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Stepping up to the plate

How to turn economic negatives into a bottom-line positive

Most sales leaders have a queasy feeling about 2009. Sobering front-page news is easily trumped by sales personnel reporting "customers are becoming pickier." Some are delaying purchases, some are reducing purchase amounts and others are canceling orders. Clearly, 2009 will not be business as usual.

At a recent year-end conference—the Chief Sales Executive Forum—sales leaders from diverse industries described their preparations for a challenging 2009. As most attendees reported, their finance chiefs already had imposed spending limits. Additionally, many others were preparing contingency plans for further cost reductions. Even those given reduced sales goals found little comfort. Almost 80 percent of the attendees expressed concern about hitting their 2009 sales objectives.

But there is a silver lining: Most sales leaders see such conditions as providing exceptional leadership opportunities. Here is a list of compelling ideas for 2009.

Address the unaddressable. A crisis provides a once-in-a-business-cycle opportunity to address problems that have been ignored and tolerated. Now is the time to act on such items as: 1. performance issues (terminate chronic underperformers); 2. bureaucracy creep (slash self-serving bureaucracy); and 3. failed programs (kill programs that make no business contribution). Embrace focus as "knowing what not to do."

Champion rational belt tightening. Fully review costs related to people, technology and sales programs. Having said that, only in the direst of situations is "zero new spending" a rational strategy. Comb through the cost list. Eliminate, delay or scale back discretionary spending. Return real cost dollars to the company.

Envision the sales strategy, and commit to the vision. A sales leader's job is to provide a future vision for the field sales team. While corporate objectives arrive as financial commitments, it's sales leadership's responsibility to translate those financial goals into a sales strategy. A sales strategy confirms the 2009 objectives and articulates "how" to reach these sales objectives. It's a statement of aspiration, intent and commitment. It both defines accountabilities and specifies expectations. Communica-tion of the 2009 sales strategy is what gives it meaning. And measurement activates response. By the way, get ready for lots of "all-hands" meetings.

Conduct a full process audit. Redefine your "program managers" as process leaders. Appoint an internal team to sort through the chaotic programs currently foisted on the sales force. Lay out each of the primary processes: lead generation; opportunity pursuit; sales completion; and order fulfillment and customer service. Cut away the clutter. Fix the broken links. Promote a new paradigm: managing the customer contact continuum.

Confirm values. Now is the time to reconfirm your sales leadership values of open strategic dialog, lock-stepped execution, ethical treatment of constituents and performance-based management.

Sell senior management. Start over: Develop a new comprehensive sales plan for 2009. Begin with an updated market overview. Confirm next year's sales goals. Describe sales segments. Define selling systems, including organizations, jobs and resources.

Calculate selling ROI. Finally, develop a robust sales simulation and yield model. Define the supporting sales platform resources. Outline 2009 investments. Report on future horizons. Then, once completed, take this comprehensive overview to peer senior managers to demonstrate grasp, seek advice and secure commitment.