Recession-Proof Your Sales

“This is an absolute nightmare! No one is buying, I am stressed out trying to manage our sales, our finances, and we will shortly run out of money.”

Believe it or not, these were the words spoken by a sales leader during the recession of 2008. A lot of business leaders are saying the same now during the Coronavirus lockdown and the coming recession.

A recent survey found that 80% of SME leaders and sales leaders are not confident in both their growth plan and their sales team for the coming recession. That is a scary figure! It is natural for leaders to be unsure during recessions, but to have so many lack confidence shows the difficulty that businesses are under right now.

I spoke with Christophe Martel, a veteran sales leader, to understand what he learned from the last three recessions. His experience and advice can help you focus on the most powerful things to grow your sales.

This was a 1-hour interview, and you can watch the whole interview here.

Below is a summary of his top advice.

Winning in the Turns

Christophe quickly made clear that recessions do not last forever. In the moment, it feels like it will, and it can be a grind. But the world always rights itself back. This recession will be no different.

Your position at the time of a recession is critical. Recessions are therefore a chance for you to ‘win in the turns’.

Winning in the turns is a race car analogy. Turns are where you pass each other, and they determine how you end the race. Recessions are the turns, and they are your opportunity to overtake your competitors.

CEB, now Gartner, found that senior leaders of successful companies accelerate performance during times of uncertainty. They strike the right balance between strategic discipline and bold action. They are also careful about what they focus on.

Don’t view a recession as an insurmountable hurdle, but rather a chance to take the correct actions to outmanoeuvre your competitors.

Mindset is Everything

Those were Christophe’s exact words. To ‘win in the turns’, you must focus on the right things. If you focus on the fact that recessions are harsh, brutal and soul-destroying, then you will only focus on the pain. But, if you concentrate on downturns as your chance to ‘win in the turns’, then you will focus your energy and creativity on figuring out what will give you an advantage.

Mindset also has a big impact on how your sellers engage with their buyers. It determines how you view yourself in a situation. Your experiences when talking to buyers, your colleagues, and your managers will dictate your mindset. This will, in turn, dictate your approach and then again create your experience. Christophe calls this the ‘loop’.

To have a good experience, you must start by approaching your buyers in an empowering way. For example, imagine your sellers are continuously knocking on their prospects’ or customers’ doors with the message that they have ‘another discount option’. What mindset will this create? Continuous discounting will make your sellers view themselves as commodities and offering a commoditised solution. We all know what this does to the buyer, but rarely do we highlight the negative impact this has on sellers. Christophe advises against such an approach.

Recessions are times when you need your sellers to have an elevated view of themselves and their products/solutions. Think of the approaches, sales angles, tools that you are encouraging and brainstorming. Are they feeding an empowering mindset for your sellers, or are they degrading their view of themselves?

To avoid the habit of discounting, read the sections below about Changing Buyer Patterns and Brutal Value Propositions.

One Leader Can Break the Confidence Chain

Sellers don’t just observe the sales leader (although that is important); they observe the behaviour of the ‘leadership group’. The first thing they look at is how much faith does the leadership group have in the business. They can sense if something is awry, and this is often detected unconsciously.

Make sure that you and your leadership group are in agreement on how you are presenting yourselves to everyone. If you want your sales team to believe something, then you need to act in a way that is congruent to that desire.

It is especially important to agree on a common narrative. If one leader exhibits a different behaviour to the group, sellers will immediately pick up on this incongruency. This will cause them to question the validity of the whole leadership’s confidence in the business.

If you are familiar with how the brain works, this is not a surprise. We are designed to quickly notice salience: things that are materially different from the rest of the pack or group.

Make sure that every single leader is acting in line with the leadership group and the agreed narrative.

Trade-Up on Talent

Downturns are an opportunity for you to strengthen your team. They expose the quality of your talent and quickly uncover who has the will, skills, and traits and who does not.

You will need to decide who adds value and who drains your business. These are tough decisions to make, but then again, these are tough times. If you do not make them, then you will risk draining your costs, your team’s morale and your results.

Poaching of top performers is also a high risk in a downturn. Smart competitors know this is the best time to tempt them away from you. If you have high-performers who feel disenfranchised or don’t feel appreciated enough, your behaviour during periods of stress can strengthen those feelings. Since they too will be stressed, this will make them more prone to such offers. Get close to their needs and understand what makes their job both easier and harder. Double-down on the former and seek to quickly resolve the latter. Not only will you protect any high-performer attritions, you will also protect your team’s morale. Top performer departures create disruption and reduce your team’s confidence in your business.

Recessions are also a chance for you to improve your team’s skills and widen your competitive lead. You should assess how effective your sellers are at each of the critical stages of your sales process. Where is your team strong, and where are they weak? What impact will those strengths and weaknesses have in a recession, and how do you need to address them?

