Whenthe Going Gets Tough, Go Back to Basics

Two things are on my mind this month. The first is surviving in a tough market. The second is an unexpected sales reminder that I experienced on my recent trip to South Africa.

Surviving in a Tough Market

What goes up must inevitably come down, although none of us likes to believe that truism when we’re up in the clouds. But what do you do when budgets are tightening and buyer confidence is uncertain? Don’t panic. Instead, get back to basics, become more disciplined, and be more creative than ever:

  • Review every existing account. Remember, your best prospects are your best customers. Get face time with key players at more than one level. Make sure you are up to date on their current challenges.

  • Assume nothing. Don’t think that your accounts know all about you, your services, your new products, your markets, your competitive strengths. Even if they can’t buy from you right now, use this time to build your brand and to show you’re there for them in all kinds of markets, so that you are the first call when conditions improve.
  • Know your own products, services, and markets cold. That way, you can be responsive to clients’ needs. It’s a good time to visit other departments in your own organization to find out what they are seeing, hearing, doing, creating, experiencing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard salespeople admit that they didn’t realize what was available from their own research, marketing, product development, or technical people. Meet with colleagues to share and borrow sales ideas and techniques.
  • Play the numbers. The more contacts you have with accounts, the more likely you’ll win business. Set specific weekly goals for face-to-face calls with current clients, new business calls, and number of proposals sent — and stick to those goals.
  • Leave no stone unturned. Connect with past accounts. Needs change. People switch jobs. Mergers happen. Management philosophies change. You could be the solution to someone’s problem and not know it.
  • Think creatively. Network at off-beat but related conferences. Send attention-grabbing new-business letters. Read your clients’ press opportunistically. Prospect smarter; for instance, call the names of people listed as contacts in corporate ads or mentioned in articles. Skip the traditional information/benefit presentations, and add more dramatic touches to build perceived value for your product/service. (Hire me to do an “Outrageous Thinking & Other Acts of Sales Wizardry” seminar for you. Now, that’s a good idea!)
  • Hone your skills. As in golf or tennis, when you stop practicing and taking lessons, your game tends to deteriorate. Your sales game is no different. It’s time to sharpen your prospecting, preparing, questioning, presenting, closing, negotiating, follow-up, and creative-thinking skills.

Over-the-transom business is history. Sloppy selling is an unaffordable luxury. The formula for surviving — and in fact thriving — in a weakened economy is this:

  • Get back to basics.

  • Be superdisciplined.
  • Think creatively.

South Africa

So we taxi out onto the tarmac for our 10-minute flight to Skukuza for a connection to Johannesburg, from which we would go to our next destination, Victoria Falls. We’re in a six-seater. We’re full of expectations and taking our last look at our send-off party, a group of zebras lined up at the edge of the airstrip, which is no more than a tar road in the middle of an open field; but we quickly realize that the pilot (who looks all of about 21) is having trouble getting the second of the two engines to start. He guns it a few times. The propeller spins, the engine sputters, and both stop dead. He tries again. Nothing. He gets out of the plane to investigate more closely. He gets back into the plane. He guns it again. Silence. Resisting the urge to scream, “Let us outta here!” we all anxiously wait for his verdict. Finally, to everyone’s relief, he declares the plane out of service.

However, canceling the flight presents a new problem. We still have to get to Skukuza. That 10-minute flight becomes a very bumpy, one-hour Land Rover ride over a single-lane, rutted, dirt-and-stone road, occasionally interrupted by an impala sighting. The result: We miss our flight to Victoria Falls and are now unexpectedly stuck in Johannesburg at 2 p.m. with nothing to do until the next flight the next morning.

Here comes the sales lesson.

We call our local agents at Afro Ventures who had booked the plane for us, explain the dilemma, and ask them to book us at one of the airport hotels for the evening. We resign ourselves to a fairly boring afternoon and a lost half-day of vacation.

However, they do much better than that. They arrange for all transfers as well as dinner and room fees, and they put us up 30 minutes away at a beautiful hotel connected to a mall so that we have something to do for the rest of the day.

Talk about customer service beyond the call of duty! The result is that we have a lovely afternoon and evening, see a suburb of Johannesburg we would have never seen, and feel somewhat better about missing half a day in Victoria Falls.

I don’t know what it cost Afro Ventures to give us that evening, but I can tell you that they earned it back many times over in our gratitude, satisfaction, and eagerness to refer them to others — which I will do in a moment.

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

Indeed, for the thousands of you who most likely have never heard of South Africabased Afro Ventures, and for the few of you who will one day need a travel agent for your vacation to that country, I enthusiastically refer you to www.afroventures.com.

For the record, I’ve been all over the world for business and vacations and can say unequivocally that South Africa is one of the best places in the world to go on holiday. Email me if you’d like specific suggestions.

Until the next time, successful selling!

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