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In the midst of a global crisis, adjusting your sales approach is key to not just surviving but thriving.

Every company started 2020 with a plan—in many cases a well-thought-out and carefully crafted blueprint outlining expected progress on a month-by-month basis, complete with year-end targets for revenue, employees, products, clients and profitability.

Those business plans were created in Q4 2019, a quarter that started with the continuation of the greatest period of economic expansion and stock market growth in history. It finished in December with increased rumblings about a possible looming recession and returning bear market, all underpinned by a growing threat spreading across Asia: a novel coronavirus.

What kinds of questions were company leaders asking during that last quarter of 2019 when those 2020 plans were being put together? Even with a few concerns on the horizon, the outlook was still fairly positive in Q4 2019. The themes were ones of expansion, growth and hiring: How can we get a better competitive advantage? How can we differentiate our offerings more effectively from the competition? How can we continue to expand our slice of an ever-growing revenue pie?

That was the sales approach then… but this is now

Fast forward to today, and the view from the eye of the storm is bleak. As one analyst recently put it, “The near term economic outlook is terrible.” But opportunities do exist for those who are prepared to adapt, particularly when it comes to your sales approach.

Most experienced salespeople agree that how you sell needs to change to some degree to be successful in a downturn. It is well-known that the skills that make you successful in a strong economy can work against you in a recession. The challenge of recession proofing your business lies in identifying specifically how to adjust your selling approach. 

This is something salespeople need to get a handle on so they can pivot before the opportunities are lost. The concerns that are now top-of-mind for most decision-makers suggest that every dollar in your pipeline is at risk. This is regardless of what the client has told you, regardless of the signed contract that you have, and regardless of the positive messages being given out to the market by your client about the strength of their company.

Has your selling approach changed to reflect this reality?

Judging by the overzealous email messages that seem, at best, tone deaf (and at worst, are being compared to ambulance chasing), many salespeople haven’t adapted their sales approaches to the realities of 2020.

Likewise, in all aspects of their client interactions companies seem to believe that if they just do more—more marketing, more prospecting, more sales activity—everything will be OK. But offering more of everything that worked when times were good is not the way to succeed in a downturn. And just as important, it doesn’t speak to the mindset of your customer today. It’s not just economic uncertainty this time around. This is an unprecedented global health crisis that’s impacting people personally as well as professionally. Selling in a time like this requires an understanding of human needs, not just louder or more frequent messages. 

Even in the best of times, people’s purchasing decisions and buying motivations are largely driven by emotions. They’re also the result of different levels of need in different areas of their lives. Customers can be influenced by emotions they’re not even aware of.

As you shift from the plans of Q4 2019 to the realities of 2020, remind your salespeople of these important points about (what our late founder, Ron Willingham, outlined in Integrity Selling for the 21st Century) the progression of human needs:

  1. People are motivated by needs, wants and values, by hopes of gain and relief of pain.
  2. Most people are primarily concerned with satisfying one need and blinded to the others.
  3. People can have different levels of need in different areas of their lives. The lowest need levels will usually dominate and demand greater attention.
  4. When a need level is satisfied, people automatically move to the next one.
  5. We miscommunicate by not understanding people’s levels of need.
  6. We communicate when we understand people’s unique levels, and then show them how they can move to the next ones.
  7. Many salespeople, not understanding this, tend to sell from their own level of needs.

In this kind of an environment, it’s also clear how important ethical selling practices are. Now more than ever, salespeople need to communicate value that’s consistent with the customer’s needs rather focusing on an approach that reflects their own need to make a sale.

The good news is, the salespeople who do this effectively will be building customer relationships that will last for the long-haul, making your organization that much stronger when the cycle turns positive again.

About the Author
Mike Esterday

Partner and CEO

Mike Esterday first discovered his talent for sales when he ranked number one out of 6,000 sales professionals in his...
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