Selling in Tough Times

Thu, 30 May 2024 Updated By: Brett Lyons

Have you heard the anachronym VUCA?

It is one that I have not heard for some time, yet suddenly I have heard it several times in the last couple of months. VUCA has its origins in USA military training, it is used to describe a situation that is:

  • Volatile
  • Uncertain
  • Complex
  • Ambiguous

Well, there is one thing for certain, VUCA is a term that applies to the markets many of us are currently operating in right now. The reality is we are operating in a VUCA and faced with ‘Selling in Tough Times’.

So how do we deal with the ‘economic rebalancing’, ‘slow down’, or ‘adjustment’.

The natural reaction is to work harder and that certainly helps. However, the solution is not just working harder, in sales it is about working differently in four areas:

1 Sales Approach

In the downturn that followed the 2008 crash, two types of sales people emerged:

    1. Professionals

Individuals who were planned, organised and structured. Sales people who realised that one of the key issues in tough times for customers and prospects alike is ‘confidence’.

Decision makers have to be certain that they are making the right decision when placing business. Potential loss or damage to business and personal reputation becomes a key buying motive in hard times.

“Our current supplier is good, what if these new people let us down?”

One of the common behaviours of the ‘professionals’ is that they regularly take the time to complete a needs analysis with high value or high potential customers, as part of managing the account, not just when there is a sales opportunity.

It demonstrates commitment and provides the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of the customer business. Most importantly it is a meeting that generates new opportunities.

    1. Enthusiasts

Enthusiasts work hard, chase everything and sell on price. Success is limited, because this group make price the focus of everything and loose sight of customer needs. In reality this is an approach that damages customer confidence and fails to motivate decision makers to place business or switch to new suppliers.

So, to build confidence make sure you:

      • Plan professionally for every sales meeting.
      • Have the skills to complete a needs analysis that generates new opportunities
      • Managing sales opportunities using a clear structure that builds customer confidence.

You may be saying ‘I do that’ or ‘We do that’.

That’s great but ask yourself ‘Could I do it better?’

2 Managing Sales Opportunities

Pre-Covid we had a relatively buoyant economy, low interest rates and inflation under control. An economy in which many sales people enjoyed a flow of incoming enquiries from both new and existing customers. Enquiries that generate opportunity and initiate the sales cycle.

This economy brings a dramatic change, as a sales person you now have to pro-actively generate sales opportunities!

The danger here is you becomes a headless chicken, chasing any opportunity, working crazy hours and worst of all selling on price, usually at unprofitable prices.

The first priority is to retain business. Your challenge is to become more efficient and effective to ensure existing customers are retained. Three things to focus on are:

    • Customer Contact: review your coverage plans. Make sure that you are in regular contact with all of your customers utilising a combination of meetings, telephone contact, social media and e-mail broadcast. Produce articles and suggest ideas that will help your existing customers and prospects generate new thinking and most importantly create a sense that you are working with them.

From personal experience, I can recall more than one customer in the last downturn saying to me

‘You were the only provider who stayed in contact on a regular basis’.

Guess who they did business with when things got better.

    • Structured Weeks: to make sure your contact plans work you must manage time efficiently. Do you need to bring a disciplined structure to your week that facilitates time for customer meetings, telephone contact, administration and planning? Time is so valuable, make sure you use it wisely
    • Sales Skills: take a look in the mirror and review your sales skills.
      The one skill that ensure each sales opportunity is maximised is your ability to complete a needs analysis. Downturn or not, you should complete a needs analysis on the basis of a business review with each customer at least once a year. Today it is essential, have you got plans in place to do this and are your questioning skills sharp?

3 Closing and Commitment

In tough times it is inevitable that customers take more time over decision-making. Two things happen:

    • People are cautious, they don’t want to make a bad decision
    • More people become involved in the decision-making process.

The result is that sales people are faced with the statement “I’m waiting for sign off”.

Deal with this through the application of good stakeholder management techniques. Your challenge is to identify at all levels the ‘Economic’, ‘User’ and ‘Adviser’ stakeholders in each sales opportunity and then:

    • Use discussion documents as a catalyst to go and meet them
    • Identify the ‘Decision Factors’ and ‘Buying Motives’ of each stakeholder. Then provide a business solution that meets them.
    • Understand how each stakeholder views your business. If they are:
      • Supporters use them as a source of advice
      • Blockers establish why. If someone is not on your side you must deal with any misconceptions. If you cannot change their views demonstrate that you are willing to listen and try to accommodate their views
    • Ensure stakeholders understand that you are working with them to provide solutions and not just selling. In small accounts this may involve just one or two people, in a large customer it may involve a network of many people.

4 Negotiation

In tough times you have to do more to close sales, so negotiation skills become critical.

Your aim is to negotiate without giving profit away. Key to this is making sure that issues around feasibility and value are dealt with, before any negotiation of terms and conditions:

    • Feasibility: ensuring the customer is confident, believes what you have said and is confident your solution will meet their needs
    • Value: the value your solution will deliver.

Then, and only then, should terms and conditions be discussed. What is the point of negotiating on a solution if a customer is not convinced they want to buy?

Some areas to work on:

    • Confidence: practice delivering your price with confidence. If you don’t believe your proposition is worth your price, your customer won’t!
    • Be a Rhino: remember a rhinoceros is thick-skinned and charges a lot! When you negotiate expect a reaction from the customer and stand by your proposition
    • Small Steps: negotiate in small steps and communicate to the customer that there is little scope for movement
    • Negotiate Everything: don’t give anything away. Something may have little value to you, but it may mean a lot to the customer
    • Walk Away: if the customer will only deal at a price where you do not make money, then walk away. There is no point doing business if you are going to lose money. The consequence is weak business relationships, lack of commitment and of course disastrous financial consequences.

So, four things to think about, ‘Sales Approach’, ‘Managing Sales Opportunities’, ‘Closing and Commitment’ and ‘Negotiation’. See if you can get more out o the opportunities you have.

Brett Lyons

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