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Doing business when nobody is open for business: Selling in tough times

Doing business when nobody is open for business: Selling in tough times

While there are businesses which are surviving and even thriving in these unprecedented times, the majority are doing it pretty tough. In any catastrophe where people are suffering, there is always the question; “Is it too soon?” – too soon to move past the initial crisis and explore the opportunity it presents. Like everyone else, sales professionals must be sensitive to the struggles and pain of their customers and prospects – arguably more so. If selling is indeed understanding and solving problems for customers, there’s an argument to be made there is a greater need than ever for the right type of ‘selling’.

Many organizations and sales teams will be permanently shuttered or temporarily shut down for a variety of reasons. Those that survive and create opportunity out of this crisis will need to approach the situation like a Formula One driver coming in to a hairpin turn. The first stage is, and has been, deceleration – tapping the brakes, shifting gears, conserving fuel, and preparing for the turn. As organizations enter the next stage – engineering a precision turn, hugging the line, and finding the right time for acceleration – their sales teams will need to think about when and how they re-engage with customers in a genuine, meaningful way that adds value and builds trust.

Getting this stage right – finding the right way and the right time to accelerate with precision and power out of the turn – will present sales professionals and their organizations with a unique opportunity to create massive competitive advantage and build lasting commercial partnerships with their customers. Getting it wrong – going too fast or too slow – will result in burnt bridges and missed opportunities.

This puts a lot of pressure on sales teams at a time when the last thing anyone needs is more pressure. Following the last global recession (incredible to think we might consider the post-Financial Crisis years the ‘good old days’), I conducted research with B2B customers and capability analysis of more than 32,000 sales professionals, which highlighted what buyers expected in tough times, and what it took for sales teams to succeed. Looking back on this research to see forward to the future, there are three key lessons around what sales leaders and their teams need to do to be effective in a crisis. To survive and thrive in tough economic times, they need to focus on three ‘I’s – Intelligence, Interest, and Insight:

Intelligence – obviously you want your sales team to be smart, but that’s not the kind of intelligence we’re talking about. In this case it’s about market, competitor, and customer intelligence. For 20 years salespeople have told me they simply don’t have time to sit down and do robust analysis of their market and competitors, or strategic planning around their key customers. If only I had a dollar for every salesperson who said; “I’d love to do it, I’m just too busy getting out there and doing actual selling“. Well, now’s the time to do the things that have been sitting in the ‘too hard basket’.

Interestingly, in previous analysis of the capabilities of over 7,000 sales leaders, the top 5% scored significantly higher in Competitor and Market/Industry Knowledge. It turns out the best sales performers are much more interested in what’s going on ‘out there’ – what the market is telling them rather than what they want to tell the market. Currently, there is a small window to up-skill sales teams in this respect – the slower sales pace of tougher times is providing a unique opportunity for sales leaders and their teams to do more of the things the best performing sales professionals do all the time – build external perspective and gather intelligence.

Interest – Consistently over 11-years of research into how buyers make decisions, the #1 factor highlighted by customers in each and every survey was “Understand my Situation and Needs“. Conversely, the #1 reason why customers didn’t choose to do business with a salesperson was “They didn’t listen“. Sales professionals need to ensure they stay close to their customers, have the right conversations, and take a genuine interest in how they’re coping in tough economic conditions. Arguably, the fundamentals of great ‘solution’ selling are even more critical to help customers deal with tough times – salespeople need to ensure they genuinely understand their customer’s current, contextualized problems before offering solutions.

Being too ‘pushy’ and self-interested is almost always a turn off and a sure-fire way to kill trust. However, if sales professionals do more homework and ask smarter questions to analyze how customers are being impacted and how they can help, they can take better ideas to customers around ways they can add value and partner with them to get through tough times together. How sales professionals sell now will likely make or break their customer relationships for years to come.

Insight – One of the customer buying criteria that increased most significantly in the years after the Global Financial Crisis was ‘The Ability to Bring Insight‘. This highlighted how much customers were drowning in information but thirsting for insight – fresh thinking around how they can solve their business challenges. This requires a high degree of commercial acumen in sales professionals, as well as the external market perspective and ‘Intelligence’ mentioned previously. This intelligence is the key ingredient for insights – essential to help customers better appreciate how specific market dynamics are positively or negatively shaping their business outcomes. Leading with insights is the first step to providing deep, unique perspective on the cause-and-effect of the customer problem. When the customer better understands this and wants to solve their problem, the ‘selling’ can begin.

Most leading consulting and professional services firms have quickly and effectively moved to publishing research and thought leadership highlighting how the pandemic is affecting their clients today, and how it’s likely to impact them in the future. They are also rapidly re-configuring their offer and go-to-market activity to better engage clients and solve the problems highlighted through their insights. This is a sales model more traditional product and service suppliers need to follow. Having an insights manufacturing and distribution strategy is critical to ensure you are educating and helping, rather than product-pushing in tough economic times.

So in summary, doing business when no one seems to be open for business is a delicate balance of Intelligence, Interest, and Insights. Like the Formula One driver approaching a sharp turn at speed, sales organizations need to plan and execute an effective ‘cornering’ strategy that allows them to engage, inspire and help customers so they both accelerate out of tough times with precision and power – together.

For related insights and research, view previous articles: and

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