Growth during uncertainty: How to plan for an unpredictable future

Since the turn of the new Millennium, the world has already weathered and come out of the other side of several economic storms. In 2001, it was the end of the dot com bubble and start of one recession, following 9/11.

And then in 2007-08, another, far deeper and more serious recession shook the world, that started in the financial sector. Millions lost jobs, companies went under, and whole countries were financially crippled. But the world recovered, in time. Until recently, GDP was healthy and unemployment rates were low. Consumer and business confidence was fairly high at the start of 2020.

Now we are sliding into another global recession, thanks to the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19). In some countries the slide is quicker than others, and it’s far from equal; different sectors are being affected in different times and ways.

This recession is potentially larger than the previous recessions. We are facing new levels of uncertainty. Around the world, many sectors are facing an unpredictable future, and some will take longer to recover than others.

What does an unpredictable future look like for sales leaders?

Assuming your company is still operating (and many in B2B sectors/spaces are largely unaffected), and you’ve not been temporarily laid off (in some countries, governments are financially supporting payroll), then you are working and have a sales team to manage.

When it comes to managing a sales team during a global recession, we are entering uncharted territory for many sales leaders. As the Harvard Business Review points out, only “somewhere between one-fourth and one-half of sales professionals in American companies have never had to sell during an economic downturn.”

The majority of people in sales now weren’t doing their current roles in the last recession, over ten years ago. Experience and institutional muscle memory isn’t going to get us through this. However, we would benefit from listening to those who’ve been-there-and-done-that.

Firstly, as part of adapting, let’s acknowledge the fear factor.

Covid-19 is causing completely justifiable fear. It’s a virus. It’s deadly. Hundreds of thousands are dead who would otherwise be alive. Millions infected, and compared to other viruses its infection and death rate is high. As a consequence of this, vast swathes of the economy have shut down, and even unrelated sectors have been hit.

Fear can cause sales leaders, teams, and of course potential customers to make the wrong choices. At first, the fear was centered around avoiding catching the virus. Hence the need for everyone to work remotely. In some countries, some businesses are starting to migrate back to offices. Or maintain a hybrid between working from home (WFH) and offices, or maintaining remote working for the foreseeable future.

Beyond that completely understandable fear, we need to think about the direct impact on sales teams. Millions of sales deals were paused, at least for a while, and in some cases, deals scrapped that would have gone forward if it weren’t for the economic impact of Covid-19. In some cases, whole markets went dark for a while, and only now are we starting to see green shoots of recovery.

As countries and companies adapt to a new normal, we are moving into a prolonged period of uncertainty. The initial fear has reduced, for now. Different sectors can more clearly map out what a recovery will look like for them. In turn, this means companies selling into those sectors (e.g. software and service providers) can start to create something of a recovery roadmap.

How to plan for an unpredictable future?

#1: Stick with what works. If something isn’t broke, don’t try fixing it. Does your sales strategy and process work? Is your team performing well? Then don’t try to make systematic changes. Simply keep doing what you were doing, with understandable adaptations to work around Covid-19 (e.g. working remotely, etc.)

#2: Are your customers still spending money? If yes, then keep doing what you’ve been doing. Keep selling to them. Encourage those who are doing well, and staying strong, to spend more. Find new ways to help them and sell those products/services accordingly. If you need to help them in other ways, such as reducing payments for a few months, then do that providing you know they’ll stay loyal and prices can go back up when things settle down.

#3: Diversify. Some companies have had to find new markets very quickly. Others are able to continue serving the same markets without much disruption. However, if you’re concerned about potentially volatility or a downturn in sectors you serve, now is the time to diversify. Design and implement a strategy to sell into new sectors, or even countries and regions. Get new sales pipelines established, and then drive forward a stronger approach to sales that reduces risk across the organisation.

#4: Adjust sales targets. Considering the world is going through unprecedented changes, with economic ramifications, many sales targets are most likely unrealistic. Whenever possible, ensure these are adjusted to align with the new reality.

#5: Resist the urge to increase outbound calls. Too many sales leaders might be tempted to have teams ramp up outbound activity. Now isn’t necessarily the time. Before doing that, ensure the strategy is aligned with the team’s capabilities, how the sectors you serve are reacting, and other ways you can generate new leads.

For example, if you can generate more from content marketing mixed with sales, then take that approach. If you can set up, or ramp up a referral network, or work more closely with channel partners, then take that approach. Look at the most viable ways to increase revenue without taking action that would seem drastic. Not only is drastic action unlikely to work, it could expend a lot of energy without generating the results you need.

We are facing uncertain times. It’s unprecedented, even compared to previous recessions in the last two decades. But when it comes to sales, leaders can find ways to navigate teams through this and overcome challenges using smart strategies and directing everyone’s efforts the right way.