Buying Patterns Will Change

In a recession, smart sellers get as close to their customers as possible to learn more about their changing buying patterns. Buying patterns change drastically during recessions, and if you don’t have a pulse on these changes, then you will struggle.

It is not just about what changes are occurring; it is also vital to know why these changes occur. What are your buyers dealing with and how you can help them? The more you know about what they are dealing with, the more aligned your approach will be. Not only will you forge a more trusting relationship, you will also close more deals.

So, how can you better understand your buyers’ changing habits? Christophe advises leveraging sellers who are ‘intellectually curious’. IBM and HBR contributor, Steve Martin, found this to be one of the traits of high-performing sellers. This trait is also essential to becoming a Challenger Seller.

Intellectually curious sellers have a ‘desire to understand how things work and why things are the way they are’. They are curious about what pressure their buyers are experiencing and are not afraid to ask the tough questions to uncover valuable information.

What if you only have a handful of such sellers? How can you ensure that your whole team gains such valuable knowledge?

The best way to stir up intellectual curiosity in your whole team is to show them through examples and role models. Once you have identified those intellectually curious sellers, you want to connect them with the rest of the team. You can do this by either:

  1. Encouraging the rest of the team to approach them to seek out what they know; or
  2. Organising knowledge sharing sessions, or ‘deal clinics’. These sessions will enable your intellectually curious sellers to demonstrate how they learn more about their customer’s challenges, what they have learned.

Get them to share the patterns, trends and insights they are seeing from customers and to share what this means for everyone.

Host Regular Deal Clinics

During tough times, connections are vital. They provide encouragement, understanding and an incredibly valuable forum to share ideas and learn from each other. Christophe advises that you arrange regular deal clinics for your sellers to do this. You should aim to have clinics at least once every month, and some companies have them once a week.

These sessions should not be more than 1 hour. Keep the group small, so every attendee has time to share their deals and receive advice from their peers. For example, if each seller needs 5–6 minutes per deal, then you should have no more than six people in a 1-hour session.

Separate the Diamond from the Noise

During recessions, there is a lot of what Christophe calls ‘noise’ in the marketplace. There will be so much information and such a broad spectrum of behavioural changes that it can be difficult to identify reliable information on buyer trends. As a sales leader, use your knowledge and experience to work with your intellectually curious sellers. Help them determine what is noise versus valuable information before they share insights with the rest of the team.

Get Brutal About Your Value Proposition and Why Your Buyer Will Buy

The first part is creating a compelling value proposition. What may have been a good value proposition during good times will not necessarily be sufficient in tougher times. Your buyer’s needs and priorities will change, so you must ensure that your value proposition aligns with those changing needs.

In recessions, your solution must be backed by what Christophe calls ‘real P&L dollars’. Will your solution ‘improve productivity in 5 years’, or can you demonstrate P&L impact within their current fiscal period? The latter will more likely advance your sale, but the former will fall under the ‘visionary’ or ‘nice-to-have’ category, and buyers will deprioritise these during a recession.

You cannot rely on Marketing to help you adapt your value proposition. They are not as close to the buyer as you are. You, as the seller, must own this. Once you have gathered such intel, you should, of course, share those changes with your Marketing team so they can help you craft more relevant campaigns and collateral.

The second part is to make sure that you can clearly articulate your compelling value proposition. Christophe describes this as using ‘real dollar values’. For example, “If you spend $10,000 with us, you will make/save $20,000 within your current fiscal year.”

It may sound obvious, but unfortunately, such clarity is not confidently articulated by most sellers out there. They either lack the skill, haven’t asked the buyer the right questions, or have not practised sharing it.

Communicating with clarity is only one half of the story. The other half is asking smart questions to understand what your buyer values and how much they believe in your solution (this could be a critical skill you need to upgrade in the Trade-Up On Talent section above). For example, sellers should ask buyers how they intend to use your product/solution. This ‘how’ is intricately connected with your compelling value proposition. What job is the buyer seeking to accomplish through your solution? What P&L impact will your solution have for the buyer? Does the buyer believe in the stated value? How will they articulate your value internally to get the necessary buy-in?

That last question is especially important. Downturns, plus remote-selling due to Covid-19, increase the number of decision-makers in a purchase. You are also more removed from direct engagement with all those stakeholders, so you have less direct influence with all the decision-makers. It is therefore vital you have a champion on your side, who can clearly articulate and champion your solution (see the next section below for more details on how to do this).

The deeper your understanding of such questions, the more aligned you will be to a dollar value that your buyer will care about. Consider and plan the types of questions you will ask your buyer to understand what value means to them and especially why.

Heart as well as Head

Dollar value and ROI are table stakes. You must have them to ‘have a seat at the consideration table’. But, in a recession, you also need ‘personal value’ for your buyer to champion your solution. Personal value will strengthen your buyer’s resolve in the face of intense scrutiny from their bosses and stakeholders. Remember, making a significant purchase comes with risks, and the main risk is the loss of reputation and job. Having personal value, as well as a compelling value proposition, will reduce the risk for the buyer and increase their desire to champion you.

