Selling in a recession is unchartered territory for many sales teams following well over a decade of sustained economic growth.
But most companies appear to accept the need to continue with sales training despite a squeeze on budgets, according to Neil Lawson, director of Marton House.
“Organisations recognise they will need people to sell their products. Sales skills drop off very quickly and they need constant topping up.”
But the training on offer may not be in tune with the changed market conditions, particularly if there is little corporate experience of dealing with a downturn. And Lawson warns that if sales people continue with the same approach they adopted in more buoyant times then customers will not be as receptive.
One obvious reaction to recession is to urge the sales force to make more calls and chase every scrap of potential business. Another is for sales staff to present solutions to customers without fully understanding what their problems are.
Tony Hughes, managing director of Huthwaite International, warns that both approaches are unlikely to succeed and says the best approach is “to spend more time planning account strategies and account calls and getting the best value out of the interaction with the customer”.
This is particularly applicable in a recession when customers are more often concerned about reliability than the lowest price.
“If you are in higher-value sales, people are still spending money, but they are very careful about how they spend it,” says Hughes.
A report published by Huthwaite last month (February), Selling your way out of the recession, explains why the actual process of selling is likely to take considerably longer than before: “More people become involved in the decision making process, often at a higher level. Budgets are tighter, and priorities have to be considered.”
Developing the ability to uncover customer needs and strategies that help customers understand the benefits that will accrue from the sales offer are among the key training areas that, therefore, need to be addressed, says the report.
David Scarfe, director of DMS Training, also stresses the need for training to deal with objections because sales personnel face being rebuffed with claims that there is no money to buy anything or that someone has undercut their price.
He agrees with Huthwaite that seeking new customers should not be the prime objective.
“Having the ability to retain and develop your existing business and finding ways of cross-selling and maximising every opportunity within you existing customer base is much easier than going into new business,” Scarfe says.
Leanne Chamberlain, sales training consultant with Pareto Law, says more emphasis on ensuring a return on investment is now needed when training sales staff.
“As soon as they leave the training room environment, it should very much be something they can apply on a day-to-day basis,” she says.
In Pareto’s experience, she adds, demand for bespoke training is actually increasing despite costing more than off-the-shelf packages.
One reason for this change is suggested by Silent Edge managing director Russell Ward: “In a recession, there are fewer opportunities to go for and much fiercer competition to deal with.” Unless organisations understand what the true capabilities of their sales teams are and tackle any shortcomings, they will lose out in the more competitive environment.
A report, called Improving the sales force and published by Cranfield University in November, is based on data from more than 800 sales meetings supplied by Silent Edge. Ward describes the research as groundbreaking because it enables companies to identify one of eight different categories their sales personnel will fall into from a skills perspective so that their development needs can then be addressed very precisely.
“If the person is getting exactly the type of training they need in the time they are off the road, it starts to work very powerfully,” explains Ward. In one example, involving Cable & Wireless, he says monthly sales increased by more than five times as a result of using this approach.
Sales training in contract services company OCS Group is undergoing a complete overhaul in response to the recession.
The private company, which dates back more than 100 years, has traditionally left each business sector to concentrate on its own area with little pressure to cross-sell other group services.
Petra Lockhart, group head of learning and development, describes the resulting lack of knowledge among the 35,000 employees as frightening.
“Now, rather than just organise cleaning, for example, we are encouraging them to sell other operations for OCS. It’s a direct reaction to the business environment and started this year.”
DMS Training is helping to re-orientate the sales team and promote best practice in sales and sales leadership. It is also organising a road show so that operations staff are more alive to cross-selling opportunities as well as sales staff. Initially, this is aimed at management, but eventually all operational staff will be given an insight into selling skills.
Lockhart says the group also plans to put more emphasis on keeping hold of existing contracts.
“We’re pretty good at winning contracts, but you also need to maintain them by keeping in touch with the customer and ensuring that all the promises made during the bidding are actually being kept.”