Successful Selling in a Softer Economy

Two things are on my mind this month. The first is a sales lesson I learned on a recent trip to South Africa. The second is the strategy you need when business is no longer a sure thing and people are cutting back on budgets.

South Africa Sales Lesson

We taxi out onto the tarmac for our 10-minute flight to Skukuza, where we will connect to another flight taking us to our final destination — Victoria Falls. So we’re in a six-seater plane just beyond a little intra-game-preserve lodge. Full of expectations and taking our last look at our zebra sendoff party standing on the side of the airstrip, we quickly realize the pilot (who looks all of 21 years old) is having trouble getting the second of the two propellers to start. He guns the engine several times to no avail.

The propellers spin, the engine sputters, and then both stop dead. The young pilot gets out of the plane to investigate more closely. He gets back in the plane, guns the engine one final time… but only silence. A few tense moments pass, and then he finally declares the plane is out of service. Whew! Were we relieved!

However, canceling our flight presented a new problem. That 10-minute flight turned into a very bumpy hourlong Land Rover ride over a single-lane, rutted, dirt and stone road. The result: We missed our flight to Victoria Falls and were now stuck in Johannesburg at 2 p.m. with nothing to do until the next flight, which wasn’t until the next morning.

Now, just in case you’re wondering where the sales lesson is, here it comes.

We immediately called Afro Ventures (which rented the plane and owns the lodge where we had just stayed), explained our dilemma, and then asked it to book us at one of the airport hotels for the evening. We had resigned ourselves to a fairly boring afternoon and a lost a half day of vacation. However, much to our happy surprise, Afro Ventures did much better than that. It arranged for all transfers, meals, and room fees, and put us up 30 minutes away at a beautiful hotel connected to a mall so that we could shop for the rest of the day.

Talk about customer service beyond the call of duty! The end result to our mini-fiasco: We had a really lovely afternoon and evening, saw a suburb of Johannesburg we would never have seen, and felt somewhat better about having missed half a day in Victoria Falls.

Now I don’t know what it cost Afro Ventures to give us that evening, but I can tell you that whatever the cost, Afro Ventures will earn it back many times over in our gratitude, satisfaction, and eagerness to refer the company to others — which I’m doing right now. Indeed, for those of you reading this article who most likely have never heard of South Africa-based Afro Ventures, my recommendation is that you bookmark the Afro Ventures site and use Afro Ventures if you ever plan a visit to South Africa.

The Sales Lesson

Although business is measured by the bottom line, sometimes it is better business to bump the bottom line for the service line.

Survival Strategy in a Weaker Market

Now, on to the second topic — the softer economy. After such an incredible sales year last year, clients are increasingly calling to say that sales shock is beginning to settle in, and they are taking a second look at every aspect of their sales operation (a very smart move).

Q: What do you do when budgets are tightening and buyer confidence is uncertain?

A: Don’t panic, and become more disciplined and creative than ever.

Here are a few steps you can follow to get back to basics:

  1. Review every existing account. Get face time with key players on more than one level. In other words, make sure you are up-to-date on their current challenges.

  2. Assume nothing. Don’t think that your accounts know all about you, your services, your new products, your markets, and your competitive strengths. Even if a prospective client can’t buy from you right now, use this time to build your brand so that you are the first one he or she calls when conditions improve.
  3. Know your own products, services, and markets cold so that you can be responsive to client needs.
  4. Play the numbers. The more contacts you have with accounts, the more likely you are to win business. Set a specific weekly number for yourself for existing face-to-face calls, new-business calls, and proposals sent.
  5. Leave no stone unturned. Connect with past accounts. Clients’ needs change. People switch jobs. Mergers happen. Management philosophies change. You could be the solution to someone’s problem and not know it.
  6. Get creative. Network at offbeat but related conferences. Send provocative new-business letters. Read your clients’ press opportunistically. Prospect smarter by calling the names of people listed as contacts in corporate ads or mentioned in articles. Skip the traditional PowerPoint presentation, and make your selling points original.
  7. Hone your skills. When you stop practicing your tennis or golf skills, your game deteriorates. The same holds true for your sales game. It’s time to sharpen your prospecting, preparing, questioning, presenting, closing, negotiating, follow-up, and creative-thinking skills.

Summary

Over-the-transom business is history. Sloppy selling is an unaffordable luxury. Getting back to basics is the way to weather a weakening economy.

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