Adjusting Your Sales Strategy in a Downturn


Roz is the Co-Founder & Chief Enablement Officer at Level213, a boutique consultancy that specializes in revenue enablement for growing technology companies. She previously led sales & enablement teams at Optimizely and Oracle. In this guide, she walks through how to succeed in sales in difficult economic times. She discusses how sales positioning, sales process, and sales management should change in a downturn to meet buyers where they are at when buyers are more cautious with their spend, and apply greater scrutiny to every purchasing decision.

Table of Contents

How does the buyer approach to purchasing solutions change in uncertain times?

Buyers are still spending money, they’re just more scrupulous with their spend – a downturn doesn’t mean their needs go away or that budgets have completely dried up, it means that spend is being prioritized and funneled to the highest priority items.  Finance is scrutinizing spend more tightly—we’ve seen CFOs go through every piece of technology that every team uses to justify the spend. If your champions will fight for your value, and they can explain why it matters to the business, you’re in a strong place.

Buying processes likely have more layers of approval – for example, it’s more common that purchasing decisions need to go through more scrutiny often at the C-level. With more sign-offs required, sales cycles can become longer and more complex.

Customers may not be buying bells and whistles, they’re buying survival – you may have to change your positioning a little bit to emphasize how you are crucial to your customer surviving and thriving in current economic times. You may have to reposition to emphasize how you lead to conversions, savings, more revenue, and making payroll which could be different than what you would highlight when companies are more focused on growth.

Adjusting your Positioning and Messaging

How should you change your value proposition during a downturn to meet buyer concerns? What kind of product positioning works in a time of uncertainty?

Mirror any changes in the buyer’s world – it’s important to consider what might have changed for the buyer and how that may impact what they need from your product or in the procurement process. Don’t assume that what was a priority for them in the past is still relevant today, and actively seek insights through thorough discovery to better understand their current needs.

Communicate how you are “un-turnoffable” – what is it that the customer cannot do if you take your product away from them? Why are you un-turnoffable? Last year, your talk track might have been about supporting growth, now it might be about supporting retention. You want to be the most crucial tool in the user’s stack. The game is not to just take a problem and plug it—you have to indicate how you plug and move the needle on the most important and relevant problems.

Identify what unique value you can offer in the current climate  – this means considering what might have changed in the goals and priorities of your customers and prospects, and even asking them directly what they need now. For example, a virtual meeting platform like Zoom or Teams may have been valued for its ability to connect teams from anywhere during shelter-in-place, but now the emphasis might be on ensuring meetings are impactful and easy to organize and join for a reduced or hybrid workforce.

Showcase how your customers can do more with less and create value – it’s important to help your customers do more with less. Identify ways your product or service can offer maximum value while minimizing costs or resources. It may also mean considering alternative pricing models or changes to your position to emphasize how your customers can achieve their goals best with you.

How should you adjust if your product was viewed as a “vitamin” and not a “painkiller” before the downturn?

Even vitamins can be very important – you can die from a vitamin deficiency. Can you position your vitamin to show how it ups the performance of every piece of the customer’s infrastructure? It’s harder to sell a vitamin than a medicine, but you must be super clear about how the vitamin is essential. If your value proposition centers on being a non-essential luxury, you’re going to have a very hard time during a downturn.

Even if you might not be essential, you might make essential processes easier – take a connector technology for example —if a CRO, CFO, or CEO has invested in a bunch of technology and they don’t talk to each other without this connector, this connector becomes essential to make all the other investments worth it. Think about why you’re essential to the business, and if you can make other investments more valuable, that’s a very important purchase.

Adjusting your Sales Process

How should your sales process change?

Mirror changes to the buyer’s current needs and updated procurement process – if your buyer’s buying process has changed, you need to make sure that the sales process changes to match that. Changes might require you to hold more meetings, show value in a different way or to new personas, add a trial, or update your expected days in stage.

Prepare for a longer sales cycle to earn buyer trust – buyers may put you through a more extensive procurement process with more people involved. Their increased scrutiny in the buying will show up in procedural steps. They also might prefer you to take a land-and-expand approach where there’s less risk for them and allowing them to get started with your technology and prove out the business case for expansion in the near term

Additional executives on the buyer side might get involved earlier – salespeople should be aware that additional executives may need to be involved in the buying process earlier to ensure budget approval. You might have to add meetings to effectively communicate value and benefits to these new stakeholders.

New teams may use the same tool – buyers may seek to consolidate tools and have more teams use the same tool to save costs and work with only one vendor. Sales should adapt their sales process to communicate the value and benefits of their product or service to different teams and departments who may have different use cases. You might have to do two demos that lean into different value props to ensure that all stakeholders clearly see how the product or service meets the needs of all teams.

