How to Sell When Customers Aren’t Buying


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”

— Charles Dickens

Without question, most salespeople recognize they are now experiencing “the worst of times,” but with the right strategy, skills and effort, this can also be “the best of times.” 

A chance conversation with a sales representative for a medical equipment manufacturer helped me gain a deeper understanding of the frustrations that many salespeople, especially business-to-business salespeople, are facing at this moment in a very tough economic environment. I didn’t take notes, but the conversation went something like this:

“How’s business?” I asked.

“Non existent,” he replied.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean no one is buying anything. Everyone’s budgets have been frozen or cut. Purchase orders are being cancelled. And I’m lucky if I can even get a face-to-face. No one wants to talk to a salesman right now, except maybe to re-negotiate or cancel a contract. That’s what I mean by ‘non-existent.’ There is absolutely no business to be had.”

Now, over the course of a plus-20-year career coaching and training salespeople, I’ve heard versions of this lament hundreds and hundreds of times. And to be frank, most of the time it was simply a case of the salesperson not having the skills, knowledge or expertise to sell in a particularly challenging situation. And my job was to help them acquire the needed competency. Or occasionally to help them find a new (non-selling) career if they weren’t able to develop new capabilities.

So I am naturally skeptical when I hear a salesperson say “There is no business to be had,” but I also know we are facing one of the toughest business environments ever, perhaps the greatest economic downturn of our lives.

A week later I was having another conversation with a salesperson whose market is among the hardest hit – residential real estate – yet surprisingly, she is having a pretty good year. Naturally I was interested to learn what she was doing to drive sales growth, and it turned out that she had a very specific strategy. She isn’t comfortable with me sharing many of the details (she called this her “secret sauce”) but the important point here is that she didn’t just assume that a tight economy had to result in a financial downturn for her personally.

She decided to out-think, out-strategize, and out-sell her competition. And that is exactly what she is doing. My conversation with her prompted me to reach out to hundreds of salespeople in a variety of markets and industries, many of whom I have been involved in training or coaching over the years. What I was looking for were stories and specific examples of salespeople who were managing to “sell up” while the economy is drifting downward.

Of course the truth is that the majority of salespeople I spoke with are having a very tough time. And among the few who are experiencing good sales growth, many of those are not actually driving the growth – they are either benefiting from a unique product niche or some other business strategy that does not really involve them.

But I did manage to find a number of salespeople who were truly driving sales growth upstream, against a harsh economic back current. And I began capturing their stories in a blog, which you can access at

I’ve been gathering stories and posting them to this blog for more than six months now, and I have become convinced that any salesperson, in any market, can drive sales growth. Even in the very toughest economic times, it is possible to make it happen. Of course it does mean that you have to be more creative, innovative, and aggressive in your sales approach.

I’ve seen that most salespeople try the “work harder” approach, but while working harder may be part of the answer, it isn’t the most important part. I encourage you to read the blog and maybe even post your own success stories.

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