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Sales representatives take on a tough economy

January 1st, 2009 / By: / Management, Marketing

Does an economy on the skids change anything for sales reps? Maybe—but remember the basics. It’s still about relationships.

Sales is the lifeblood of any business. So—how’s your blood pressure?

These are interesting times. With the economy on the skids, the job salespeople do is that much tougher. Customers haggle and stall, trying for discounts, claiming hard times. That can frustrate go-go sales reps, who are trying to make commissions and keep their shops running, even if it means taking jobs on a break-even basis.

What should salespeople do that they aren’t already doing?

Maybe nothing—if thinking in parallel with customers has always been the routine. “What works,” says Ed Burak, president of Hudson Awning & Sign Co. Inc. in Bayonne, N.J., “is staying as close to the customer as possible.” In any case, through bust and boom, remember this mantra: “People have money for what they really want to do,” says consultant Bill Whitley of Charlotte, N.C. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s good times or bad times.”

Sales representatives use money-saving strategies

Good salespeople certainly earn their keep, but selling isn’t rocket science. It’s as simple—or as complex—as establishing and maintaining relationships with customers. Your business provides something customers want and will pay to get. Salespeople are your go-betweens.

Thinking as customers think, or will think in the future, may be second nature by now. For example, Eclipse Awning Systems LLC in Middletown, N.Y., anticipates that its customers—retail dealers who sell to residential customers—will be strapped for cash come spring. That would be bad. No cash would mean no advertising. No advertising would mean a serious crimp in sales.

So Eclipse is on the case, and thinking through whether it should offer to prepay for cooperative advertising with dealers.

There’s more, of course. In these interesting times, Eclipse also asks salespeople to be more cost-effective: to submit sales plans a month in advance, and to work more by phone instead of traveling. And when they do travel, Eclipse asks them to book clients at lunch or breakfast, not dinner. “It’s usually less expensive,” explains Larry Bedosky, Eclipse marketing director.

Meanwhile, reps on the road must cultivate stay-at-home support, says Bedosky. Somebody at the office has to be prepared to hand-hold existing accounts while traveling reps build new business.

Speaking of new business, says Bedosky, salespeople shouldn’t jump for just any customer. First, check prospects’ recent payment performance. “Guard your credit line a little bit more,” says Bedosky. And right now, their sales reps must “be more selective in their dealer choices,” he adds.

On the other hand, once a new account signs up, that sales representative may need to advocate for the new customer over in accounts receivable. Now more than ever, companies may have very strict payment standards, especially for new customers. Salespeople may be called upon to intervene to “create reasonable yet flexible credit limits for customers,” says Bedosky.

The awning business is often seasonal and may require some creative financing. Retailer customers might lag on payments as their sales spike in the spring. How to respond? Savvy sales reps might suggest reducing customers’ discount and applying the difference to offset what customers owe, says Bedosky. “The true key to the whole thing,” he adds, “is communication.”

Salespeople remain optimistic in tough times

A sales basic, notes consultant Whitley, is to have a story for your customers. Here’s an example: “You’ve always wanted a bigger house. Now is a bad time to borrow for an addition. But a patio cover can give you more living space.” Or, “You want to expand your store, but banks aren’t lending. An outdoor space under one of our covers does the same thing for less.”

Whatever your story, all of your employees are part of the plot. “Everyone is a salesperson,” says Hudson Awning’s Burak, whose firm just bought new work uniforms for employees so they all look sharp.

Does anything change when the economy is on the skids? You’d think so, but Whitley does not. Whether the economy is good or bad, he says, the salesperson’s role is the same. “Position yourself as a risk manager,” Whitley advises. “The best salespeople don’t sell. They’re only helping.”

Ultimately, the best salespeople are believers. “If you really believe in what you do,” says Whitley, “it resonates and radiates out of you louder than anything else. If you believe in what you do, it doesn’t matter if it’s a good time or a bad time. You have authentic enthusiasm and you’re going to try to help your clients.”

Marc Hequet is a business writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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