Naviga’s 2009 Economic Survey finds companies are cautiously optimistic for revenue and hiring growth in 2009

In some encouraging economic news, an independent survey conducted on behalf of my sales and marketing recruitment firm, Naviga Business Services, found that companies are projecting at least modest revenue growth in 2009 and most are planning to expand their sales force to make that happen.

When asked how they project revenues to change in 2009 compared to 2008, more than 32% of respondents indicated that they expect an increase of between 1-10%, and nearly 11% said they expect revenues to grow by more than 20%. One-fourth expect revenues to stay the same, while 21% expect revenues to decrease.

To support revenue goals, 100% of respondents said they plan to hire sales professionals in 2009, with 75% expecting hiring to begin in the second quarter*. Customer service and engineering/development, at 22% each, were the other key positions for which companies plan to hire in 2009, followed by marketing, accounting and information technology (11% each).

Most of these positions will be in the Northeast and Southwest, which were each identified by 50% of respondents as the geographies in which they planned to hire in the coming year*.  Those regions were followed by the Southeast and Midwest (37.5% each), and 25% plan to hire for positions in the Northwest.

In the meantime, companies are taking several steps to counter the current economic conditions*. More than 46% said they were cutting non-payroll expenses to improve their financial positions. To stimulate growth, 32% said they were increasing their sales budget and 11% said they were making targeted acquisitions.  Another 32% said they were cutting payroll expenses, 25% said they are making no changes in their general plans.

When asked to describe their company’s current hiring status given the country’s economic condition, more than 28% said they were hiring in selective functions or geographic areas, and 25% said they were hiring only to replace departing employees. Layoffs had been completed or were being planned by more than 21%, and nearly 18% had instituted a hiring freeze. Just 7% indicated that they were currently hiring across the entire company.

So while things may look grim at the moment, these results tell me that we will begin to see the light at the end of what has been a dark economic tunnel within the next few months! 

* Percentages added may exceed 100% as participants could select more than one answer for this question.

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Innovative Sales Training Options

Naviga partner The Brooks Group has launched innovative virtual sales training using “Second Life.” The Brooks Group is certainly very forward thinking in establishing this type of delivery as an option for their training services. We have knowledge of this trend being used in Europe for a few years now, and it just hasn’t seemed to have caught on in the U.S. Maybe this initiative is a good start. Visit the write up at http://davesteinsblog.wordpress.com/ 

www.brooksgroup.com/

Sales reps protest economy-driven benching

Last week, I discussed a relatively recent trend where companies are benching sales reps during these tough economic times. Everyone I spoke with agreed:  it is a bad strategy for containing costs until the economy turns around.

Over the past week, a number of sales professionals have sent me their opinions on this disturbing trend. Like last week, the consensus was overwhelmingly against the idea of benching sales reps—and not just because it takes away their ability to earn a living. In fact, most were more interested in talking about their important role in helping their companies survive the economic downturn.

“Sales reps are the eyes and ears of the company and need to be sensing the market all the time,” wrote Kurt Bradtmueller. “This time can be used to develop relationships and find other ways to add value. If you simply make a call to ask how things are, that’s probably good enough. The customer may feel like the sales rep is a fair weather friend if they simply ‘disappear’ during the downturn. Those who continue to nurture the relationship capitalize on the existing opportunities and will get the biggest rewards when the market returns.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Sales reps are not only the link between customer and corporation; they are the nurturer of business relationships and the watchful eye in any type of market. No client will feel like they are in good hands if their sales rep simply disappears when the times get tough. A good sales professional will stick with their clients and find new ways in which to help their business.

Another sales pro said this: “Professional sales people can, especially during the more difficult times, create an even stronger relationship. Sales people who focus on their customer’s business, rather than their own sales can absolutely stay employed, engaged, and be very effective.”

Sales reps are a vital resource to their clients and benching them will affect their own and their company’s well being. Keeping an eye on how customers’ businesses are faring is the best way to keep sales up in a down economy. Find out what they need, and send your sales professionals to give it to them.

Benching Sales Reps in a down economy? Most agree it’s a bad idea!

A disturbing trend has come to my attention; one that could leave struggling companies in far worse shape down the road. It’s the practice of “suggesting” that sales reps take unpaid leaves of absence or vacations rather than continuing to work their prospect pipelines and beef up relationships with existing clients.

In many cases, companies are justifying this by saying that clients and prospects don’t want to be “bothered” by sales calls right now. Even if that’s true – and not just a blatant cost-cutting measure – I can’t think of a more detrimental reaction to these tough economic times.

The reality is that companies pulling their sales forces out of the field are going to hurt even more in the long run. When the economic pendulum swings back, any visibility they may have had with customers will be gone.  Out of sight; out of mind.

I asked a few of my LinkedIn colleagues for their reaction to this trend. While some admitted to putting their sales reps on commission-only due to the economy, most were just as appalled as I was at the idea of benching them altogether.

