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When the economy gets tight, customers can take forever to make a buying decision. So, managers start spending conference room time trying to think up incentives that will encourage the customer to buy.

Any incentive will cost the company something, so make sure that whatever incentive you use actually causes prospective customers to take the next step in their buying process.

I interviewed Mac McIntosh (sales-lead-experts.com) for this article, because I knew he'd have some great ideas on this subject. As we talked, it was obvious that we agreed on the "cardinal rules," and he also had some great incentive ideas.

Note also that very few of these ideas incorporate an actual discount—a slippery slope you'll want to leave for your less-imaginative competitors.

The 5 Cardinal Rules of Incentives

1. Offer incentives that relate to your product or service

Any clueless executive can order a bunch of iPods and instruct salespeople to give them away in an attempt to get the customer to buy. What happens most of the time in those situations is that a lot of teenagers whose parents were given the iPods will end up with an iPod, and the parents' buying decisions won't be affected.

It takes hard work and a lot of thinking to come up with an incentive that somehow relates to your product or service. Map out the customer's buying process, and identify all of the barriers to the sale. Think about what you can do at each stage to make it easier for the customer to get to the next step.

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image of Kristin Zhivago

Kristin Zhivago is president of digital marketing management company Zhivago Partners. She is the author of Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy and the Roadmap to Revenue blog. One of the first to map out the customer’s buying journey, she has spent decades as a revenue coach to CEOs and entrepreneurs.

LinkedIn: Kristin Zhivago