Close management of customers, employees, and finances will earn you a larger market share. By Ken Moeslein

Here in Pittsburgh, the slowdown started last July. I track our sales, leads, job size, closing rate, and gross profit margins and percentages, both weekly and monthly, and compare them to the past three years. It was apparent adjustments had to be made.

In 1991 to 1992, when the economy last slowed, Swing Line was a five-year-old corporation with $1 million in annual sales. The home improvement pie was smaller, but we ended up with a bigger piece of it when the economy turned around. Here's how we did it:

Control overhead. We kept fixed costs low. It was very important then, as it is now, to know your break-even point. This year, we are already leaner. I have one less salesperson, and I have taken over the role of sales manager.

Increase sales. We maintained our marketing budget -- between 4% and 5% of sales -- while looking for ways to develop more leads at lesser cost. When cash is a concern, I conduct a review of leads and sales, with an eye to the gross profit earned from the lead, not just the gross revenue of the job.

Be flexible. This is especially important in your approach to estimating and selling. For example, we currently offer a phase program. We will quote 20 windows at, say, $8,000. If the customer can only afford five at $2,000, we write the agreement and guarantee the other 15 windows for $6,000 for the next 12 months.

Communicate. While competitors were scaling back, we contacted everyone on our customer and prospect lists, looking for work.

I would add that I make sure our labor costs are in line. Also, it may be time to give suppliers the chance to review their pricing. Feeling the pinch, they may be willing to price more aggressively.

Not an entirely different bird

The difference between selling a customer in a down economy vs. an expanding economy is negligible. On jobs you end up selling, either the customer has confidence that he or she will remain employed or the work simply needs to be done.

Customers do, however, have a different mindset now. Instead of interviewing three home improvement contractors, they will interview twice that many or more. Still, in most cases, a home is most people's single largest asset, and the need to protect and maintain it is obvious. Salespeople need to show prospects that an investment in home improvement is necessary and wise.

Every night, I make personal calls to prospects. The salesperson who made the initial call is kept in the loop, but I often discover the one issue that needs to be resolved prior to a sale. My personal interest makes the customer feel special, and I can often schedule a return visit for our salesman while I'm speaking with the prospect.

The livelihood of about 40 families relies on the success of Swing Line. During the down economy, our employees realize that we all must work harder and smarter. Swing Line is ready for this downturn, and when the upswing comes, we will be one of the prosperous survivors. --Ken Moeslein is president of Swing Line Windows, Pittsburgh.