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Sell what your market will bear Featured

1:08pm EDT July 18, 2002

The economic slowdown is clearly upon us.

Middle managers are reacting to presidential mandates to cut expenses, while presidents scramble to hit the results they have promised. For those whose job it is to sell and market, the consequences have been clear -- prospects and customers are taking much longer to make and keep commitments.

And when they buy, they are most likely to buy only those products and services that reduce immediate and unavoidable pain.

Businesses are preoccupied with cutting back, saving money and preserving the status quo. Until the initial shock of the slowdown wears off (and for younger professionals, their first time may take longer), fewer buyers will have the will to invest in the future. While more aggressive and confident businesses are already seeing opportunities at the expense of their more timid competition, how do you sell to the anxious buyer or customer who is preoccupied with the present?

Simple. Repackage and reposition your product or service to deliver reduced costs and greater efficiency. Promote the cost savings and business preservation aspects of your business instead of promising increased sales.

Many businesses directly or indirectly help their target markets increase sales. They include e-businesses, direct marketing, printing and advertising firms; professional services including legal, training and accounting; transportation, distribution and wholesaling; and motivational and incentive products, programs and services.

If your business fits into one of those categories or is in another that helps businesses grow, it's time to take a look at how you go to market.

Preserve market share, stop revenue erosion

Just as owners and presidents are asking their staffs to cut costs, they are worried about protecting their own revenue forecasts. In spite of the contraction, it is harder to reduce a sales goal than it is to cut expenses. Every business has too much riding on hitting sales numbers. Results have been promised to partners, investors and bankers.

This represents an opportunity. Pull out the list of features, advantages and benefits you have developed for your product or service and revise it. Make your product or service more compelling.

Describe how practical its features are. Discuss how cost effective its advantages are. And promote how beneficial it is in retaining customers and revenue.

Refocus on customer retention

If all sales and marketing efforts are designed to find, keep or grow customers, now is the time to emphasize customer retention. Keeping the customers you and your clients have is essential, because they are more profitable and obtainable than new ones.

Your competitors may start aggressively targeting them. Above all, your reputation with them should translate into their loyalty.

If your customers agree that keeping existing business is paramount, modify and emphasize what you sell in terms of helping your them to:

  • Streamline their reordering process

  • Take cost out of how they serve existing customers

  • Improve the buying experience of their current customers.

  • Increase profit margins and sales to reordering customers.

  • Construct barriers that reduce their customers' desires or ability to switch suppliers.

Now more than ever, your customers are focused on reducing risk. If you are in the business of helping companies to grow their sales, start by helping them to keep what they already have. As your customers feel more confident, they will become optimistic about growing their business.

Andy Birol (abirol@pacerassociates.com) is president of PACER Associates Inc., a Solon-based firm that provides expert advice to owners and leaders who need to grow their businesses. He can be reached at (440) 349-1970 or at www.pacerassociates.com.