From the October 1998 issue of Startups

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.

Toot Your Horn

Got a huge need for publicity and a tiny publicity budget? You don't need to have a Madison Avenue-sized advertising fund to make your name known. Here are five ideas to help you promote your company:

1. Write a column. Go to a local paper, no matter how small, and offer to write a column on your area of expertise or on business in general. Don't ask to be paid for it, and promise not to promote your company. You won't need to--your byline, words (and maybe even photograph) will do that.

2. Speak up. Make yourself available to talk to every civic, business and educational group that will have you. Stress your expertise, and, as with the column, never try to sell anything--except your reputation as a knowledgeable, trustworthy professional.

3. Write notes. Include a one- or two-line personal message with every piece of literature you send out. You can even write it on the material. This tactic helps customers see the person behind the company.

4. Be a joiner. Get involved in trade associations. You may spend a lot of time with competitors, but it's a way to let people know you're out there, and it will offer you opportunities to sell.

5. Be a sponsor. A few hundred dollars gets your company name on Little League caps; a little more, perhaps an ad at a roller rink. Donate money or materials to the local parade or a float. This buys goodwill and is great self-promotion.

Rave Reviews

Customer endorsements are an inexpensive and easy sales tool, particularly for someone just starting out. Here are some tips on how to get them and use them:

  • Send follow-up letters. Two to four weeks after working with a customer, send a survey letter or postcard. Be sure to leave space for them to write in their own words what they liked best about your company, product or service. Don't forget to pay for the postage so they can easily return it to you.
  • Check your files. Look for recent letters from satisfied customers. You may be able to use excerpts in your sales literature. But make sure you first get written permission from the person who sent the letter.
  • Ask to edit. When getting written permission, ask to edit your customers' remarks. Responses may be too long for your promotional material, or contain irrelevant information.
  • Focus on benefits. If you have a choice, use testimonials that stress benefits rather than general remarks. ("Your software allowed me to target 40 percent more prospects in half the time" vs. "I liked dealing with your company.") You can help solicit these types of remarks by asking customers in the survey how your company helped them do their jobs better.
  • Ask to use their names. Anonymous testimonials are better than nothing, but they may appear to be made up. A person's name and company name (you don't need the street address) adds authenticity.

Look Who's Knocking

It sounds retro, but don't shut out the possibility of door-to-door sales, even if you only sell to other companies. In fact, door-to-door selling is a crucial skill that can help virtually any homebased business. Following are some tips on how to do it best:

  • First, just do it. Cathy Metry, who runs her promotional advertising company, AD XL Promotions Inc., out of her home in suburban Detroit, says this is one of a salesperson's biggest obstacles. "People have to face the challenge of getting out there and calling on businesses," she says. "The lack of confidence and commitment is what holds people back."
  • Be a good listener. Metry's company's primary sales tool is door-to-door selling. She says to be successful, you have to listen very carefully to prospects. When knocking on doors cold, being a good listener lets you know how to adjust your pitch--and when you're becoming too
    aggressive.
  • Don't just leave something. Go to businesses with a specific idea in mind: to tell them exactly why your product or service can help them. If you go into a store or office and just drop off literature with a clerk or receptionist, it will probably be tossed out.
  • There are no good or bad times to get out there. Metry says it's a myth to think there are certain times you should or shouldn't do door-to-door selling.
  • Learn to handle rejection. It's a big part of sales--and a bigger part of selling door-to-door. Realize you'll lose more often than you'll win, and don't take it personally.
  • Remain professional. Door-to-door selling may not bring to mind the image of the highly professional salesperson, but be sure you're the model of one. Be aggressive without being obnoxious, dress professionally, don't overstay your welcome, and don't ever sound desperate.

Contact Sources

AD XL Promotions Inc., 36250 Dequindre, #330, Sterling Heights, MI 48310, (810) 264-4246.