Selling in a Tough Economy: Focus on Existing Relationships
It’s a different market out there today from the one that many of us have known for the last several years.
There’s no disputing that this new economy presents plenty of challenges, and yet by adopting the right approach, it’s also an opportunity for sales professionals to actually thrive…even in a tough market. The secret to success in sales today isn’t found by adopting untested techniques, many of which are packaged with fancy sounding names that sizzle with promises, but fall short on delivering results.
As a sales professional and as a business owner, I’ve weathered all kinds of markets, and I’ve had the great fortune to learn from others who have also managed to stay at the top of their game. What I have learned is that success in any market (and in any profession…not just sales) is owed in large part to emulating time-honored, field tested business habits and repeating those often enough and consistently enough that they become second-nature to you.
In this first of a series of seven articles examining what you can do to boost your sales and thrive in this new economy that is taking shape around us today, we’re going to look at the importance of existing relationships—why they matter and how you can go about leveraging who you know.
Being successful is about more than applying what you know
Your knowledge and the raw skills you offer matter a lot in your work, but it is a mistake to underestimate the importance of who you know and of how hard you work to cultivate that network. This is true of sales as it is of other professions. Consider the lessons learned in a landmark study conducted in the 1990s, in which researchers studied the habits of star performers among engineers at Bell Laboratories. They found that most engineers in that organization had similar academic credentials and shared an aptitude for problem-solving. However, the top performers were the ones who invested time and effort in building and maintaining relationships that they could rely on when needed in their work.
The lesson here is a universal one: you can differentiate yourself—even when you’re matched by others in terms of skills or resources—simply by focusing on your personal relationships and networks. But the lessons don’t stop there. It’s also important to recognize that when it comes to networking and relationship-building, the ones you have already established are the ones that are the easiest to maintain.
Don’t overlook your existing customer base
Start by looking at your current customer sales database. You might be surprised by who you know! All too often, this step is skipped by companies who are hungry for new business. Many will spend a considerable amount of time and money to find new customers, and do so at the expense of the customers with whom they are currently doing business.
Even worse, some try to rationalize this behavior by saying: “well, we lose a good percentage of customers every year anyway.” Never accept that kind of reasoning! Customer losses are, in fact, fully preventable. It costs a business far less to retain an existing customer than it does to find new ones. This is particularly important in today’s marketplace, because as I pointed out in an earlier article, companies today are entrenching their existing business relationships, sticking with vendors they trust.
From your customer database, compile a list of who has actively bought from you in the past. If you notice that there is one customer in that list that you haven’t heard from in a while, call them and find out why.
Be sure to call your regular customers, too. Even if the purpose of your call is to simply thank them for their business, gestures of appreciation are always noticed. If your client is allowed to accept gifts, consider sending them a gift basket of goodies, or even gift cards from their favorite retailer. Not only does this help to solidify your existing relationships, it send an important message: “you matter to me.”
Listen carefully to identify new needs and be a resource
Do your clients have new needs or new requirements? In tough economic times when many organizations are seeing their budgets and staff shrinking, you need to find out what’s going on in their world…right now.
Whether you’re meeting a customer face-to-face or talking on the phone, be sure to ask leading questions to find out if they’re going to need additional things from you. Ask them completely open-ended questions to find out if they’re looking at new services, products, solutions, even those that might be outside your scope of work. You can be a valuable resource simply by recommending the work of someone in an affiliated field, or by partnering with that person to offer your customer an all-in-one solution.
The message you are sending is an important one: I’m more than a vendor or a service provider…I’m a resource you can count on. Again, it’s all about differentiating yourself from the rest of the market. Being thoughtful and showing empathy for people you do business with doesn’t have to cost you a dime and yet it leaves a lasting impression on people because it demonstrates that you’re focused on something more than just making your commission.
This takes me to my last point: there is a real danger right now—especially those who are feeling fearful because they’ve never sold through a downturn before. Never put your needs of earning a commission ahead of your customer’s need to solve a problem. When you’re in front of a customer and all you’re thinking about is “how the heck am I going to get my commission out of this guy,” they can smell it just like a Conrad (my pup) smells fear.
Take the initiative and look at your existing relationships. Be persistent. Be a resource. It’s hard work, but the effort pays off—not only in terms of commissions, but also in terms of having customers who really enjoy doing business with you. As our good friend Zig Ziglar reminds us all, success come from hard work much like water comes from priming an old-fashioned water pump: “if you will pump long enough, hard enough, and enthusiastically enough, sooner or later the effort will bring forth the reward.”