Selling in Slow Times

Every salesperson eventually falls upon slow times. Whether it’s a regular seasonal slump, marketplace readjustment, or economic downturn, it happens to all of us. What salespeople do during these slow selling times is what separates the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, and the professional from the amateur.

Slow Time Blues

In slow selling times, retail salespeople can reorganize displays, restock shelves, do inventory, sweep floors, or stand around praying for someone to come into their store at which time they pounce on the unsuspecting prospect and regale them with their snappy opening, “Can I help you.” The general response, of course, is usually, “No thanks, just looking.”

Retail salespeople don’t have many options. If they don’t have someone to sell to, they pretty well have to wait until someone comes along. It’s not the same for business-to-business, outbound salespeople.

Oh, B2B salespeople can do some of the same things during slow selling times. We can reorganize our desks, restock our literature supply, and clean out all the fast food containers from our vehicles. The one thing we can’t (or shouldn’t) do is stand around waiting for a prospect to press money into our hands.

Slow selling times are when we should become proactive, not reactive. We should try to make things, like potential sales, happen. Or at least we should get some potential sales started.

Law of the Sales Jungle

I’m reminded of the law of the sales jungle, which goes like this:

    “Every morning, on the plains of Africa, a gazelle wakes and realizes that it must run faster than the fastest lion or be killed. On the same plain, a lion wakes and realizes that it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or starve. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re a gazelle or a lion, if you’re in sales you better hit the road running.”

So, if you can’t wait around for a prospect to stumble over you, what can you do? You can hit the road running and try to stumble over a prospect, that’s what!

It’s called prospecting.

Many of us old-timers and some of those newer to professional selling are familiar with the concept of the sales funnel and prospecting pipeline. The concept is as valid today as it ever was and maybe more so as we go into and out of slow selling times.

The Sales Funnel

The sales funnel is just like a funnel you might use to pour liquid from one container into another. If you stop pouring the liquid into the top part of the funnel, fluid stops coming out the bottom. If you try to pour too much liquid in at one time, the funnel overflows and you lose some of it. You’ll also lose liquid if the funnel has leaks. If you have some blockages in your funnel, the flow may stop or back up causing an overflow situation again.

So how does this work for sales? Simple. If you stop putting potential sales opportunities into the top part of the funnel, closed sales stop coming out the bottom.

If you try to put too many sales opportunities in at one time, the sales funnel overflows and you lose some potential sales. This can happen after a trade show where you simply have too many leads to follow-up in a timely manner.

You’ll also lose sales if the sales funnel has leaks. Leaks are simply lost sales that probably weren’t going to happen in the first place.

A blockage in your sales funnel could be something as simple as the inability to get a proposal out in a timely manner, the inability to deliver on a specific date, or indecision on the part of someone in the company.

It would be nice if every sales opportunity you put into the top of the sales funnel poured out the bottom as a closed sale. The percentage of sales opportunities that actually end up closed is called your “closing ratio.” A 25 percent closing ratio means that you get (close) one out of every four sales you start.

Feeding the Funnel

Just like your regular funnel can’t go out and find liquids to pour into its top end, the sales funnel can’t actively find potential opportunities. That’s your job. It’s called prospecting. And part of your job, particularly in slower times, is to keep a flow of potential opportunities flowing down through your prospecting pipeline and into the sales funnel.

Developing your prospecting pipelines is important to your long-term survival in sales. If you just wait around for the company to supply you leads, chances are you’ll slowly starve to death, in a metaphorical sense. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Experience shows that the best salespeople are also the best prospectors.

Typical Pipelines

It’s not a good idea to just rely on one source of prospects – your company, for example. Develop your own. Some typical pipelines are networking (if done properly), associations, mailing lists, trade journals, old customers, existing customers, competitors (yes, competitors), and the Internet. These are just a few of the prospecting pipelines that the professional salesperson should be aware of.

Pipeline Size

If you know your closing ratio, you can get an idea of the size of your prospecting pipeline. Let’s assume that your annual sales target or quota is $1,000,000 and your average sale is $20,000. Some will be more, and many will be less but the average is $20,000. That means you need 50 sales to make your quota.

If your closing ratio is 25 percent, you’ll need four hot prospects for every sale or 200 potential opportunities in the top of your sales funnel.

Hold onto your hat because the numbers get a bit worse. Because everyone you talk to isn’t a hot prospect, you need to find sources of “suspects” – people who you think might be a prospect. If you’re good and can convert every two suspects into a prospect, then your prospecting pipelines must be capable of sustaining a flow of 400 suspects a year or you’re simply not going to make your quota.

Do you have enough sources of leads to succeed? Think about it.

Which Are You?

I started this article by mentioning that slow selling times separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the hawk who hunts for food from the baby bird who waits to be fed, and the professional from the amateur.

Which are you? It’s your choice.