During an industry function in Canada a couple of months ago, some colleagues and I got to chin-wagging about the sorry state of the trucking business right now: iron parked against the fence, trucks not as full as they were, a gloomy freight forecast. It was a case of misery loving company.

A group of weathered trucking executives, we have ridden out a few storms and know that better days will come. You may feel the same way. But your sales or customer service staff, who spend their days talking to customers, may think the deepening trough will swallow them up and take them down.

Here are five things you can do to help your staff keep their heads in turbulent times:

  1. Communicate your costs. Customers are looking for deals now and it's tempting to win business by cutting rates. Reps are far less likely to slash a rate if they clearly understand why you set the rate you do.

    There's a cost associated with rolling 80,000 pounds of steel down the highway. There's also a cost to support a sales rep: salary, travel, the fancy new BlackBerry. If it costs $100,000 a year to support one rep and your OR is 0.95, that rep will have to generate $2 million in new revenue to cover his costs. Put it that way and it's clear there's little room for rate cuts.

  2. Everyone serves customers. Last I checked, employees at every level — receptionists, dispatchers, the folks in billing — have daily “moments of truth” with customers. What can they do to make it right when something goes wrong? We decided employees should have the authority to give customers a free shipment if that's what it takes to solve the problem. No pleading with supervisors or fear of repercussions. After all, happy customers rarely leave.

  3. Customers are your best prospects. Management consultant Peter Drucker calculated the odds of making a sale to a new prospect at 1 in 14, but to a current customer it's 1 in 2. Existing customers are your greatest opportunity for new business. Spend the first 10 to 15 minutes of every sales call talking about what has happened since your last meeting. Businesses change daily. New products, new suppliers and new customers for them may mean more freight for you. You won't know unless you ask.

  4. Use technology. Sales reps used to have a phone, a desk and a stack of business cards. Now they're outfitted with a laptop, a cell phone, Internet access at home, software that streamlines sales leads and a BlackBerry.

    A personal sales call is still one of the most effective ways of adding revenue, and not every call has to be about winning business. But technology can help you manage the account more efficiently and stay in touch. Your customer may never call at 1:30 a.m., but he'all feel better knowing that you're available if you're needed.

  5. What's your Mickey Mouse? If you can't differentiate your company from your competitors, now's the time to do it. Otherwise, your only sales pitch is price, and you'all spend more time defending your business than growing it. You should be able to explain what you have to offer that your core competitors don't.

Throughout the year I'all look at these five points in depth. As a company owner or sales manager, the down times can be your time to shine. Help your reps understand how to succeed and they'll be less likely to abandon ship before the clouds part again.

Mike McCarron is managing partner at the MSM Group of Companies, which specializes in transportation and logistics service between Canada and the United States.