Sales consultancy Huthwaite recently conducted a survey asking senior executives if they are finding it more difficult to sell in the present economic climate. An unsurprising 88% of respondents confirmed that the recession is indeed making sales more difficult. 47% of them are now having to accept deals that make them very little profit.
Steven Shove, VP of information provider OneSource Information Services, says: “In a recession companies need to feel far more comfortable to part with their money. Approval limits and processes change, decisions become delayed or postponed and at the very least are scrutinised a lot more. The salesperson has to factor all of these scenarios and more into their work even if they are to stand still.”
The same is true for consumer sales. To put it simply, the recession is making life in our profession much tougher. This much we all know - the question is what to do about it. After all, as Marcus Cauchi, MD of sales trainers S.A.L.T Europe, puts it: “Recession doesn't mean the economy has stopped. People are buying - just not from you.”
Step it up a gear
Business coach Marc Hogan believes there are two steps salespeople can take to improve their sales figures in a recession: “First, if there is any way to work harder or faster, then you should be aiming to do so. In a recession, surviving as a salesperson is about upping your game, so if a person’s sales ratio has dropped from one in three to one in six as a result of the recession, they need to up their calls or pitch volume by 50% to keep their sales figures healthy.”
However, not everyone agrees that working harder is necessarily the answer. Annalize Cuthill, Sales Director at Huthwaite, says: “Many managers revert to pressing the ‘more’ button, but in all the research we’ve done in the last 30 years, we’ve seen no evidence that this works. Asking a sales team to make more calls, to chase up every scrap of potential business and put pressure on them to close sales might create a lot of activity but in most cases, it simply diverts them from the actions that might help them win good business.”
Target the right sectors
So, instead of simply upping your workrate you need to change the way you do things. Hogan’s second piece of advice is to improve your targeting by looking back at your records and working out which types of buyer, company or industry you have had most success with in the past. In the same way, the recession is not affecting every industry to the same extent, so you can improve your conversion rates by targeting those that still have money to spend.
Chris Gallagher, Training and Development Director at business development consultancy Upfront Business Development, says: “There are some sectors that are getting hit far more than others. Automotive, estate agency, travel agents, and training have all been crippled by this recession, but industries like teleconferencing and budget retail chains, are faring relatively well. It makes sense to be targeting them.”
The consultative sell
As well as re-thinking your targeting, you should also be looking at your technique. Dr Peter Hughes, Chief Executive at Cognition Group runs sales training courses, and he believes that the most important thing for salespeople to realise is that in a recession buyers are looking for safety: “People tend to panic in a recession and do everything they can to find the safest option,” he explains.
He continues: “Buyers want to do business with people they trust. So, sales becomes even more about the relationship, and a consultative sell becomes even more important. High pressure sales techniques will just put people off. Instead, salespeople need to listen to their customers, ask the right questions, avoid making assumptions, and provide the appropriate solutions and reassurance.”
He concludes: “More than anything else it is about understanding your prospect’s world and fitting your product or service into it.” Note that the safest option is not necessarily the cheapest option. Get this sort of consultative sell right and you can maintain your margins, even in a recession.
Christine Knott, MD of sales trainers Beyond the Box, recommends neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) as a useful technique for proving to your customers that you do understand their world. Often seen as a mysterious, even dark, art, NLP is in fact a fairly straightforward but potential very powerful sales technique.
Knott explains: “People tend to use either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic words. So, those who favour visual language will use phrases such as ‘Do you see what I mean?’, those who prefer auditory words might say ‘Can you hear what I’m saying?’, and those inclined towards kinaesthetic phrases would say ‘Do you get a feel for this?’”
She continues: “Once you identify someone’s style, respond back to them by using their preferred language of words. It is unconsciously flattering to the receiver and they will also have a better understanding of the content. It helps build a quick rapport and a solid foundation for any sale.”
You can take it further, showing pictures and samples to stimulate the visuals, allowing the kinaesthetics to handle the samples, and describing your product or service to the auditories.
Go back to basics
While these more complex techniques can work and produce results for salespeople who are struggling through a recession, it is equally important not to lose sight of the fundamentals. In fact Mark Savinson, MD of Accredit Limited, who has BT Global Services, BT Wholesale Markets, AT Comms
and Orange Business as clients, has worked also with HP, IBM, and coaches many of the world's leading telecoms sales teams, does not believe that selling in a recession is that different to selling in a boom.
He says: “There is a real misunderstanding that the approach to selling changes depending on the state of the economy. Whilst it is true that closing the deal becomes easier in a booming economy, the fundamentals of selling do not change. Salespeople need to listen to prospects, clearly articulate the benefits of their solution, and look for opportunities to cross-sell. They need to identify what works for them and then repeat it.”
Finally, you need to stay positive. This is for two reasons. Firstly, salespeople always need to appear positive. As Hugo Mahoney, Sales Director of information provider LexisNexis puts it: “Above all else, retain your personal confidence and optimism. Customers buy from confident, assured suppliers; they don't buy from people or suppliers who are one step away from meltdown!”
Secondly, despite all the gloomy forecasts, the tumbling budgets and the news of redundancies, there is still much to be positive about. People are still spending. There is business to be won. And the salespeople who have reacted to this recession by sharpening their targeting, refining their sales skills, and reinforcing their focus on the fundamentals of their trade will, when the good times finally return, be in an ideal situation to take full advantage and prosper.