In May the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 5.7 million jobs have been lost since the recession began a year and a half ago, and national unemployment is now close to 9 percent. What’s more, the descent of General Motors and other major employers into bankruptcy and other forms of restructuring has had trickle-down impact on many small businesses that depend on them.

Yet, even in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression a good number of small firms are sustaining their sales performance. We know this because we surveyed a diverse pool of them last month: our registered website users and our Top Small Workplace- and Best Boss-award-winning organizations, to learn how they are adapting to this economy to maintain and grow their sales. This is what we heard from them:

What They’re Doing Differently

Measure Registered Users Honorees
Call old customers 54%* 62%*
Diversify product line/repackage products 39% 62%
Introduce new products/services 63% most common choice 85% most common choice
Spend more on marketing/advertising 39% 23% least named (tie)
Create innovative promotions 46% 23% least named (tie)
Provide additional training for sales department/staff 39% 39%
Cut back and try to ride it out 21% 31%
Nothing 3% least named 0%

*Since respondents chose all measures that applied, the totals add up to more than 100 percent.

While both groups are concentrating most efforts toward introducing new products and services, our honorees report doing this to a greater degree than our registered users. And while a very small percentage of registered users report doing nothing differently, the least-used measures for our honorees are increased spending on marketing and advertising and creating innovative promotions.

Their Investment in Doing Things Differently

Digging deeper, we asked both survey groups how much time, resources, or money they’ve invested on the measures listed above. Using a four-tier range from “None” to a “Substantial amount,” here’s what they reported:

Measure Amount Invested – Registered Users Amount Invested – Honorees
Call old customers Some Some
Diversify product line/repackage products Some Substantial amount
Introduce new products/services Substantial amount Substantial amount
Spend more on marketing/advertising Little None
Create innovative promotions Some Little
Provide additional training for sales department/staff Some Little
Cut back and try to ride it out None Some

Both groups report investing substantially in the introduction of new products and services, while our honorees report a slightly higher (substantial) investment in product diversification and repackaging compared with registered users. The measure that has seen the least investment among registered users is cutting back and riding out the downturn, reflecting an aversion to merely sitting on the sidelines. Our honorees, however, say they have not increased marketing or advertising dollars.

Employee Engagement’s Role in Increasing Sales

We also asked both groups for qualitative feedback that supports how employee ideas or innovations have helped them increase sales. Notable responses include:

Feedback Industry No. Employees Role
We added a manger of PR and corporate communications who has pushed us to develop synergy across product areas and promotions in how things look and the way we speak about them. She has pushed us to go deeper with web marketing and exploring various ways to do this using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Publishing 101-250 Manager
Our staff wanted to know how our market share was doing, so we dispatched drivers to our competitors, and they counted their delivery vans, then followed them to see how many stops they did. We compared the results to ours and knew we held a commanding lead. Two of the staff suggested we explore buying a weakened competitor. We sent out a message through vendors that we were looking for acquisitions. A competitor called, and we closed within 40 days. Now, as the economy is stabilizing, we have organic and strategic sales growth leading into market share growth. Hospitality 51-100 Leader
Hiring great employees from our competitors has worked out very well for us. It has brought in potential introductions to new clients and fresh vigor. Hospitality 1-50 Leader
Staff have been actively behind payroll reduction initiatives (furloughs, reduced work hours, etc.) in order to save jobs of co-workers. Other 251-500 Manager
Our employees are given a bonus/recognition for any new idea they come up with that brings in more business. Construction 51-100 Manager
Employees listening to customer feedback have come up with new ideas to retain current customers. Professional Services 1-50 Leader
One of our employees has developed a great visual aid to help us track our successes. It charts both our revenue increases and our expense reductions. It uses symbolism specific to our industry, humor and play on words. Travel 1-50 Leader
We are asking our employees to help productize and package our services based on what they are seeing in the market. These new products turned out to be an easier “sell” than our original product goals for the year. Professional Services 1-50 Manager
Some of our employees’ personal relationships have resulted in new sales for our company. Construction 1-50 Leader
Won back several old customers who had left us for a lower price – appealed to them based on the fact that we and they are small/American companies, and we need to help each other out. Manufacturing 251-500 Leader

We hope the results of this survey help you in your quest to maintain and increase sales as the recession continues.