Staying Competitive in a Down Economy

The financial mess is hurting everyone, and sales professionals are no exception. They're finding clients reining in costs and key advocates of their company being given a pink slip. Just how are they to continue hitting their quota in this environment?<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Not to fear. The best performing professionals know that it takes more than a great product and an aggressive attitude to stay on top. Here are tried-and-true tips for keeping ahead of the pack:<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>1. Don't target everyone. </b>Many sales professionals make the mistake of trying to win over everyone in their territory. That's far too time-consuming. Instead, identify the most lucrative and likely-to-buy set of prospects, then focus your efforts on them. This isn't to say that you shouldn't work on second-tier prospects as well&#x2014;just don't expend precious energy on a prospective account until you've done your homework to figure out if it's worth the exertion. Prioritize opportunities within the territory so that you're engaged in the right strategic activities. In addition, identify purchasing cycles and then reach out to prospects at the most opportune time.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>2. Be the first to know.</b> Whether it's an influx of new venture capital funding, an unexpected management change or new profit warnings, you want to be the first to hear about it. Use sales dashboards to automatically gather intelligence about the prospective clients, enabling you to capitalize on the best opportunities in the pipeline or manage threats to your business. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>3. Widen your circle of contacts.</b> It's easy to get sidelined when our best allies at an organization get laid off or are moved elsewhere within the organization. Make it a point to expand your network of alliances within the company. This not only protects you against unexpected reorganizations or layoffs, but also gives you an opportunity to demonstrate inclusiveness of all stakeholders in the decision-making process. It is also a good idea to broaden your targets during tough economic times, as the decision-maker isn't always the person you think it is&#x2014;sometimes it's the CFO, COO or CIO. This proactive approach can also help you uncover and address potential buying objections early on, as well as identify additional opportunities.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>4. Learn your prospects' "hot button" issues.</b> Every decent sales professional will do Google searches and read the business news to learn about their clients. But to really be effective, you need to go beyond this readily available information. Delve into what drives their business. What are their strategic goals? Use intelligence-gathering mechanisms to capture essential data about their organizational structure, political underpinnings, areas of growth and more. This arms you with the necessary knowledge to prepare a highly relevant pitch that will resonate with their real-world needs.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> That goes beyond just understanding the business. Learn whatever you can about the individuals you'll be targeting&#x2014;their background, where they went to school, and where they've been quoted. There is a surprising amount of information that can be tapped into, from their professional background to their political contributions. This doesn't mean you should be snooping around into their personal life, but rather, using intelligence-gathering tools to glean insights about the individual you’ll be communicating with. These cues can help you make an indelible impression by understanding what message is most likely to connect with that person. <br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>5. Sell more than just a product.</b> Put yourself in the shoes of the decision-maker who's sitting across the desk from you. Like most of us, he or she isn't interested in hearing a sales pitch. They want to know how you can help them solve a problem. To do so, you need to move beyond sales techniques and into a new mode of communication. Show that you can bring strategic value. You're not just there to sell the bells and whistles of your product, but to give them real examples of how it can resolve a pain point within their organization. By gathering knowledge about the inner workings of the business, you'll gain invaluable insights to help counsel the client and elevate the conversation to a higher level.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> In today's cutthroat business environment, there is no room for mediocrity. Each sales professional is fighting for his or her job, and is often only as secure as their last sale. Yet sales professionals have a key to transform the way they operate. With a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips, sales professionals can move from pitchmen (or women) to trusted counsel&#x2014;yielding stronger customer relationships, higher value deals and a more sustainable pipeline of business.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Tom Aley is senior vice president and managing director of Dow Jones Business & Relationship Intelligence.</i>