It looks like this recession-that-wasn’t-actually-a-recession is coming to an end. As a business owner, you are right to be proud to have survived a frightening 18 months, when so many others have gone to the wall. But beware. It is not a given that survival in the downturn will equate to success and riches in the upturn. Indeed, there is a strong risk that recession conditions have deceived you about the general health of your organisation.
If nothing else, economic crisis focuses the mind of the people in a business. Everyone knows they have to work together to survive the storm. But once the fear of recession recedes, firms can easily lose cohesiveness and direction.
Your sales force is particularly vulnerable, and that is a real worry, because they are the great hope for growing the business through the upturn. But these people may well now not perform as expected or even stick around. Why? Selling during a downturn was hard yakka, and many sales people will feel their efforts were unappreciated by their employers. Exhaustion, alienation and the prospects of a better offer elsewhere represent threats to a company’s sales team.
As an employer you may also exacerbate the sales problem by losing focus. During the downturn, many managers have put in place new sales regime. The challenge is for managers to maintain these regimes when times are looking better. Those who do persist will often achieve exceptional results. Sadly, the evidence is that managers and staff turn their attentions to other matters and lose momentum.
Two-thirds of companies will effectively abandon their sales program, and these firms will fail to reap the rewards the upturn offers.
The challenge is: How do I keep my sales staff working hard when they’ve been through tough times and may feel they deserve to ease off? If I continue to push hard, won’t they just leave?
The answer is: Sales leadership. Managers must re-invigorate their sales team so that they want to sell.
First off, you have to clear the air. Acknowledge the tough times and the sacrifices made by staff. Demonstrate that you realise you were not always as attentive to your team as you should have been. If you were awful at times, admit it. Show humility. It is worth it. Just watch the resentment and ill-feeling dissipate.
You then need to strike a new pact or bargain for the good times. Set realistic targets for the sales team and provide attractive incentives. This means working closely with the team to understand their capabilities and motivations.
Give the sales team the tools to succeed. Provide effective training about selling and around the benefits of the products and services being sold. And back it up by coaching and team-building exercises. Coaching is crucial. Research by the Xerox Corporation found that, without reinforcement, 87 percent of training value is lost.
You and your management team then need to put in place measures to keep you disciplined to maintain the sales program. Make it a key KPI for yourself and let everyone in the business know. That will keep you honest.
Do this and you’ll have a business that will thrive in all seasons.
Bryn Hughes is a director of Optimising the Sales Force Australia 2009 Conference, which takes place in Melbourne on 28-30 September. It seeks to provide sales leaders with tools to navigate through uncertain times, with some of the most prominent sales professionals from around the world presenting on best practice.