These strategies will help you increase top line growth in good times and bad.
1) Price matters
In a downturn there’s more pressure than ever to cut costs. Paul Wilson, MD of generator hire business Power4, says he has done everything he can to resist it.
‘Our market is price driven, but certain sectors are more so than others,’ he explains. ‘For example, the construction sector is fiercely competitive. You get people saying, “Ah, but I can go to Joe Bloggs round the corner who’ll do this £20 a week cheaper.”
‘We won’t compete on these terms – instead we’ll talk about what people are getting for their money in comparison to Joe Bloggs.’
Though Wilson adds he occasionally has to ‘get down and dirty’ to secure a key deal, he maintains price-cutting can be a costly tactic in the long run. ‘You can drop prices at the drop of a hat, but recouping them going forward is a very difficult task indeed,’ he states.
2) Say you can deliver (wonder how later)
Rather than sensibly manage expectations, you can start to have real fun with your business by telling a client: “Of course we can do that,” when in actual fact you have no idea how it is you will be able to come up with the goods.
Colin Crooks really got to know the “deep end” well in the early days of his not-for-profit office furniture recycling company, Green Works. ‘We got offered this ludicrous task from HSBC: they wanted us to get rid of 7,000 desks and I had six months to do it.’
While he was pleased there was demand for the service, he lacked the resources to deliver. ‘I actually got the investment from HSBC. They were really brilliant. They believed in what we believed in. I said I can make this happen if you give me the money in advance.’
The bank altered its standard procurement contract and wrote a new one, asking Crooks what he needed. ‘Effectively, we had to get a lease on the back of this contract. We had no money. So we had to convince the landlord we were big enough for the money.’
It’s a classic case of making your own luck. ‘We were really breaking all the rules and it was fabulous and very exciting,’ he reflects.
3) Form partnerships
Nasstar, which provides its clients with desktop computing facilities over the internet, gets regular calls from companies looking to resell its services.
CEO Charles Black states: ‘It’s better to focus on a smaller number of high-quality strategic partners, each with a substantial client base. So we might work with a web hosting company which traditionally has only offered web hosting services, but are now looking to generate new revenues from their existing customers.’
Black adds that such arrangements work best when there is serious commitment on both sides. ‘If we’re working with a partner which has ten salespeople, we’ll arrange days of seminars and training to help them upsell their customers to our product.’
4) Hire deal closers
‘One thing that amazes me is how many companies don’t have salespeople,’ says Rob Chapman, CEO of Firebrand Training, a provider of intensive IT courses. ‘Several relatively successful businesses I know would be even more successful if they actually hired a salesperson that knew how to sell.’
Chapman, whose company’s turnover has grown 35 per cent a year since its launch in 2001, defines a good salesperson as proactive, tenacious and target-driven. A sales team should be ‘the engine that fuels a company’s growth’, he adds.
Candidates for Firebrand are put through a rigorous three- or four-hour interview process involving a peer, a boss and a company director. Chapman adds that he is not simply looking for old-fashioned sales skills, but a good fit with the company’s culture.
‘When times are tough, the right group of people will bond with and support each other; but if you have people who can do the job but have little in common, they may end up fighting each other,’ he argues.
5) Meet and greet
It may not come naturally to some of you but nothing quite beats networking.
Dan McGuire, MD of job advertising specialist Broadbean Technologies, says: ‘In the early days it was just about getting sales. We joined an IT recruitment trade association so we went and networked and that worked really well as you’d go for a beer with the chief execs afterwards. You wouldn’t even sell to them – you get to know them. Networking is really important and I still do that to this day.’
6) Hire a telemarketing company
Nasstar’s Black has benefited from employing a telemarketing company to generate what he calls ‘high-level leads’.
‘It’s not a call centre full of inexperienced people, it’s grey-haired salesmen phoning MDs, FDs and CEOs,’ he says. ‘We define to them the kind of company we’re targeting, they go out and find it, and we pay for the leads they generate. We can stop using them any time: there’s no risk and no overhead.’
7) Provide guarantees
A silky-smooth sales pitch may not always be enough to persuade a client to sign on the dotted line. Broadbean’s McGuire says: ‘We offer peace of mind and money-back guarantees, committing to much more [than our competitors]. If we mess things up, you’ll get your money back.’
For McGuire, such promises make a difference. ‘You always have to justify your price but you don’t have to justify it by hard selling. You try and meet needs that other people can’t meet. I’d hate to be one of those companies that tries to be the cheapest. Who wants to go around saying “we’re the cheapest?”’