Looking into 2008, many economists warn that the economy-domestic and global-could be in for a rough ride. Several indicators already suggest it's a real possibility, if not a sure thing. Some have even whispered the "R" word. Let's hope they are wrong and act like they are right. Should hard times not come, you won't regret having been pro-active.
No one knows with certainty if a downturn is looming, how bad it will be, or how it might specifically affect our industry, but high-performing leaders should take action at the mere prospect of tougher times. In times of famine, there are those who feast. Since each account executive "feeds" seven families, here are four actions to help everyone eat better. They're about leadership and deployment of your sales force-your first line of defense.
1. Re-evaluate your core markets and the core clients within them (aka "sweet spots"). Examine each of the top 20 percent of your accounts. Help account executives create a 2008 plan that ties each "must keep" even closer and pre-empts competitive inroads. Step up service levels such that these accounts can't even imagine going anywhere else. Make senior management visits to each of them (with the account executive) to judge how "secure" they are, to underscore your commitment to them, to bulletproof your relationship. Where you see opportunity to bolster that relationship, do it. While you're there, ask about their plans and expectations for 2008 and beyond-for them and for their clients.
2. Prepare your team for a more challenging market. Many of them have never seen tough times. Anyone with less than five years in sales won't have experienced much shortage of opportunity. Many literally do not know how to prospect, or even how to systematically "mine" an existing account because they've never had to. Work with each account executive to review that top 20 percent and help them create a plan for retention and development. Help them develop a prospecting and mining plan-not only in core markets, but in some that could be less economically sensitive (e.g. government or education). Follow-up and hold them accountable for what was agreed.
3. Do a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) of your customer service practices, your sales processes, and each account executive. A strong market masks internal weaknesses, while a soft one exposes them-often too late. Share the results and take corrective action. If training is indicated, do it. If you've been uncertain about keeping a marginal performer, make a decision. If accounts need to be reassigned, get to it. If you are under- or overservicing some market segment, re-balance. Pay close attention to your pipeline and forecast as a key performance indicator and early-warning system.
4. Re-examine sales department economics. What should change in your budget and plans for next year? Will you change your compensation scheme? Invest more in promotion and lead generation? Take on new customer service initiatives? Make sure allocations are aligned with what you want to achieve next year. Be prudent in spending, but don't be short-sighted. Be willing to invest.
Already doing all this? Congratulations-you're that high-performing executive.