Sales Survival in an Anemic Economy

Even if you are the president of the United States, there isn’t much you can do to change world economic conditions. Instead of crying in your beer or just drinking more of it, what you can change is how you conduct your business. As my former boss (and former Marine) Gordon McAllister would say to encourage me during the depths of the recession in the early 80s: Tough times don’t last; tough people do.

His point was that you need to make your own opportunities, if you want your business to survive. So if you’re waiting for business to walk through your door, lots of luck. In tough times, if you want to survive, you have to chase it down, hog tie it and drag it home. I have news for you that you may not believe. Some of the companies that are proactively beating on doors are prospering in spite of the economic climate.

In this article, I will suggest some ideas for preserving your business base and uncovering new opportunities, as well as controlling costs.

Telemarketing: Pick Up The Phone.

In an era when we are inundated with text messages and e-mails, have we forgotten our telephones? Now is the time to pick up your phone and reach out and touch someone.

By regularly calling your existing base of customers, you can keep your name in the forefronts of their minds. You can identify new opportunities, as well as recognize potential threats from your competitors. And by doing so, preserve the business that you have and minimize your attrition rate. 
Telemarketing can economically unearth new customers and protect existing ones. Although prospecting on the phone is no substitute for face-to-face selling, it’s the next best option (and a cost effective one at that) in communicating with a customer on a one-to-one basis.

When I worked for a fleet graphics screen printer many years ago, we built up our new business by phone prospecting. Working the phones is certainly not any easy job and may not be for everybody. But it sure is a fast way to determine which companies operate either a fleet of vehicles or a chain of stores with an existing graphics program; who has purchasing authority within these companies; and when they are likely to purchase these products.

I don’t believe that you can sell a new graphics program on the phone. But for my money, there’s no better way to find out fast who’s hot and who’s not.

Prospect for New Opportunities at Current Customers.

Sales is not about persuading someone to buy or do something that they would not ordinarily do. Instead it’s about helping them in their decision-making process to get what they need and in many cases, already want. 
The best way to unearth these needs and desires, buried deep inside the dark recesses of your customer’s brain is to perform a needs analysis. While this process sounds very mysterious, complex and clinical, it simply involves asking your customer the right questions so you get a feel of what it’s like to be inside their skin.

Here are a few basic questions: What competitive threats are your customer’s biggest challenges? In today’s tumultuous economy, what changes have your customer made in their business? What actions has your customer taken to increase their sales? Only after getting answers to questions such as these can you determine how you can best provide a graphics solution to satisfy the customer’s current needs.

By conducting a needs analysis, you can quickly determine if the prospect needs your products and services. If there is no need, then there’s no need to waste your time with the prospect. 

Follow up on old sales leads.

Nobody likes a quitter. But from time to time, even the best sales people give up too soon. How many times have you thrown in the towel before the fight was over?

Most people give up on prospects after a few sales calls. Study after study indicates that most sales aren’t made until the fifth sales call. In a slow economy, what better time is there to revisit your old leads?

One effective way to follow up is to combine direct mail, telemarketing and face-to-face selling. Here’s how. Mail the old prospects a packet reminding them of your products and services. Several days later follow up with a phone call. Did they receive the information? Did they have a chance to look at it? What did they think? If there is a spark of interest, set the appointment for your sales call.

In your phone conversation, qualify the prospect to see if there are any upcoming opportunities. If your prospect is a retailer, be sure to probe for and identify needs for window graphics and store window displays, Point-Of-Purchase graphics, in-store signage and wall graphics. In these tough times, store owners are desperate to generate store traffic and sales. If they don’t, they’re out of business.

During the depths of the recession, I visited some of the largest POP companies in the Midwest and on the West Coast. Most of these screen printers and digital printers were busy because they were servicing the retail market and they were proactively soliciting business. Note: I used the term “proactively”.  They were not waiting for business to walk through their front doors.

Direct Mail.

Do you dread the thought of picking up the phone to prospect? If you are, join the club. Telemarketing is tough work. And not everyone is cut out to do it. If you can’t get over your phone fear, you have an alternative. Send them a direct mail package. 

Today snail mail is more effective than e-mail. A well-designed direct mail package can deliver your graphics message better than electronic marketing, because it is much more visual and takes a little more effort to discard than just pressing the delete button. Obviously, E-marketing is all the rage, and everybody is doing it because it is a cheap way to reach a large audience. And because everybody is doing it, very little of it gets read.
Direct mail works. Famed car salesman, Joe Girard, who set still unbroken industry sales records, used direct mail and telemarketing to build his business and ensure a steady flow of customers. Each month he sent out post cards to key prospects to keep his name in the forefront of their minds.  When the prospect was finally ready to buy, who do you think they called?  Joe Girard. You can do the same. 

When I worked for a large fleet graphics screen printer, each week we mailed hundreds of direct mail packages. A few days after mailing, we followed up with a phone call. Combining the phone call with the mailing, dramatically improved our response rate.   

If you have added new equipment and new services to your shop, such as digital printing, use direct mail to promote it. 


I never liked the term “networking”. The whole idea of social gatherings arranged so sales people can pump other sales people for information sounds phony and sleazy. Networking doesn’t have to work that way.
Sales is about building relationships. Developing good relationships takes time and consistent effort. If the focus of your business is fleet graphics or building graphics, devote some time to building genuine and authentic friendships in the industry.

In the fleet graphics business, the best people to develop relationships with are trailer sales people and the equipment leasing sales people. They will know long before you will who it buying or leasing vehicles and when the deal is going to happen. These sales people know who the key players are and in some cases will make the introduction for you. If that’s not enough, the leasing sales people can also roll the graphics package. Could it get any better that that? Believe it not, it can. On a lease deal, before the equipment is turned over to the customer, all of the vendors get paid. 

Networking in the store graphics market is no different. When he started his sign company, a sign maker in Boise, Idaho told me that he made a concerted effort to get to know the commercial builders in his city. They introduced him to architects, who in turn introduced him to the interior designers, who used his services. As his network of contacts grew, so did his business.

Conclusion: Sink or Swim

What’s the difference between the busy shop and the one with no business?  In a crisis, the natural response is either flight or fight. The busy shops are fighting. They are exploring new opportunities. Their inside people are making outbound calls at the slow times. And their sales people are pounding on doors.  

In his book, The Winner Within, basketball coach Pat Riley tells the story of going on a whitewater rafting trip. The first thing that the trip guide told him was that at some time during the trip, each one of them would all fall out of the boat. He also told them that if they expected to survive, that they had to take an active role in their own rescue. It’s sink or swim.

No matter what you do, at some point in time we all fall out of the boat. In facing challenges in your business or personal life, your success in negotiating troubled waters largely depends on the actions that you take.

Good luck selling!