How might your meetings and discovery process change during a downturn?

You might have to do a deeper discovery process – as a salesperson, do a deeper discovery to find what their current priorities and biggest challenges are now—because they may be different from what you assume. You also have to figure out how their process to buy technology might be different now.

Assume that what you think you know about your market has changed – whether it’s an account you’ve talked to before or one you’re approaching for the first time, the assumptions you would apply in normal conditions are likely different.  If you’ve talked to the account before, reps will rely on notes in SFDC and they might see that 2 years ago, X was their priority—but now they are in a completely different world. Don’t assume those needs or priorities are accurate anymore.

Make sure you know the answers to these questions about your buyers:

  • Who’s involved in the decision-making?
  • Why are they involved?
  • What is their involvement?
  • What are the priorities of newly-involved personas?
  • Did their procurement process change?

What are common downturn-specific buyer objections? How can you overcome them?

Objection / ChallengeOvercoming it
The champion might have to work harder to sell your product internally – he/she may face more friction from other stakeholders within their company. These objections may stem from concerns about the cost, capabilities, and value of the product.Provide your champion with the language to defend your product with internal stakeholders – he/she needs to feel confident that they are making the right decision by choosing your product. If your buyer is struggling to make the case to new stakeholders (e.g. the CFO), work with your champion to understand that stakeholder’s concerns and address them. Even better, partner with your champion to have the conversation with the extended evaluation team with them. You are much more skilled at selling your product or services than your champion will ever be.
Buyers might want to settle for “good enough” functionality on less critical needs to get cost savings – buyers may decide to go from best-in-class in 5-6 areas to a solution that’s best in class in one area, and good enough in the other areas.Position yourself so that if they make one bet, they make it on you – prove you can support their most important needs. Buyers may try to poke holes and see if there are other ways to meet their needs more cost-effectively—demonstrate that your value exceeds other options.
Buyers will prioritize trust and business partnerships once technical table stakes are met. – buyers may test your company’s response to potential issues and may ask more about support plans in case of technical issues.Demonstrate you are a trustworthy partner – bring social proof to bear, and be ready to demonstrate how your team will respond to their needs. You can do this by presenting plans for avoiding risk (e.g. a plan to address security risk areas).

How can you make your sales process less risky for your buyer?

Social proof can become more important in lean times – social proof is crucial for building trust with buyers in good times—and becomes even more important in lean times. When buyers are more cautious and may not believe everything a salesperson says, providing social proof like case studies and referrals can help them feel more confident in their decision. You might give them the opportunity to talk to successful customers or show them case studies of similar buyers who succeeded. Stories of buyers like them will instill confidence that they’re spending their money wisely.

Land and expand models can build buyer confidence – moving into a land and expand model makes it less risky for the buyer and helps you build trust. Buyers can’t afford to make a mistake in lean times, and starting with a low commitment entry can prove you’re a trustworthy partner and investment before they make a bigger commitment.

Shift focus to the quickest value products in your portfolio – in the last downturn, I was selling a contact center solution that was an expensive, important, and involved purchase. We also sold a comparatively less costly offering and quick-to-show-value Knowledge Base. We switched our approach to starting sales with Knowledge Base and introducing that we had the Contact Center Solution. The buyers would see value quickly, build trust, and we would then expand to the Contact Center—they saw what it was like to do business with us, they saw that we showed value, and it was a quick turnaround to get to expansion. It may make sense to switch your approach to prove value quickly, and then expand.

Leverage your customers to talk to prospects – existing customers can be pulled in to talk to prospects to help build social proof. You may choose to offer current customers incentives like an extension on their contract or other perks in exchange for talking to five buyers during that month—that serves as really powerful social proof.

You might do a paid pilot – you can let a buyer try your solution for a fixed amount of time where they can recognize value, and if the solution proves to achieve their needs then the trial can roll into a longer-term contract. This is a low-risk way to get buyers over the finish line.

Adjusting your sales management

How might your sales team composition change during a downturn?

Everyone is doing more with less. Some sales teams shift to more BDRs and fewer AEs –  BDRs are less costly than AEs and companies often need to get more volume in the pipeline. Adding more BDRs, and having fewer AEs is a common approach—but in this model, the AEs have to close a higher volume of deals.

Other companies cut BDRs and let AEs handle everything – if you have AEs that aren’t as busy, you can let the AEs spend time prospecting and focus more on top-of-the-funnel activities as well as closing stages.

