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Energizing the Sales Force in a Down Economy

The sales manager's job is many-fold: cheerleader, psychologist, coach, and mentor.

By Kevin Sensenig, global vice president, Learning and Organization Development, Dale Carnegie & Associates, Inc.

The economic downturn has produced a tidal wave of negative conditions, some of which have overwhelmed even the very best sales organizations. Time is of the essence! Sales managers cannot wait to put into action their highest levels of leadership skills necessary to re-energize their sales force. More than ever before, sales managers need to communicate effectively with their team. That means helping salespeople develop and maintain a positive attitude, keep their eyes open for sales opportunities, and maintain a focus on excelling.

Impact of the “Recovery” on Sales

The recession and anemic recovery in North America have had their effects on corporate purchasing departments and decision-makers. It’s difficult for buyers to decide whether now is the right time to pull the trigger on a purchase when the economic outlook is “unusually uncertain.” Consequently, many organizations have adjusted their purchasing strategies. They've pulled back on expenditures, expanded their cash balances, and reduced their product offerings to cut costs and be prepared for future economic changes. This has a huge impact on the success of sales teams. And it's not just businesses—consumers are equally uncertain, and are paying off debt and increasing savings instead of buying consumer goods.

The organizational process for making purchases has changed in the last 18 months, as well. When times are good, purchasing decisions are made more freely and at lower levels within the organization. During times of economic uncertainty, businesses and consumers are more likely to delay purchasing decisions until next quarter or next year. The decision-making process now may involve more people from within the company and more layers of approval at higher levels. And when companies do make purchases, they tend to place part of the order now and the rest at a later date so as not to deplete their cash flow or credit lines.

A third impact of the sluggish economy on corporate procedures is the tendency to in-source services. While outsourcing can be a cost-saver for some organizations, when the outlook is especially uncertain, companies may decide to eliminate funding for a service altogether and try to accomplish the desired results in-house with existing staff and resources. For sales teams that are pushing services such as IT or Web development and not products, this can represent yet another obstacle to success.

Watch for the Signs

Good sales managers need to keep their eyes on a few subjective and objective key indicators that will help them identify when a sales team has become de-motivated due to the state of the marketplace. First, monitor consumer confidence, both as determined by national polls, as well as the local “vibe.” Even if a certain sector is performing well in the local economy, bad news from other parts of the country or other sectors can poison the local well and harm sales there, too.

Secondly, sales managers need to monitor the office chatter, the water cooler talk, and the feedback salespeople receive from their customers. This will help sales managers gauge not only the mood of the customer, but also the morale of the sales staff. Are salespeople dwelling on negatives or focusing on positives and opportunities? What is the customer's focus—today's doldrums or tomorrow's rebound? Are any of these conditions sapping energy and enthusiasm from the sales team?

The Sales Manager’s Role

The sales manager's job is many-fold: cheerleader, psychologist, coach, and mentor. The manager needs to stay focused to motivate and encourage the sales force. It is important not to set unrealistic sales goals or “crack the whip.” This can cause a frustrated staff to become completely demoralized. Instead, the sales manager needs to listen to what the sales staff is saying, encourage them to try new approaches, support them if they struggle, and help them to strategize ways to generate sales from existing clients, as well as find new clients. These actions will help the salespeople achieve strong sales goals.

There are many specific techniques sales managers can use to motivate their team and increase their success. These include:

  • Training. A slow sales period is the perfect time for training because salespeople are often at their wit's end and ready to try new things and take new approaches. When sales are coming quickly, they may not be as receptive or open-minded. This goes hand-in-hand with getting everyone to refocus on the sales process itself. More than a checklist, the sales process is about building relationships and trust. Through training, the sales manager can help the team to identify ways to move the buying process along to the next step with each client.
  • Emphasis on relationships.At every opportunity, sales managers need to emphasize the value of relationships. Salespeople should make sure that in every sales situation they're truly connecting with the buyer or buying team. This means more than showing up with a brochure—it means listening beyond the issue or need the customer presents, and searching for the true need, not just suggesting a product at the first opportunity. It means helping salespeople to provide supporting evidence that can make the buying decision easier for the client.
  • Sharing good news.Positive research or news clippings related to the industry can sometimes provide a spark or an idea that can be adapted locally. Sales managers need to keep their eyes open for inspirational ideas and stories of success to share with their team.
  • Individual planning sessions, one-on-one with the sales manager.Taking time to meet with individual salespeople sets a positive and supportive tone that is useful for addressing problems unique to the specific salesperson.
  • Small team planning sessions. This is where group dynamics and shared concerns can be addressed. Sometimes the team needs to know they are not in the struggle alone and that others appreciate their situation. In this setting, they can share ideas to help them improve their outcomes.
  • Ride-alongs. During these times, sales managers can better understand the challenges the sales staff faces. They also let salespeople know that management is concerned and willing to pitch in. Additionally, ride-alongs provide valuable real-world teaching opportunities so the manager can demonstrate techniques and methods to move the sale forward and improve the salesperson’s skills.

Attitude Is Everything

As much as some sales managers would like to believe that selling is just a series of steps, success ultimately stems from the salesperson's attitude. It's trite, but a little positive energy does go a very long way. When the economy is down, a poor attitude not only affects the effort of the salesperson, it rubs off on the customer, as well and decreases their odds of saying yes. Attitude and relationships sell success. By always emphasizing a positive attitude and an emphasis on relationship-building, sales managers can guide their team through the recovery period and position them strongly for the next economic rebound.

Kevin J. Sensenig, Ph.D., is global vice president for Learning and Organization Development with Dale Carnegie & Associates, a performance-based training company with offices in all 50 states and more than 75 countries worldwide. More than 2,700 instructors present training programs in more than 25 languages. Dr. Sensenig can be reached by e-mail at kevin.sensenig@dalecarnegie.com. For further information, visit www.dalecarnegie.com.