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.
6 – Focus on Value
When business is down you don’t lower prices, you add value! The key is knowing your chickens: when you’re perfectly tuned in to your target, you’ll know exactly what your client perceives as value. Whether they see value in terms of quantity, quality, client experience, entertainment or information, simply pile it on to your offer until it appears utterly irresistible, no matter the price.
Within this “framework of giving,” make sure not to package all your value into the object of the transaction. Rather, hand it out generously before and after the sale as well. Your sales pitch itself, for example, should provide value to prospects, and not just mention the value they’ll receive once they sign. Whether in person, over the phone or in writing, strive to give your client truly useful, usable, valuable information, with the implied suggestion that it’s only a taste of what is to come. A successful copywriter once told me that you should make your advertising so valuable that nobody would throw it away. What a gem of a quote! It means that if your marketing involves mailing a pamphlet to prospective clients, this pamphlet should be so informative, so insightful and so enlightening that people who receive it put on their bookshelf for reference, even if they never do become your clients.
In sum, make yourself, your company, your product and even your advertising so valuable to your client-base that you become indispensable – the only possible solution to their problem.
7 – Speak in terms of needs rather than opportunities
This one comes down to animal instincts. When a cat sees a dog, it runs away. And if it has nowhere to run, it strikes a menacing pose, hisses, and prepares to fight for its life. In other words, it does what it needs to do.
Just like cats roaming a world full of dogs, consumers in a down economy are constantly on-guard, looking out for their best interest against perceived “threats.” Every prospective buyer, even those who may not be directly affected by the recession, have this basic survival mechanism embedded in their DNA. And during difficult times, everyone becomes more inclined to satisfy needs than to act on a whim or to indulge a capricious fancy.
In order to realign your selling strategy to the “defensive” buying climate we live in today, you don’t need to change what you sell, but you should make some tweaks to your sales rhetoric. It’s a subtle process, particularly because in many cases we do, of course, still want to nurture our prospects’ desires and connect on an emotional level. But we also want to stimulate their “survival” response by pressing the “need” button, and this can be as simple as substituting one word for another:
- “You would really love the way this coat looks with these boots.”
- “All you need this winter is this coat with this pair of boots”
The latter won’t work every time, just like the former may not always fail, but it’s statistically proven that when you speak to a client’s necessities rather than to their desires, your ratio of “I’ll think about it” will drop significantly.
8 – Sweeten the deal
As I mentioned, now is no time to lower prices. It is, however, the perfect time to put your price in a shiny new tuxedo and make it look as good as possible. Of course, different people have different ideas of what looks good. In the B2C sector, studies show that end-clients are more prone to “stomach” a price when they see it broken down into small, easy-to-swallow nuggets. 2,000 dollars for a TV? No, thanks. What if I said you can have this amazing piece of technology in your living room, today, for the price of a single cup of coffee per day for the next three months? Hmm, now that sounds like a deal!
In the B2B sector, on the other hand, you’re dealing with people who have the same exact “appetite” as you: they are interested in productivity, results, growth and, especially, their bottom line. So you need to speak their language, and present prices in terms of ROI. So gear your selling strategy towards proving to your prospects (and not just claiming) that the return will trump the investment, and possibly, that it will do so quickly, easily and vastly. In fact, you may want to start from the return rather than from the price.
“Tomorrow, X will make you 500,000. Would you give 300,000 today?”
“Of course, I’m not stupid.”
“And what if I told you that it only costs 80,000?”
Here you started by creating a vision of the desired outcome, and working backwards to the price. By the time they hear the amount, “80,000” sounds as good as an ice cream!
9 – Get international
Maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe you’re doing everything right, just in the wrong place: a market so depressed or so saturated that growth margins simply aren’t there. Thankfully, no recession is truly global (when someone’s down, someone else is bound to be up), and no matter what industry you’re in, there are almost certainly untapped markets for your product or service. All you need to do is go find them… and sell!
Going international doesn’t just bring a limitless potential for expanding your client-base. There are many added bonuses, aside from the obvious personal enrichment that comes with exposure to different cultures. First of all, a “global footprint” boosts your brand recognition, which in turn can have positive repercussions on your business domestically: for example, did you know that statistically, all other factors being the same, people are more likely to do business with a company that has an international presence than with one that doesn’t?
Entering foreign markets can be a bumpy ride at first, but once you get your bearings, exciting and unexpected possibilities tend to pop up. Even if you’re just going there to find clients, you might end up finding a great supplier or partner, lower labor costs, laxer tax or environmental regulations. You may also run into juicy investment opportunities that aren’t necessarily related to your business, or find some bright new talent for your company, perhaps with skill-sets that are hard to come by in your country.
10 – Don’t look desperate
One of the main keys to being successful is projecting an image of success. Sure, it’s a chicken-or-egg kind of thing: how can I look successful if I’m not successful (yet)? Well… fake it ’til you make it! I’m not talking about compensating for feelings of inadequacy with extravagant purchases, like the soon-to-be-fired CEO who commissions a 50,000-dollar portrait of himself. I’m talking about doing all those things which thriving businesses do, and have done, to ensure their continued success. In fact, you could start by applying each or any of the previous nine suggestions in this article, and you’ll also be working on N. 10!
Mind you, “despair” isn’t just a pushy salesman or an annoyingly unrelenting newsletter. Businesses that are not doing well have a way of broadcasting their struggles which clients will pick up on, consciously or subconsciously. Things like slashed prices, noticeable personnel cuts, an incompetent staff, poor customer service or a lack of advertising are like screaming to the world you’re dying to make a sale. And when clients sense you’re overly eager to close them, there are only two possible outcomes, equally undesirable: they’ll run like the wind or they’ll squeeze you into a deal on their terms, which is the kind of deal you do not want to make.