Rise Above That Sales Plateau

Beating the Street - Or how to make money in stocksOne topic that I rarely see addressed in sales literature is the one I’m taking on this month – how to get yourself off of the dreaded sales plateau. You know what that looks like, right? Your salespeople are still doing the things they were doing, but suddenly the sales growth is gone. All of that effort is going to maintaining the status quo, or maybe you’re “Growing” at 5 percent.

This is the point where many managers will go off half-cocked, make big changes, and suddenly that “plateau” becomes a goal to get back to. Don’t be that guy! Instead, diagnose the problem correctly, make the RIGHT adjustments, and that plateau will be in the rear view mirror. First, there are three questions you should ask:

  1. What’s your market share? If your market share is high – say 70 percent or above – you have a legitimate reason for a plateau. In this case, double digit growth might require radical changes, which we’ll discuss below.
  2. Are your salespeople really doing the same things? Call reports and stats don’t tell the whole story. The basic equation of sales achievement is this: Quantity of activity x Quality of activity = Results. Even if your salespeople are averaging the same call quantities, you may need to dig deeper. Are they having the same quality of conversation that they used to? Is their prospecting mix similar? Are they calling on the same quality of contact? Any of these variables can hide a reason for a plateau, and they all involve deep digging and getting out into the field.
  3. What’s changed outside your doors? The obvious suggestion here is to examine the competitive landscape or the overall economic condition in your market (have customers closed their doors, for instance?), but the biggest change I’m seeing right now is in the customer expectations. The internet means that the sales conversations that met customer expectations a few years ago fall short of expectations now. Maybe it’s time for you and your salespeople to raise their game.

Only after examining the answers to the previous questions are you ready to move forward with some potential solutions.

  • Take on a new product or a new market. This applies mainly if the answer to #1 is that your market share is so high that it’s unreasonable to expect your salespeople to continue to drive double-digit growth. There’s obviously danger in this approach, particularly if you have a great market position, but the health of your company demands it. High market shares that lead to plateaus also lead to complacency. When you’re complacent, the quality of everything you do begins to decline, just a little, until everyone is operating at half speed and you don’t know what to do about it. New products or new markets keep everyone challenged. Yes, everyone will squeal – particularly the salespeople – but it’s for their own good, and yours as well.
  • Refocus Your Sales Force. Maybe the answer to #2 is that the salespeople are not doing the things that got them to the level that they are now. It can happen. People can slack off in their prospecting, the quality of their customers, or the quality of their sales interactions. At this point it’s time to refocus the salespeople, using good management techniques to get them back on track and get your company growing again. You may also need to rework goals, activity metrics, and other key measurements in doing so.
  • Retrain. This affects the answers to #2 and #3. The hardest thing for salespeople, and sales managers, to wrap their heads around is this: Even if your salespeople are having the same quality of conversation they were 10 years ago, it probably isn’t enough now. Your customers expect MORE. The key here is to retrain with someone who has kept up with current trends, with the internet’s influence on sales dialogue, and how to have the kind of conversation that customers demand now. Yes, I’m talking about myself, of course, but this is important. There are sales training “systems” out there that haven’t changed since about 1980, and WILL NOT be effective in today’s world.
  • Talk to your customers. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees – and sometimes it’s hard to see the real reasons why your customers buy and keep buying. Let me be blunt here. The best source of information about why new customers should buy from you is your current customers. I’m always amazed at companies that will throw huge dollars at ad campaigns and marketing programs designed to “reposition” them without taking a minute to ask their happiest customers why they buy and keep buying. The answers your customers will give you will help you freshen up your marketing approach without getting rid of the reasons why your current customers love you.
  • Make staffing changes. Yep, this is the last resort but sometimes it has to happen. A couple of years ago, I helped a client get off a 4-year plateau and grow 60 percent in one year. The biggest change made was that we released a Sales Manager who was in “coast and collect” mode and replaced him with a driver and strategic thinker. We changed sales processes and activity metrics, retrained the salespeople, and hired some new blood. In fact, come to think of it, we did everything above except finding new markets – because that wasn’t their problem. But what we did WORKED, and it can work for you too.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “But, Troy, what’s so bad about a plateau? My company is making me good money, we’re not working that hard, and my risk is low. I like my plateau!” I can answer that this way: If you’re not growing, you’re shrinking. All it takes, in a plateaued company, is one or two major customer losses and not only are you trying to work back up, but your company has lost the habits that made it grow in the first place. Keep working and you’ll keep growing.