Today's column is for the sales people amongst us. The average smaller Japanese services company has somewhere between 30% and 50% of its employees working in sales, either as sales people and account managers or as support staff - so we're talking about a good chunk of the workforce. In a downturn, a company can cut people from the back office, it can tune the number of technical staff to match actual work volumes, and it can stop doing marketing, but the core sales have to keep going or the company itself will stop.
Although the Sales team is so important, for better or worse it is also the most visible and most measurable part of the business. This means that the Sales team is most vulnerable to senior management criticism and "remedial action". In an economic downturn, one of the first moves by senior management is to typically address the "sales problem". They'll do this by either exhorting staff to make greater effort, pruning the poor performers and swapping in new people, implementing pay cuts (hard to do), or by admitting that the current line-up of products/services need to be changed to match clients’ changing needs (in service companies in particular, this takes time).
You'll notice that some of these management change options are strategic macro issues while the others are more tactical. Needless to say, it is easier for management to address the tactical issues first, and so people get warnings and others get fired. However, I believe that if a company doesn't address its macro issues early on in a downturn, then no amount of tactical pedaling by the Sales team will turn the sales numbers around. Sure, there may be a temporary one or two month reprieve, but it will come at the expense of frayed tempers, everyone's health, and client alienation as sales people become increasingly desperate for results and resort to increasingly hard sell tactics.
So for you as a sales person in a struggling sales team and now being confronted by management mandates, you need to ask yourself two key questions up front: 1) do we as a team have the leadership to change and adapt to our new environment? 2) Are we as a company selling things/services that customers actually want or need? If the answer to either of these two points is "no", then you might want to consider looking for a new job.
But let's assume that you like where you work and you want to be part of the turn-around. After all, promotions come from turning bad situations into good ones. Then the two key macro issues need to be dealt with before your own personal efforts will have much effect. Let’s deal with leadership first.
Management tinkering with the Sales team is not only going to introduce a lot more work for everyone, but also a lot more potential for conflict and emotional stress. Therefore, a struggling team absolutely needs a strong and confident leader to help them deal with seemingly unreasonable new expectations and unfamiliar new tactics that may at first seem pointless. A calm voice with good vision of what a new future might hold is like a priest with soldiers before they go out into battle. That one person can calm nerves and build confidence that will result in victory.
Leadership is particularly important when you are not only dealing with external adversity but when management introduces new business requirements as well. This is because even though your new services/products might be excellent, your clients can be so wrapped up in their own problems that they are unable to be receptive to suggestions and changes that will make their business better. For this reason, my experience has been that when the economic climate is negative, not only will you have a period of falling sales from your core business but your new initiatives will also be slow in building momentum. Thus there is money being burned on two fronts and it takes a very strong manager to stay the course.
How long will that course take? Well, I believe that it takes at least six months longer and repeated sales approaches to get a hurting client to move to a new service or product that is actually good for them. One trick to help them make accept your value proposition quicker, is add a loss leader that directly cuts their costs as soon as they start using it, so they can see a bottom line result from the outset. Few clients can resist this type of purchase. BUT, be sure that the initial loss-leader sale is connected to the service/product that you're actually trying to move them over to. Don't be tempted to separate these actions and go for the quick but profitless sale. That won't fix your company's problem.