your customers. This is a time for you to bring positive energy to your customers. They will welcome you when you call.

Ideas for staying positive include the following:

a)  As you begin your business day, remind yourself that you have been successful in the past and will be so again to the same level or even greater.

b)  Start each sales call with a mental image of the customer thanking you for being there and helping them understand or solve a problem. Visualize yourself being successful.

c)   Stay away from negative influences, whether that is the office complainer, or reading the business section of the newspaper. Don’t join in conversations about how bad things are.

d)  In sales meetings, ask the convener to have all participants speak about one positive customer event they have experienced. This is best done at the start of a meeting.

2.       Keep Working Hard.

This is what you’ve been doing, isn’t it? For some, not necessarily. The absence of the above activity (staying positive) actually consumes a lot of mental energy and distracts us from the tasks at hand. Even with good work habits and discipline, we waste time and creative energy worrying about consequences we can’t control.

Working hard doesn’t necessarily mean putting in more hours of effort (although, in some cases, this can be extremely helpful for short periods of time). Working hard is all about separating out those things that will produce positive consequences from other activities, and committing to doing them.

Here are some specific actions:

a)  Create a to-do list of some sort at the start of each day. This can be a simple hand-written list or the formatted output of a CRM program.

b)  Include on the list only those activities that you guarantee to yourself you can and will actually do today. Don’t overload it with everything that you need to do for the week. Be specific in writing your items.

c)   Further, only include activities that will directly help you reach your important goals (usually sales or profit targets). (Examples: moving deals forward in the sales process, building your pipeline, delivering value to a customer or prospect, self-development activities). If you do this right, you may spend more time in deciding to eliminate some actions than writing down what you are going to do.

d)  Accurately record the results of completing your list. Be honest with yourself.  Some items may carry over, but that should be the exception, not the rule

You will find that this is hard work. And, it is work focused on getting the results you need.

3.       Continue to Aggressively Look for new Prospects.

During a downturn, it’s easy to have the opinion that if my existing customers are not buying, then there are no new prospects to be found. This statement is simply not true.

New business is harder to find, yes. Many successful companies, however, have increased their market share during a downturn by signing up customers that their weaker competitors could not serve or hold onto.

Here are four simple ideas to help you be a strong prospector:

1.   Schedule time in your workweek to prospect and commit to do it. (Put it on your to-do list).

2.   Know your performance numbers and ratios. During a downturn, you will need more prospecting activity to produce the same sales result.

3.   Do both warm- and cold-call prospecting. Don’t assume that an unfamiliar place will not hold a new business opportunity.

4.   Be prepared and practice. Have your ‘elevator pitch’ down cold. You never know when you will need it.

4.       Be a Ruthless Qualifier.

The pressure is on to find business, so anyone who is remotely interested in what you are selling becomes a prospect, right? Wrong. At this time, we need to be as highly selective in identifying prospects as we were during the ‘good times’.

If you fill your pipeline full of ‘non-prospects’, you won’t have time to see the few goods ones that are out there. It might look like you are busy with a lot of potential clients, but you are actually wasting your time if these prospects are not in a position to buy. Your best action is to find out as quickly as you can if someone is able to purchase from you within a reasonable period of time. If not, put them down for future contact and continue to prospect for someone who will buy now. They are the ones to focus on. Ignore the rest for the time being.

5.       Look for Cross-Selling Opportunities.

If your customer is not buying from you at the moment, what about the other products or services that your company sells? Many companies offer a range of products, often through a separate sales force or other channel.

It makes a lot of sense to offer to help your whole company find business. This creates a stronger economic environment and helps protect everyone’s job. Be sure you get acknowledgement for this activity.

6.       Understand and Work your Sales Process.

In tough times, the tendency when you find a qualified prospect is to get to the Close as quickly as you can, to shut out the competition and to get the order before the prospect changes his mind. This means you tend to short-cut or overlook some parts of your sales process. The result is a prospect who is undersold and possibly over-pressured. This could lead to a long-term customer satisfaction problem and lost future business.

The steps in your sales process before the Close are the actions that build trust and confidence between you and your prospect. The way to beat the competition and to hold your prospect’s interest is to do these actions fully and competently.

7.       Continue to Look after Existing Customers.

These are the customers that kept you busy during the ‘good’ times. They may be experiencing difficulty in their markets with their customers, and may still need your help even if they are not buying from you at the moment.

Let these customers know that you intend to look after them and return the loyalty they showed you. Obviously, you need to look after your company’s interests, too. If a customer is a financial risk to your company, you need to set expectations appropriately.

8.       Be Creative.

In sales, creativity sets you apart from the competition. When times were good, we were all busy looking after customers, delivering solutions and solving problems. To be efficient, we gave up some of our creative activities.

It is now time to return to this strength. Customers need the good ideas that we have in our heads about their business issues and problems. Now is the time to package these ideas into unsolicited proposals and present them. Even if customers are not buying now, they will often recognize the importance of your idea and appreciate the effort. This can lead to all kinds of positive reactions over the longer term.


Use some or all of the above ideas to start or accelerate your recovery from the downturn.


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