Bragging Rights

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Business is slow. Sales are down. And your review is coming up fast. What do you have to show for yourself? Here's how to come off well in a lean time.

For Julie Terach, who manages an annual networking event for logistics professionals, the war on terrorism couldn't have come at a worse time. When U.S. Customs tightened the country's borders in fall 2001, it wreaked havoc in the shipping and logistics industry-just as Terach's employer, Richmond Events, was selling space for its May 2002 conference. As a result, the event fell far short of its revenue target, and there were rumors, she says, that the confab might be scaled down in the future.

So heading into her annual review in July, Terach knew she had to do some legwork to ensure good marks. "It was clear," she says, "that if you weren't being proactive, there was no place for you."

When her review rolled around, she was ready. She pointed out the improvements she had made in the planning process that would make the event simpler and cheaper to produce in the future. For example, she had set up a timeline in Microsoft Outlook that delivered constant reminders to keep everybody on schedule; she also had revamped the event's Web site to move much of the registration paperwork online. At first she worried that she "sounded so full of myself." But, she realized, "Nobody's going to go to bat for me except me."

The preparation paid off. Despite the drop-off in revenue, Terach received a better overall rating than she had the year before, with her boss praising her as an "innovator." He also beefed up her responsibility for next year's event, putting her in charge of the budget. She hopes that-and a rebound in sales- will be reflected in her annual raise.

End-of-the-year reviews are always a nail-biting prospect, but when your company is having a tough year, it can be particularly nerve-racking. With many reviews-and bonuses-tied to productivity and sales figures that have wallowed in the gutter, workers like Terach have to get creative to demonstrate they've done a good job. The trick is to emphasize your value to your company while acknowledging where your performance has declined. Dallas career counselor Taunee Besson suggests getting cozy with the word however, as in "As you know, I wasn't able to land accounts X and Y; however, I continue to maintain an excellent relationship with them, and we're working on another project."

So where do you look for these extenuating "howevers"? Think of how you have saved your company money, says Besson, "not merely by cutting costs, which isn't particularly strategic or intellectual, but by streamlining processes or training people to do more." Whenever Doug Pacella, a medical instruments salesman for Johnson & Johnson in Nassau County, N.Y., sees his sales fall, he'll emphasize how he has held on to flighty customers. Say a $100,000 client threatens to move to a cheaper supplier, and Pacella persuades the customer to stay by switching it to a product line that costs 20 percent less: "I point out that I've saved my company $80,000 by keeping this client, rather than losing $20,000."

Managers should also point to star employees they've retained or mentored, and to steps they've taken to raise morale or loyalty. Revenue is down for Dan Romanelli's team at the Melville, N.Y., semiconductor distributor Nu Horizons, but the sales manager took great pains in his review to document how his weekly conference calls improved communication with his reps. It showed, he says, that he was doing "all the things that will set us up for quick growth when the industry turns around."

Consider, too, creative strategies you've devised to meet old goals, even if they've not yet paid off. Say you devised a way to sell an old product to a new audience, but it hasn't caught fire yet. "The old cliche 'Don't bring me a problem, bring me a solution' really applies here," says Besson. "What have you done in the past year that's more than what you were doing previously? Showing that you haven't been sitting back on your haunches hoping for the best to happen" is a powerful tactic in lean times.

Make a list of these moments of brilliance to prepare for your review. But when you go in, "don't just present a laundry list of your achievements," says Mark Jankowski of the Shapiro Negotiations Institute in Baltimore. Otherwise, "you may either undersell yourself or trumpet yourself in an area they don't really care about."

In Terach's case, she concentrated on ideas that had garnered praise throughout the year or that the company had adapted to its other events. She also handled the self-evaluation portion of her review differently than in the past. Previously, she had included few explanations for her marks. But this year she let no category go without comment. "My project director is not in the office all the time. He knows I do a good job, but he might not remember every specific thing I've done," she explains. "I'm definitely going to do the same thing next year."