So, ask yourself, “Does my solution align with my buyer’s personal desires or needs? Does it fulfil a personal aspiration they have? Is it something they believe in? Am I offering so much value that there is little or no risk that my buyer will lose their job? Am I articulating this well and does the buyer also see this?”

Protect Your Sellers

There are two parts to this. The first is protecting your sales team from non-sellers in your company.

Non-sellers will not fully appreciate how much things have shifted in the market and the pressure your sellers are under. They may, therefore, insist on the continuation of specific processes, procedures, and ways of working that may be a time-drain for your sellers.

In a recession, your sellers may have to work harder to achieve the same results, so they will need your help to protect their time that should be focused on critical sales activities.

Senior leaders can be particularly harmful to your sellers. Because of their seniority, their views will have more weight. They may insist that your team to do the same as they always did, but work harder. They will have a false belief that thriving in a recession only entails grit and determination. Yes, grit is essential, but smarter working is also vital. As mentioned earlier, recessions are opportunities to upskill your sales team on the right skills. If you find that certain activities offer little impact on sales conversions, then working harder on them will not yield results. The result is increased frustration, reduced morale and missing targets.

It is your job as the leader to protect your sellers from such internal bureaucracy and misconceptions. Christophe advises that you take the time to speak with your functional peers and share the pressure and changes your sellers are experiencing. Discuss what processes and ways of working can be stopped or cut back. Make sure that those leaders are cascading what you agreed down to their teams so that they too understand and are supportive.

Doing this once will not be enough. Recessions are volatile environments. Such volatility creates more stress and anxiety, which leads to more emotional behaviours. Humans revert to what is comfortable and familiar when under such pressure. Your peers will quickly forget what you agreed and insist on your sellers to work in the ‘usual way’. So, ake sure you have regular discussions with your peers to reinforce your message and their continued support.

The second part is to protect your team from you.

Often it is the sales leader’s expectations and processes that can hinder your team’s performance. Again, because of the volatility and stress, too many sales leaders focus their efforts on encouraging their sellers to do more of the same: more prospecting, more cold calls, more follow-ups etc. That is the same as cycling faster but in the wrong direction!

Asking your sellers to increase their efforts without considering changes in your market or buyer behaviours will only increase their frustration and reduce their loyalty to you. Instead, use the insights you have gathered on changing buyer patterns to learn where your sellers need to increase their efforts to achieve better results.

The other thing you should do is get closer to your sellers, especially your frontline staff. The best way to understand what they are experiencing and how to reduce ‘clutter’ is to join them ‘in the field’ and shadow them. You will more quickly and accurately identify:

  • Constraint to remove; and
  • Things that are valuable for you to encourage and protect.

Too often, sales leaders take a step back because of the management pressures during a recession. However, Christophe advises sales leaders double-down on the most critical aspect of a sales leader’s job: facilitating more sales. Spend more with your sellers so that they have more of a pulse on what is going on.

Don’t Delay Adapting Sales Objectives, Targets and Commissions

Some companies resist adapting their sellers’ plans and rewards mid-year. They often fear the disruption this will cause and believe that doing so will send the wrong message. The reality is that it is highly likely that you will need to adapt sales targets, commissions etc. once the recession really bites. Christophe advises getting ahead of it rather than react to a worsening situation. If not, you risk demotivating your sellers by creating a ‘no-win’ scenario for them. This will damage your credibility as a leader. However, if you do get ahead, this will strengthen your brand as a leader who values talent and seeks to support them for the long-term.

Summary

Recessions can create an enormous amount of pressure on your sellers. In such highly stressful environments, it can be tough for them to adapt and focus on the right activities that will secure sales. With buyer’s rapidly changing their purchasing patterns, sellers are under even more pressure to adapt in ways that they may not be prepared for. Worse, they may not have the skills or experience to work within those new buyer patterns.

Focusing on the right activities is more than half the battle. Christophe has found that the following four things have served him well during the last three recessions:

  1. Trade up on talent.
  2. Get closer to your customers/buyers to understand their changing buying patterns.
  3. Adapt your value proposition to the new situation and make sure your sellers can clearly articulate ‘real P&L’ value.
  4. Protect your sellers from the rest of the organisation.

Focus on these four things, and your team should be well-positioned to capitalise on growth opportunities within a recession. Recessions are an opportunity for your business to ‘win at the turns’ and take over your competition. They are also an opportunity for your sellers to ‘win at the turns’ and elevate their track record, knowledge, experience, and confidence. You will all come out stronger and more valuable in the new world forged by recessions.

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Persuasion and sales expert using cognitive neuroscience & psychology and sales best practices.

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Moeed Amin

Moeed Amin

Persuasion and sales expert using cognitive neuroscience & psychology and sales best practices.

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