That said, In difficult times, it’s everyone’s job to prospect  – get buyers into the pipeline however you can. If you can get them past the point where they believe your solution is essential, then the deal is much more likely to close. But how do you get them to the point where they believe you are essential? It starts with top-of-funnel activities that become even more important.

Where should the enablement focus be during uncertain times?

Make sure your team’s sales skills (discovery, demo, competitive differentiation and objection handling) are solid – you can accomplish this by providing easy-to-access training modules, just-in-time enablement resources, and practicing new or refined messaging. Salespeople are handling more objections and might have to understand and cater to new personas or compete with additional vendors.

Create a social proof library (often in partnership with marketing) – providing social proof to customers is crucial. It could be in the form of official case studies, or just tribal knowledge success stories, to give sales and success teams examples of success for the different use cases. Create a library of social proof talking points for the teams to leverage in any situation. Case studies are an effective way to show the appeal of an offering to people in the sales evaluation that weren’t there in the past. For example, If you just sold to a CFO, you can tell that story in the future to show that people in similar roles or types of companies thought selecting your product was a good idea.

Acknowledge that it’s harder to sell and service in these times – downturns are challenging, and acknowledging this to revenue teams is important. If they have a reduced workforce or have to do much more work to achieve their goals, expectations might have to change. Don’t downplay the challenge with the revenue teams—their work is harder, but not impossible if they have support.

How might you change AE quotas and territory assignments?

If your sales cycle lengthens, you may need to adjust quotas accordingly – with a longer sales cycle, reps won’t have as much volume. But the deals may get bigger (or may need to get bigger). Adjust quotas to account for the new volume/size mix.

You can increase quota if you decrease your workforce and increase each rep’s territory – each rep will have more leads they get assigned, but keep in mind reps still only have the same 8 or so work hours in the day. Be realistic about what the demand is, the length of the sales cycle, and account for the changes in the number of workers it takes to close deals.

Should you discount or adjust contracting?

Don’t discount so much that you devalue your product – if you offer deep discounts, that signals that there’s not as much value in your solution. Focus on helping the buyer see that if they only have a pot of money for one thing, they should give it to you.

It’s okay to show some flexibility with payment terms – if net 45 terms work better for the customer or they need the first month prorated, show them flexibility from a cash flow perspective if you can. This doesn’t devalue the solution and shows they’re spending the money because they believe they’re getting value.

How does the post-sales experience change?

Sell your customers on why they shouldn’t turn your solution off – existing customers already have trust in you. However, the users may need help from your customer success team to continue adding value and justifying the use of the service, especially if there have been changes in their structure or workforce. If there’s someone looking at every piece of their technology and asking if they really need it, customers need to be clear about why they shouldn’t shut you off. Work to instill confidence in users, champions, and executives that you’re the right partner and can help them through their challenges.

Pay attention if the main users of your product turn over – if the people who use you at your buyers are eliminated, that becomes a very big churn risk. If you had a team of five people who were active users in the product and they left, you need to enable whoever’s left to know how to use and get value out of your solution. Support your users whether they’re new to the tool or not. Look to train, retrain, and ask what support customers need from you. Longtime customers might end up with a brand new team of users and you need to rebuild relationships from scratch.

CSM needs to provide the language to champions so they can justify value – with customers becoming more demanding, it is important for customer success teams to communicate and support users effectively. Customers are being more thoughtful about spend, so your evangelists need to be given the language to describe how the tool is crucial to their work productivity should they have to defend the continued spend or renewal.

Information needs to be passed through the customer journey – if the buyer has a conversation with sales where they describe their challenges, that needs to be passed clearly to the onboarding team, then the onboarding team needs to pass all that information to the account manager etc. Because the buyer is more demanding and they have a right to be. Silos of information in the customer journey can be a big problem. If presales doesn’t talk to post-sales, that creates a tremendous disadvantage.

What are the most important things to get right?

Put yourself in the buyer’s mindset – ask what the customer is really going to need and then try to match that. It might be changes to what they need out of the product, how they buy, or the stakeholders in the tool. Be flexible and attentive to these.

Spend doesn’t completely dry up during a downturn – in uncertain times, buyers still have needs and make technology purchases from vendors that align with their current processes and downturn-related needs.

What are the common pitfalls?

Failing to adjust to the new reality – if you don’t pay attention to the customer and don’t align with them, you are at risk of losing the deals or customers. If you don’t change your value proposition, don’t articulate it, and don’t adjust for new people coming into buyer teams, you will struggle to sell in an uncertain market.

Sounding desperate – desperation from sellers who don’t lead with a value-first proposition comes across very quickly to the customers. This doesn’t read as competency to the buyers.

Roz Greenfield
Roz Greenfield

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