John Graham

There’s only one problem salespeople face when times are good and that’s getting sloppy. It’s easy to be deluded by success, to believe that our success is due to our incredible ability to convince customers to do business with us. If the truth were told, customers were flush with cash and just wanted to place the order.

For the moment - and perhaps longer - customers are cautious, somewhat fearful and far less willing to sign our orders. They are far more thoughtful and slower to act. In such circumstances, what are salespeople to do? Simply hope for the best or emphasize lower prices? Here are 20 tough times sales tactics:

1. Keep customers and prospects informed, but don’t bombard.There’s been hardly a day since January that the warehouse retailer, Costco, hasn’t sent e-mails to its customers.

2. Don’t blink. There’s a tendency to want to hunker down and let the storm go by. This is the time to increase your visibility, particularly since the competition will likely become invisible, waiting for the good times to roll.

3. Offer help.What customers need more than anything else is help with innovative ideas. Be their sounding board. You’re the expert. Offer them help. If you can’t be of assistance, you don’t get business. Show them you can deliver more than a product or service.

4. Stay away from stupidity.In tougher times, the scam artists come out of the woodwork to prey on companies and salespeople feeling the impact of a downturn. It’s easy to be drawn to such offers as “100 free leads” or “we’ll make you more appointments than you can handle.” Salespeople are believers who fall for a good sales pitch.

5. Hang on to customers.In the summer of 2007, Sprint Nextel sent out letters canning a group of customers who called too much. While getting rid of high maintenance customers may seem tempting, it can backfire. Wharton professors Jagmohan Raju and Z. John Zhang indicate that dumping low-value customers may actually reduce profits, while efforts to enhance their value can be counterproductive. Fidelity Investments has low-value customers wait longer for their calls to be answered, and devotes more time to high-value customers. Instead of firing high maintenance, low-value customers, a better approach may be to keep them, but find more efficient ways to serve them.

6. Get serious about prospecting.The goal of a prospecting program is long-term growth, not instant sales. Get serious about identifying those who fit the profile of your best customers and start staying in touch with them via opt-in e-mail - direct mail seminars for example. Let them get to know that you’re serious, competent, and can help them. It pays off over time.

7. Focus on value. A clear shift is taking place with buyers. They want to know, “Where’s the value?” If this isn’t made clear, will they go elsewhere? A business owner tells of purchasing a high-end color printer and not once had the dealer made any effort to add value. “The only time they called us was when there was a 100 percent increase in the cost of supplies,” he said. “We’ll buy the next printer online.”

8. Make every meeting valuable. Most meetings waste time. Stop just dropping in on customers and have a clear purpose when you ask for a meeting and make sure the customer agrees that it is worthwhile.

9. Answer communications.Prompt, clear, and complete telephone and e-mail responses send the message that you’re timely and efficient, qualities that will set you apart from a majority of other salespeople. Use the spell check, too.

10. Know the economy.Reading trade publications is essential, but not enough. Know what’s going on in the economy, both short- and longer-term. If you must choose one source make itUSA Todayonline (, concise, helpful and accurate information.

11. Keep your antennae up.It’s easy to get blindsided in tougher times. Listen to customers. Don’t ignore their concerns and fears. Make sure your sales pitches and presentations speak to these issues. It sends the message that you are in sync with them.

12. Show customers ways to reduce costs. Don’t assume your customers believe you are looking for ways to save them money. In fact, they may actually feel you want to do just the opposite. Always be alert for cost-cutting solutions and be sure to let them know that this is how you’re working for them.

13. Tighten your schedule.We all fall into regular routines. We’d go nuts if we didn’t. Yet, that can work against us. Giving customers proper attention takes time, including making certain we stay in contact with them. If your routines haven’t changed, you may be wasting valuable time.

14. Introduce proprietary products.There is nothing that can be more useful and beneficial than proprietary products and services. Look at your supermarket’s shelves. Name brands are disappearing and lower cost store brands are taking up more space. Proctor & Co., a Massachusetts-based employee benefit firm, introduced its Proctor Plan to differentiate it from others in the industry and to have a health care product that maintains quality, but reduces employer costs.

15. Always tell the truth.While being truthful is always essential, it’s even more important in difficult times. This is when customers need candid, thoughtful advisors more than ever. It’s at such times as this that you can demonstrate to customers your true value.

16. Make every minute count.For example, never call a meeting without having an agenda. Also set time limits for meetings. If you’re making sales calls, do everything you can to group them as close together as possible. If you’re traveling to an area, arrange other appointments; don’t just plan to drop in, hoping someone will see you.

17. Stop the jargon and BS. Tougher times require plain, clear, and direct talk. Some customers will tolerate it in good times, but not when they are stressed and under pressure. Stop acting as if everything is coming up roses. If you don’t, you’ll come across as disingenuous or a fake.

18. Be patient.Acting rushed sends customers the message that you’re panicked. We don’t see it as much in ourselves as we do in others - and we don’t want to be around them. Both Pottery Barn and Costco have been e-blasting customers this year, at least two and three times a week. It gives the feeling they’re running scared. It’s time to nurture customers, not bombard them.

19. Don’t over promise.This is a tough one. When there are fewer or smaller orders, salespeople often have trouble resisting the temptation to over promise just to get an order. Then, when you can’t deliver on the promise, the empty excuses only serve to undermine your credibility and the next order goes to a competitor.

20. Don’t rely on the past. While Shakespeare said, “The past is prologue,” it may not be today. It’s always more comfortable to look backward than forward and to talk about what may lie ahead than face up to our track record. Where we have been is more comfortable than an unknown future. How many salespeople say, for example, “I know what my customers want,” while totally oblivious to the changing behavior, needs, and wants. They are blinded by a past that may lead them down the wrong path.

In tougher times, selling is tougher than ever. To be successful, to buck the trends, we need to make use of every resource we can. These 20 tactics can be helpful in making the most of a difficult economic environment.

Publication Date:08/11/2008