Written by Carlo Pignataro, the author of SELL WITH STYLE, The Ultimate Guide To Luxury Selling, entrepreneur and consultant best known as “The Luxury Coach”.
A well-known pearl of popular wisdom suggests that when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. In other words, take something bitter and turn it into something sweet. Now more than ever, in a business environment laden by looming sentiments of crisis, recession and economic uncertainty, we feel like embracing the childish optimism of this old saying. And there’s good reason to stay upbeat: after all, history teaches us that there’s nothing like bad times to spurn good business. It’s just a matter of doing things right.
I think of my own country, Italy, and how it built its last great “boom” on the ashes of its darkest moment. There are many stories I could tell, but one, in its unusual evolution, is especially interesting. In 1946, amid the devastation of post-World War 2, an out-of-work mechanic from Cento had the feeling that the country’s reconstruction would start from the fields and the farmlands. So he started buying war-ravaged military vehicles from the government, for practically pennies, and turning them into tractors. He sold so many of them, he eventually indulged his childhood passion and began collecting exclusive sports cars. When he found that not even his first Ferrari satisfied him completely, he actually contacted Mr. Enzo Ferrari offering a suggestion for an engine modification. “You worry about tractors,” Ferrari snidely suggested, “and leave cars to me.” Feeling challenged, he decided not to heed this advice and began, by hand, to build his first car. The man’s name was Ferruccio Lamborghini, and the rest, as they say, is history.
For as long as there’s been business, the best businessmen have seen opportunities where everyone else saw bleakness, making billions-worth of sweet, sweet lemonade while others were left standing with a handful of lemons.
Without further ado, here is my doom-proof Decalogue for selling in a recession, so you come out on top when everyone seems to forecasting rock-bottom.
1 – Assess your business
Now is the perfect time to take a good look in the mirror and find out who you are as a business. Am I cool? Is my value proposition clear? Do I know my target? Am I different? Am I competitive? Ask yourself these questions, and if you can answer all of them with an honest and heartfelt “yes!”, you’re already in a great position to face any adversities the market may throw your way. By the way, there’s a domino dynamic in play: if you’re cool, your coolness itself is your value proposition. And coolness has a way of getting out there and finding those who aspire to be cool (your target). Finally, if you’re truly cool, that means you must be different. And if you’re truly different, then you’re always competitive… because you have no competition.
PS, the mirror’s a metaphor: even the keenest observers often struggle to be objective when it comes to themselves, so get some external input from someone who is not too invested in your business.
2 – Invest
When experiencing an economic downturn, people get scared. Most will be tempted to cut costs wherever they can, and they’ll often end up weakening three areas that they consider (wrongly!) to not be a part of their “core” operations:
- Training the workforce
- Improving relations with clients
A man who knew a thing or two about business once said that “someone who stops advertising to save money is like someone who stops his watch to save time.” Replace “advertising” with either of the variables above, and the quote (from Henry Ford) remains equally effective.
Instead of cutting down on your promotional, training and client relationships efforts, or even maintaining them at your current level, now is the time to boost them! Doing so is bound to get you results under any circumstance, but doing so in times of widespread uncertainty can get you exceptional results! What will happen, in fact, is that no matter how many people read this article, most businesses will succumb to recession-driven fears, and they will scale down their investments in the three areas above. In such a scenario, if you’re smart enough to brave the storm head-on, you have a great shot at conquering new shares of the sector and gaining a significant edge over the competition.
3 – Become unique
This one reads a bit like an oxymoron. Uniqueness would seem to imply a high degree of specialization, so how can you be unique when you’re selling everything from car-batteries to cotton underwear? First of all, unless you’re Walmart or one of its clones, “one-stop shop” will always be a relative concept, which hinges on your specific area of business. Does Cartier not sell watches? Does Luis Vuitton not sell jewelry? Does Armani not sell handbags? These three companies built their success by excelling (and being unique!) in three distinct product categories, respectively jewelry, handbags and clothing. But now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single type of product sold by one and not by the other two. However, none of them sell car batteries. Translation? Brand extension is a great idea, but only once your brand carries a strong enough cachet, and only if you extend into categories adjacent to your core product(s).
The bottom line: work hard on your elements of differentiation, construct your reputation around them, and entice clients with your brand’s uniqueness. Then, once you’ve gained their trust, surprise them (read: cross-sell them) with your variety of equally outstanding offerings.
4 – Get closer to your existing clients.
Connect, don’t collect! Acquiring new clients is important, but especially during a recession, what’s really crucial is holding on to your old ones. Your existing clients are your livelihood… for crying out loud, show them some love! They should never feel like you take them for granted or, worse, like you’re putting more effort towards bringing in new clients than you are towards keeping them happy. So strive to always give them more value, more information, more benefits, but don’t cross the line: you don’t want them to feel suffocated, or to get the impression you’re just trying to sell, sell, sell.
These people have chosen you because they considered you the best option. If they stop feeling that way, they’ll have no qualms taking their business elsewhere. Besides, treating your old guys right is a sure-fire way to get new ones in the door, as a satisfied consumer is a tremendous marketing resource. You may be in a line of business where implementing a referral program is a good idea, or you may simply find yourself reaping the benefits of word-of-mouth… Either way, when you keep your clients happy, they’re very likely to return the favor. People may trust George Clooney to tell them what to buy through a TV screen, but they’ll always trust their best friends more. And happy clients will brag about you whenever they get the chance. They’ll become, in fact, your truest brand ambassadors – an unpaid army of spokespersons advertising you to prospects you may have never otherwise reached.
5 – Skill Up!
Boosting your skills or acquiring new ones is always a fruitful endeavor, from the moment a toddler learns to sit up to mastering a second language or becoming an expert photographer. But here, we’re talking about selling skills. And the first thing to do is throw out the notion that these only concern your sales people. In reality, your entire client-facing team should be trained on how to properly communicate with clients, from your tech support guys to your customer service reps to your office receptionists.
This doesn’t mean that every single one of your employees needs to be a stone-cold closer (that would be too much to ask). But they should all be able to organically express your company‘s values and strengths. If the force of your message rests solely on the shoulders of your irresistible salespersons, all that powerful persuasion will eventually be seen as fluff, a facade, just a bunch of talk. When instead your entire company is speaking the same language, you will project a solid and comforting vibe that soothes (and retains!) clients while strengthening your brand.