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8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Ray Dalton is not just optimistic about the future of the American economy, he sounds downright giddy.

“I think this is the greatest economy that we will see in the next 20 years,” says Dalton, founder, president and CEO at PartsSource Inc. “It’s time for CEOs to get back to work and get that passion back in their belly. Go see some customers and see some suppliers.”

PartsSource’s revenue grew 38 percent in 2008, and it has a little more than 250 employees, growing at a rate of four to six new hires a month. Business growth has remained steady because Dalton has been looking in familiar places to drive new sales.

“So many CEOs just start chasing product lines,” Dalton says. “In this economy, every dollar has to work twice. It may come down to abandoning some of your pet projects. Get refocused and get serious.”

Start by talking to front-line employees who are interacting with your customers on a regular basis. Make sure those employees have what they need to get out and interact with your customers.

“Ask your employees what the customers are saying,” Dalton says. “What are they hearing? They are hearing a lot more than you are. … I’ve heard of people cutting travel budgets and limiting travel and no more trade shows. That’s the stupidest thing in the world. Now is the time when you want to be out in front of the customer and you want to be advertising and you want to be at trade shows. If somebody is going to make a decision about a vendor, they can’t make a decision if they don’t know anything about you.”

When you show enthusiasm for getting out and generating new business, you create a sense of optimism in your team of employees.

“You sure don’t want to walk out and go, ‘Oh my gosh, we just lost a big customer. I have no idea what we’re going to do,’” Dalton says. “Say, ‘Hey, probably some of you have heard this customer has decided to go in a different direction; we’ve got six or seven more in the pipeline. Here’s what we need to do in the next 30 days to get these other customers ramped up.’ People go, ‘OK, there’s a plan here.’”

Part of that plan should be a willingness by you to get out and meet with some of those customers and work on developing new business.

“I’ll have a series of thought questions that I want to make sure get answered before I leave the meeting,” Dalton says. “I don’t ever go in there thinking, ‘Gee, I hope I have something to say when I get in there.’ That would be a waste of my time and a waste of their time. I always ask the customer for something. ‘Hey, can you give me a shot on the CT parts. I see we’re not doing that. Can we get a shot at that?’ People will go, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you a call next time that comes up,’ or, ‘No, we’re not OK with that.’ Customers really like vendors and suppliers who ask for stuff.”

Make sure you’re fully briefed on the customer you’re meeting with and the nature of the relationship between your two businesses.

“How long have they been a customer?” Dalton says. “What are they buying from us? Are they buying more or are they buying less? Are they happy with what they are buying? What kind of issues have we had between the companies and how were they resolved? Who within the company have they been dealing with? In other words, where does the relationship lie?”

It’s your approach to the customer that can make all the difference.

“If you don’t find them interesting and you don’t want to get to know them better, that’s probably the sign of a problem,” Dalton says.

How to reach: PartsSource Inc., (330) 562-9900 or www.partssource.com

Keep it real

When a company is going through a tough time, all-hands meetings can often only increase the stress level. Employees wonder what perk is getting cut or which department is being consolidated.

But there are things you can do.

Avoid panic

The key to avoiding panic is to deliver a plan whenever you give a dose of bad news, says Ray Dalton, founder, president and CEO at PartsSource Inc.

“They are looking for you to lead, but they are also looking for you to be honest with them,” Dalton says. “Honesty may be not telling them everything when you know it, but telling them everything when you have an answer for it.”

Be visible

You need to be visible to your people and available for questions.

“You need to be the encourager and exhibit confidence in front of your employees, suppliers and customers,” Dalton says. “It’s not time to run and hide. It’s time to be very visible.”