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How to turn around declining or flat sales

Last week I was talking with a small business owner who runs a retail location with eight employees and sales of around $1.7 million annually.

They have a loyal customer base and they’ve been in business for close to 15 years. The problem is sales have been flat or declining for the last three years and profit is almost zero.

When I asked them what they thought the reason was, they said, “we don’t know”.

This is a very common situation. A long-standing business that has enjoyed success starts to see sales flat line or even decline.

We’ve found there are typically three reasons this happens.

  1. Training
  2. Customer Experience
  3. The message

If you’re selling an easily acquired commodity, then this doesn’t apply to you. Your only choice is speed of availability and price.

For the rest of us, no matter what type of business category, these three areas are critical to your success. (This is of course assuming your products or services are of good value. No amount of marketing or salesmanship can over come a bad product or service).

Take a minute and answer these three questions:

  • When was the last time you spent time and energy training your staff on customer service, up-selling and how to engage a customer?
  • How is the experience you deliver to your customers different and unique from what your competitors deliver?
  • Has your marketing messaging drifted from telling a compelling story of differentiation and value to a focus around specials and discounts?

To build a strong and lasting company, you need to be focused on customers not sales. The difference is customers make repeat purchases and sales are one-time transactions.

Many companies believe they need to spend their way out of a sales slump, when there are proven tactics you can employee with little to no cost.


Many businesses allocate 1.5 to 5% of sales to advertising or marketing. Many accountants recommend this budgeting method.

But what is your training budget? We recommend that you invest at least one month’s salary/wages per employee to training annually.

I know what you’re saying – Are you crazy!

No, we’re serious. And here’s why.

  • Hiring a new employee is costly. From the time it takes to recruit them, conduct initial training and their wages, it can cost you as much as three times their salary to let them go after only a year’s investment.
  • A consistently trained employee is a more engaged employee and engaged employees can be up to 2.5 times more productive than a disengaged employee
  • A trained employee delivers a far better customer experience, which can increase share of wallet (How much a customer will spend with you annually in a particular category vs. your competitors) and their LTV (Life Time Value: the monetary value of a customer over their purchasing lifetime with you)

Customer Experience

Are you a forgettable company? There’s an old saying that people won’t remember what you said but they’ll remember how you made them feel. This is the crux of what customer service should be focused on.

The good news is it’s never been easier to stand out in your market than it is today. Now with the increased amount of competition that’s out there today because of the Internet and technology you might be saying, “no way is that true”, but it is. The reason the time is right is because while there is more competition, there are also far more “me-too” companies that simply exist, provide the bare minimum and complete almost exclusively on price.

Here are three questions to wrestle with to help you define your customer experience strategy:

  • What do we want to be known for?
  • What can we deliver better than anyone else?
  • What is the one thing we could deliver to our customers that they would love, but never expect?

The message

The last part of the sales turnaround trifecta is the message you deliver to your market. But before we get into how to craft your message, let’s take a quick look at why it’s so important.

Every one of us, (including your customers) is exposed to over 3000 promotional messages a day. Let that sink in.

From traditional sources like newspaper, radio, TV and billboards to the Internet, social media and emails as well as the deluge from logos on clothing and the shelves of supermarkets, we are bombarded daily.

To keep us from going mad due to overstimulation our brains have developed a filter that block out 99.9% of the messages.  It only lets in what is relevant to our immediate needs.

So that’s good news for not going insane, but bad news for developing a messaging strategy that produces results.

Here are the five things your messaging must do to get through the noise:

  • Focus on one simple message. Too many concepts at once are confusing and because of our shortened attention spans, we will become bored and tune out
  • Focused on the customer not you. Be sure your message speaks to what they will receive or experience and not what you will give them
  • Repeat the message often. Because we are overwhelmed at times with the amount of messages, we will need repeated exposure to it
  • Don’t be boring. Our brains love surprises, so be prepared to stand out, take a stand and wake people up.
  • Deliver your message in multiple formats. Because of the technology at our disposal we have the opportunity to consume information in the format we like best. Make it easy for people to receive your message

While it’s not easy to turn around declining sales, it is possible. You need to take action, listen to your customers and be consistent in your execution. There really are no short cuts. It takes time, but you’ll be in a much stronger position if it ever happens again.