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Over The Slump

Is a sales slump ruining your business? Here's some advice to get you back on track.

If you think you've run into hard times setting up your home office, wait until you hit your first sales slump. Nothing you do will seem to work. Steady customers will find reasons not to buy. Reliable accounts will say they're reevaluating their purchasing decisions. Cold calls . . . forget it.

Even more frustrating, the more you try, the worse things seem to get. Still, that doesn't mean you're helpless. There are any number of steps a person in a sales slump can take to get out of it--the first being to acknowledge its existence. Just as many people would rather ignore a pain than go to a doctor, salespeople in slumps like to pretend everything's OK. Admitting you're in a slump is hard on the ego and forces you to face the unpleasant fact that you're not doing very well.

While being honest with yourself is the only way to deal with the slump, dealing with it is different than dwelling on it or becoming obsessed with it. Similarly, don't call it a slump if you're experiencing a short downturn in sales for seasonal or other reasons. If you view every lost sale or a few off-days as a slump, you'll waste a lot of time questioning your sales ability.

Next, realize slumps are inevitable. Even the best salespeople go through them. The majority of consumers a salesperson calls on will not buy; as a new face, your chances are even slimmer. Add to this some bad luck (a competitor opens an office in your area, for example) or changes in the marketplace, and you can quickly see sales tumble.

The key is to examine all the possible factors that may be contributing to the slump. Look at your sales logs. (If you don't keep them, start right away.) Have you inadvertently cut down on the number of sales calls you're making? Are you focusing on tougher but potentially more lucrative prospects at the expense of established customers? Have you kept up with changes in the marketplace?

If you've been in business long enough, compare this year's sales to last year's. Was there a similar drop at the same time last year? If not, how was last year different from this one? Check the results of past promotions, advertising campaigns and the like. It could be time to run an oldie but goodie again.

Ask yourself what other issues could have led to the problem. Maybe you've lagged in customer service, or the quality of your product or service has dipped. A new delivery service, for example, could be costing you sales if it's not doing a good job.

Perhaps you've lost some of your sales discipline. With everything else that's involved in running a business, maybe you've cut back on the number of cold calls you promised yourself you'd make every week, or reduced the time and money you originally set aside for marketing.

You could also be a little stale. Salespeople tend to use the same methods of prospecting and closing over and over--though not without reason: They work. But you could also be in a rut, particularly with repeat customers.

Once you've found some reasons for your slump, do something about them. Write down your strategy. If you plan to call on 10 more customers per week, put that on paper, and check off the names as you do it. If the marketplace has shifted, set aside time to do research. Go to the library, look on the Internet, ask customers about their shifting needs--whatever it takes to keep on top of changes in the marketplace.

Try polishing your skills. Take a sales course, or buy a tape or a book. Read something motivational or talk to an experienced salesperson. Ask that individual what he or she does to get out of a slump. If nothing else, the talk will remind you you're not alone.

Keep in mind that in some cases, slumps will not be your fault. A sudden turn in the economy, a supplier who runs into financial problems, a major customer who moves out of the market--all these will cause sales to dive. What's important, even in these cases, is to determine what caused the slump, then look for solutions. Merely assigning blame elsewhere may soothe your ego, but it will do little to reverse the trend and start sales on an upward track.

Finally, give yourself a break. After the research and the reading and the devising of a plan, relax. Don't press too hard. With the new information and the skills you never lost, the slump will end. Knowing this will make it end that much sooner.

Bill Kelley is a business writer in Arcadia, California.

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