How to Strangle Chicken Little

There's a recession, business is down, and you're scared things can only get worse. Well, here's how to make the most of a bad thing

By Michelle Nichols

Are we in a recession? Are we about to exit a recession? Frankly, my dear, I don't give a darn. Sure, the economy may be a bit tight today, but the consensus seems to be that things will be rolling again later this year. So here are some ideas about maximizing your selling efforts in hard times while simultaneously positioning yourself to flourish in the better days ahead:

Prepare your head. Given the economic uncertainty, you can expect to face more rejections, which makes it imperative to manage your attitude. So many of us start the day pouring over newspapers full of stories about wars, murders, and corporate collapses, then we turn on the radio and hear the same depressing news all over again. The key is to leave your problems, and the world's problems, at home. This leaves you free to spend the selling day focused on your customer's problems.

I collect inspirational cartoons and quotes and put them up where I can see them. You might care to tape yours into a small, take-anywhere book that will serve as a mental pick-up. Consider including photos of your family -- and your happy customers. One of my clients plays upbeat music to ward off "stinkin' thinkin'." Another tells himself before each call that his biggest customer is just ahead. Me? In addition to my collection of quotes, I also have a huge library of motivational tapes that I play in the car. Once, I got so motivated, I drove right past my office and missed our weekly sales meeting. At least I had a great attitude when I finally got there.

Maintain your momentum. This is vital because few things are harder than getting up to speed after a dead stop. I recently returned to running after a hiatus of several months, so I can speak from experience: Getting back into shape hurts much more than making the effort to stay that way in the first place. The same goes for selling.

To keep it fun, consider having a daily or weekly contest with another rep, your entire sales team, or only just with yourself. The prize could be a box of chocolates, some nice golf balls, a week of gourmet coffee, or a gift certificate to lunch. (Memo: If your line is candies, sporting goods, or java, this is your cue to sell more of them. Finish the rest of this column -- and then get to work.)

The increased emphasis on price these days is a double-edged sword. It's good because, if your prices are low, it's easier to win over your competitor's customers. With lower prices, you can also attract new customers. But the focus on price can also be bad if you are neglecting existing clients. One tactic: Give them so much service and attention, they would come down with a severe attack of guilt if they considered, even for a fleeting moment, talking to one of your competitors.

Make opportunities. Over 200 years ago, the English writer and clergyman C.C. Colton observed, "Great minds must be ready not only to take opportunities but to make them." Putting this idea more strongly, Joseph Sugarman, a famous marketing guy, said: "Each problem has hidden in it an opportunity so powerful that it literally dwarfs the problem." There are opportunities everywhere. What you need to do is look for them, pounce on them, and maximize your advantage.

When I first saw Gone With the Wind, my friends were swept away by the beautiful dresses and sets. Not me. What I appreciated most was the way Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler, found a business opportunity amid the turmoil and despair of the Civil War. Here are a few examples of making opportunities:

• If I was in executive search, I'd remind my customers that hiring costs are lower and the quality of those looking for work is higher than it has been in ages.

• If I was in the travel business, I'd tell my customers that this is a great opportunity to have more regional sales-training seminars and pep rallies. Travel costs are lower, calendars aren't so full, and employees will remember how their companies invested in them even when budgets were tight.

• No matter what I was selling, I'd tell my customers that now is a good time to make changes. If they are current customers, I would aim to sell them an upgrade or expansion. If the prospect isn't an existing customer, I would remind them that current conditions make it worthwhile to explore switching vendors. Why? Well, changes can have unexpected consequences, so the best time to implement them is when things are slower than normal.

Time is money. The silver lining to the dark clouds hanging over business these days is the fact that you have time to prepare for the coming economic upturn. One way is to develop and deepen relationships with your customers. Find out what makes them buy. In other words, locate their "hot buttons."

Another way to invest your time is deconstructing and reconstructing your sales strategies and tactics. If there are parts that aren't going smoothly, fix them. If there's a slide-show presentation, a demonstration tool, or a brochure that could really get your point across, get it developed and put it to work.

While you may have been surprised by the economic downturn, made worse by the terror of September 11, don't compound the error by letting the coming upturn catch you unawares. Think of yourself as a bicycle rider: Keep peddling, but don't look at your feet. Rather, lift up your eyes and see the opportunities in an economy that's poised to recover. Happy Selling!

Michelle Nichols is a Sales consultant, trainer, and speaker based in Houston, Texas. She welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at

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