“What an odd theory,” wrote one respondent. “The sales workforce should not be benched, it should instead be working with the rest of the corporation to bring innovation to their client base…Being in touch with what is happening and addressing the realities of the economic environment is the solution. Benching the sales team will only ensure that relationships become severed (with existing clients) and pipelines dry up.”

Another respondent had this to say: “This sounds like a thinly veiled, desperate cost-cutting move [that] makes little to no sense to me…Generally my belief is that companies are still spending some money and if the products are for value, it’s the role of the salespeople to express that the budget, though decreasing, should be sent in their direction.”

And finally:  “The better question to ask is ‘do we strengthen our position and our relationships’? Eventually, the buying should increase, so you want to do everything in your power to position your company in the best light once that green light for purchasing comes again.”

In other words, rather than taking their sales team out of the game, companies should be using this time to shore up existing relationships. They should be giving their sales team the tools and training they need to be more effective at positioning their product or service as a benefit to the client. And sales reps themselves should be solidifying their position as trusted advisors to their clients, for example by doing some intelligence gathering to help their customers stay on top of the competition.

 These are the kinds of activities that allow sales reps to stay engaged with clients in a way that places the focus on the customer’s business vs. the making the sale.  This, in the long-run, is what will return companies to profitability.

One respondent summarized it best: “If management sees that customer orders are going stale by their targets asking to not be bothered, they’re going to have to replace that revenue (lost growth) anyway, so benching sales people just doesn’t make sense. This is the time to pull away from the competition and be respectful of your customer at the same time.”

There’s Nothing Lucky about Sales Success

It takes more than luck to sell successfully in slow economic times. It takes trust.

The most successful sales professionals don’t sell “stuff.” They sell relationships. They understand their client’s business and challenges and take a consultative approach to meeting their needs. They become a trusted advisor, someone who has the client’s best interests at heart. They don’t make the sale at any cost; they make the sale when it’s the right thing for their customer.

You can’t fake your way into the role of a trusted advisor; you’ll come off as disingenuous. You have to truly earn the confidence and trust of your clients through your actions before, during and after the sale. 

In Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Teal Book of Trust: How to Earn It, Grow It, and Keep it to Become a Trusted Advisor in Sales, Business, & Life, Gitomer makes the compelling argument that establishing yourself as a trusted advisor starts not with your approach to the sales process, but with learning to trust yourself.

“This means you have to trust your thinking, your wisdom, your knowledge, your judgment, your instincts, your powers of observation, your powers of deduction, your ability to reason, and your ability to discern,” Gitomer writes. “You must be decisive. Trusted people are not wishy-washy. Trusted people do not pass the buck. Trusted people are willing to bet on themselves.”

In addition to trusting yourself, you have to be trustworthy. That means being honest and following through on promises. It means showing others respect by being on time, courteous, sincere and appreciative. Finally, it means bringing more to the table than just your product or service and being willing to trust others.

If you incorporate these values into every aspect of your life, you’ll achieve personal and professional success. You’ll earn the coveted role of trusted advisor and become someone they turn to during bad – and good – economic times.

Why Is Goal Setting So Important In Sales?

This week’s guest blog is from Dave Stein, a former sales consultant and trainer who is the CEO of ES Research Group, Inc., and author of “How Winners Sell.”

Goal setting isn’t a standalone activity, but rather a component of a larger planning process. Whether it’s written down or not, that process normally has four parts: 1) an assessment, 2) the determination of a goal, 3) devising a strategy to achieve the goal, and 4) coming up with individual steps or tactics required to execute the strategy.

Let’s say I’m 80 pounds overweight (which I was many years ago). My assessment would be short and sweet: I need to lose weight because at 240 pounds, I am headed toward a heart attack, diabetes or both and can hardly get out of my car. Losing 10 pounds wouldn’t accomplish much and losing 150 would leave me, at six feet tall, skinny as a rail.

You can see that the assessment points me toward a goal. Lose 80 pounds.

Many of us learned about S.M.A.R.T. goals or objectives. That concept works well.

My strategy to achieve the weight loss back then was through diet and exercise. So far as tactics were concerned, I completely over-reacted—something I tended to do back then. I immediately went on a macrobiotic diet (which I significantly modified after 6 months or so). In addition, I started walking, then jogging at the high school track. I could have employed other tactics to support my strategies, like going on The Atkins Diet and swimming instead of running.

I understand that people who accomplish great things in either their business or personal lives don’t always think in terms of this four-part plan. But they follow one nevertheless. You don’t just wind up climbing Mt. Everest, saving the lives of thousands of African children, losing 10 pounds, or learning how to play the piano without a goal and the plan to achieve it, formal or otherwise.

With respect to salespeople, consistent and long-term effectiveness requires a formal planning process (including that important second step: goal-setting). With many opportunities in a rep’s pipeline, all with different characteristics, timeframes, buyers, decision processes, competitors, and buying criteria, keeping them all advancing toward a sale requires executing a number of complex and parallel plans.

I’m sure you’re thinking about a super salesperson you know who doesn’t formally plan their sales campaigns. I won’t argue with you. But I will say they are the exception.