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An Effective Sales Force In Tough Economic Conditions

What happened to the glory days of selling, where new prospect opportunities were abundant, dot-com companies were spending money in all directions, and sales organizations exceeded their revenue targets by two, and sometimes, three-fold?

Well, guess what? Economic conditions have changed. In the middle of a recession new customers have all but disappeared, existing customers have tightened their budgets, and most of the “low hanging fruit” has already been picked.

Where does that leave sales organizations?

The natural tendency is to panic. With the bottom line in jeopardy, many companies are now scrambling to reduce headcount and cut back on expenses. As a result, edicts have gone out stating that there will be no more off-site meetings, salespeople can only travel when absolutely necessary, and some companies have even put a moratorium on logo golf shirts.

Of course, corporate executives are also looking for ways to boost revenue. That usually means turning up the heat on the field sales organization to produce better numbers…or else! But increasing the pressure on the sales organization doesn’t usually increase revenue. A full-court press might bring in a few short-term sales, but at the end of the day, customers don’t respond well when they feel pressured into buying.

Once the initial panic subsides, and short-term corrective measures have run their course, companies need to step back and evaluate their sales readiness.

Over the last ten years, selling goods and services for the most part has been relatively easy. I liken it to investing in the stock market during the same period. With the exception of a few downward blips, investors could have made their stock picks by throwing darts at the newspaper and still brought home record returns. As the old adage says, “When the tide comes in, all the boats go up.”

Well, the tide certainly came in for salespeople during the 1990’s. Along with the evolution of the Internet, the world’s economy experienced an economic boom that was unprecedented in modern history. As a result, thousands of new companies sprang up, backed by tons of venture capital, offering huge stock options and significant incentives to salespeople who were willing to jump ship and take a chance on hitting a home run.

Those salespeople who were smart enough (or lucky enough) to get in and out at the right time are probably relaxing on a private island somewhere, sipping pina coladas and wondering what the working class is doing today. For the rest of us, the glory days of selling are long gone.

As the dust settles, sales managers should take a few moments and review what is to be learned from this upheaval. The most glaring lesson is the realization that during the best of times, sales organizations tend to get complacent when it comes to sales skills. Think about it. In the 1970’s and early 80’s, Fortune 100 giants like IBM, Xerox, and Merrill Lynch set the standard when it came to establishing training programs to develop the professional selling skills of their respective sales organizations.

Over the last ten years, however, enhancing the professional skills of the field sales force has been a corporate nice-to-have. And why? Let’s be honest. When salespeople are achieving their sales goals, why should anyone worry about selling skills? Similarly, when a salesperson’s resume shows they have a track record for hitting their numbers, it is assumed that they have sound professional selling skills.

But do they? It’s easy to fill up the sales forecast and close business when the economy is booming. But what about when times get lean? What are your salespeople doing now to engage new prospects to increase their sense of urgency? What are they doing to establish credibility with cautious prospects and fend off competitors who have become even more desperate? What are they doing to minimize objections and move sales process forward toward closure? What are they doing to leverage their strategic partners to increase both mindshare and marketshare?

Most of the sales training dollars invested over the past decade were spent on rolling out sales automation programs—to improve forecast accuracy and improve the efficiency of the sales organization. But what about making the individual salesperson more effective? Oops! Seems we forgot about that. Just look around your organization. Even if you have good people, chances are good they are each attacking the sales process differently—oftentimes, based on their experience from the past ten years. Oops again! Remember, the economy has changed and we are no longer selling into a market environment where there are easy pickings.

There’s no need to assign blame. There is, however, an opportunity to recognize that the best way out of an economic recession is to increase the effectiveness of your salespeople, so they can sell their way out. For many companies, this means going back to basics and improving the professional selling skills of their sales organizations.

When my first book, Secrets of Question Based Selling, came out, some people thought, “Who needs sales skills when business is booming?” Now that the pendulum has swung the other way, corporate managers are suddenly wondering, “Who needs sales automation tools and complex spreadsheets when the forecast is empty?”

Tom Freeze

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