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The year is off and running. Welcome to another decade of produce industry challenges and opportunities. Are you having fun yet?

Before you get too far ahead of the game, first consider a few "stop signs." Stop getting tied up with details and red tape. Stop making it difficult for customers to spend money with you. Stop trying to sell people what they do not want. Stop promising what you cannot deliver. Stop assuming customers will stay with you forever. Stop difficult and confusing sales programs. And finally, stop complaining, moping and frowning.

We all realize that last year was a tough uphill battle just to remain in the ballgame. Many companies took it hard on the economic chin by having to cancel some programs, reduce labor forces, postpone expansions and even shutter some operating facilities. Trimming costs is always a vital part of operating a business, but sooner rather than later, companies have to get back to growing sales again. It is time to pick up all the broken pieces and get the big sales machine running full steam ahead this year.

Not all companies conceded to the weak economy and fell by the wayside. In spite of all the obscurity, many operations managed to prosper. Those same companies have already taken on 2010 with another aggressive start.

Sitting around and waiting for the business market to return just will not cut it. More than ever before, people need to get into a more aggressive selling approach this year instead of gathering around a meeting table asking, "What happened to the sales last week?"

Nearly every client of mine asked me the same question last year, "How can we save some money in operating costs?" I would have preferred to hear, "How could we sell more produce?" Increasing sales should always be the main priority of every company. Most businesses exhausted their energy by slashing expenses in 2009 rather than focusing on generating maximum sales for the top line. So overnight, employees became cost-conscious instead of sales-attentive throughout the year. This simply made it become more difficult to stay ahead of the competition.

While a number of companies were making drastic cuts in staff, product and programs, others did just the opposite by aggressively tackling sales. Many businesses kept slicing away at operating strengths to a point where sales gradually became secondary and slipped into the shadows. Pulling back too far actually made them become anemic. And as the weak get weaker, the strong will eventually eat them up.

Since most companies had set cost reduction as their foremost priority last year, quality, productivity and, above all, sales suffered. Oh, sure, it may have added a few more dollars to the bottom line, but it did not make friends with customers, nor did it sell more product. If companies keep doing this on a regular basis, they will not be around much longer.

This past year has been a good education for everyone. Shoppers became more intelligent, sophisticated and wiser in spending their money. It is important that businesses also learned some lessons from the past economic year and operate smarter in the tough days that lie ahead. In spite of it all, there are still struggling companies that are going to do the same things in the same ways and wind up with the same poor sales results again this year. This is unfortunate because the smarter operators will now strengthen the competitive market even more.

The produce industry will be up against three distinct challenges this year: winning back customers, adjusting to a more intelligent consumer and growing sales. Companies cannot resolve any of these three by simply increasing prices.

This year calls for companies to spend more time in the sales arena where the actual selling takes place. Everyone should get out into the fields, packinghouses, shipping docks, warehouses and the retail stores to make things happen instead of standing by the sidelines waiting for the economy to turn around.

It is not about great sales anymore; it is about greater sales. The best companies are taking action by growing their sales with better strategies. Salespeople were slammed last year trying to use the same old presentation tactics. They were caught up in a changing industry environment where "price" became the leading concern of customers rather than straight-line programs, routine ad allowances and silly schemes. These typical strategies are now looked upon as repetitive fluff in the eyes of decision makers.

It is not that sales have become tougher to achieve, it is just that customers have raised their demand bar a bit higher. In order to sell them something, you have to put on a different hat today. You cannot increase sales with less effort. It is going to take building better and stronger relationships with your customers. The primary reason customers buy from your competitor is "friendliness." It is all about a good, solid relationship. Customers not only have to like you, they have to like you a lot.

So, scrap all the out-of-date selling methods. Forget those boring sales pitches and absurd program gimmicks. They will not increase sales this year. Your selling habits must change. Either you can be the company that changes them or your competitors will change them for you.