Crash Course in ... dealing with falling sales

Your latest revenue forecast looks like a car going over a cliff - and it's not clear how far it has to fall before hitting the bottom. Either you find a way to get sales going again or there will have to be serious cost-cutting.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Be positive. In a previous downturn, Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, quipped: 'I was asked what I thought about the recession. I said I'd thought about it and decided not to participate.' Lee Duncan, a business growth coach, says: 'The first thing you've got to do is have some self-belief. If you have your head down, you won't sell anything.'

Don't stop marketing. There's plenty of evidence from the likes of McKinsey and London Business School to show that firms that cut their advertising and marketing budgets lose out in the short term as well as in the long run. One LBS study found that 'during the recovery phase, the people who maintained spend in the recession gained market share at the expense of those who cut spend'. Instead of cutting activity, consider diverting spend to more accountable forms of marketing, such as the web, direct response or promotions.

Target your effort. Professor Neil Rackham, author of Spin Selling, says: 'In hard times, people put a lot of effort into chasing every opportunity they think they can get, and as a result, they half-sell to twice as many customers.' Identify your best customers and concentrate your effort on them.

Hold a sale event. Don't discount indiscriminately. A 25% price cut on your main products will destroy your profits. Instead, create an eye-catching offer on old stock that you want to dispose of, and turn it into an event to attract new or lapsed customers to your business, giving you the opportunity to sell more profitable lines.

Sharpen up your sales team. 'In boom times, sales teams are lazy and don't work as hard as they can,' says Duncan. 'In tough times, you need to manage them effectively.' Cut out the dead wood - or put them on performance management with a deadline to improve - and make sure you retain your stars. Provide training if needed, and use proficiency tests, references and psychometric testing to ensure those you recruit have the right stuff. 'If you take on a poor performer, you're not only carrying their salary and training costs, but also the cost of leads you give to them,' adds Duncan.

Incentivise your people to sell. Make sure everyone in the firm appreciates the importance of selling, and introduce incentives for those who refer leads to the sales team.

Mind who you sell to. Credit control becomes paramount in a recession. 'Switch off supply rather than continue to feed a customer who is a late payer,' private equity specialist Jon Moulton told a recent gathering of accountants. He added: 'Link sales commissions to cash, so the salesforce sells only to people who pay.'

Do say: 'We are going to sell our way through this downturn.'

Don't say: 'It's hopeless. Who's going to want to buy from us now?'

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