Shifting B2B sales priorities in a downturn

by Marty Nicholas

Any outdoor adventurer or sportsperson who’s travelled abroad seeking new challenges will freely admit that dealing with adverse weather conditions, unforeseen threats, foreign environments or hostile spectators all impact on your ability to perform when it matters most. Inevitably, the effort required to successfully navigate these external pressures demands a level of guile, planning and effort that simply isn’t required in more familiar environments.

The challenge facing a B2B salesperson in 2019 is not dissimilar to the striving athlete or adventurer who’s pushing themselves to a higher level. After a prolonged period of economic growth and prosperity, salespeople have been thrust headlong into an environment characterised by weakening business sentiment, increased regulatory oversight, political unrest and global macro-economic uncertainty. These softer market conditions and the underlying pessimism that follows, have significantly impacted B2B purchase decisions and resultant sales performance. Most of the business leaders we’ve been working with started reporting revenue pressure as early as late 2018, followed by a near paralysis of decision making throughout the election cycle, with some ‘green shoots’ of recovery starting to emerge in recent months.

How sales organisations prepare for and deal with these external challenges (and the internal responses they demand) will impact both the length and severity of the downcycle, and how well positioned they are to capitalise on the inevitable upswing that follows. One of the most important starting points is to reset the organisation’s understanding of down-turn decision-making dynamics, to ensure the business makes conscious choices about how to best adapt their approaches to meet the demands of the current buying environment.

Fundamental shifts in buyer decision-making dynamics

In a soft market where growth expectations are moderated, enterprises naturally look to constrain operating expenditure and capital investments to protect their earnings, resulting in:

  • Budget tightening – buyers CapEx, OpEx and discretionary budgets get tightened to maintain earnings and protect against a further deterioration in operating conditions
  • Portfolio-level purchase decisions – budget allocations are far more likely to be made on portfolio-basis, meaning the ROI derived from individual projects needs to be relatively better than the range of other alternatives (not just above absolute return thresholds)
  • Glacial decision making – purchasing and approval processes involve more senior stakeholders, creating greater scrutiny and conflict over finite budgets. Consequently, decision-makers generally bias more conservative choices, tactical fixes and project delays
In turn, the impact of these dynamics for salespeople is often reduced opportunity volume / size, increased competitive pressure and prolonged sales cycles with a lower probability of conversion – leading to a sobering combination of increased pressure and decreased ability to impact sales outcomes.

B2B sales execution priorities in a downturn

Since the new year, we’ve had lots of contact from business leaders who’ve been understandably anxious about how to best set their sales teams up for success. Inevitably, these conditions demand far greater focus and discipline than a buoyant market, so we’d recommend that sales organisations shift their focus onto the following:

1. Target selectively – the obvious question facing sales leaders is where to focus effort for maximal return. In this environment, your proactive sales effort is best expended on activities that either lock-in known revenue pools or possess a higher probability of conversion including (in rank order):
  1. Proactively retaining and solidifying existing clients, relationships and revenue lines
  2. Progressing qualified opportunities with existing clients where senior air cover and qualified budgets or funding pools exist
  3. Building new pipeline with existing clients around known business priorities and market challenges
  4. Driving new customer acquisition in market ‘sweet spots’ where your capabilities, point of difference and value proposition resonates most
2. Leverage senior relationships – in a dynamic and uncertain decision-making environment, there’s a genuine premium on cultivating and leveraging:
  1. Senior sponsorship that allows you to qualify more effectively and better understand how to navigate internal decision-making dynamics. Used judiciously, this input is often the difference between success and wasted effort in a downturn
  2. Internal advocates who give you access to intelligence that enables you to evolve your approach / offering to meet the changing context and priorities of the organisation across the sales cycle
3. Ruthlessly disqualify – when deal flow and decision making both slow-down, salespeople tend to hang onto opportunities with the vain hope that they will land. This delusion often persists despite strong evidence to the contrary and is a major source of lost time and focus. Instead, you want your salespeople to be:
  1. Active across existing and prospective clients to drive top of the funnel conversations that help restore opportunity flow
  2. Rapidly disqualifying opportunities where business value, executive sponsorship, funding pathways or clarity on decision processes isn’t evident
  3. Consistently requalifying opportunities based on shifts in buyer sentiment
4. Prove value – in a risk averse environment, there is no substitute for demonstrating the tangible benefits your solutions can create. Be sure to:
  1. Redouble your efforts to substantiate the commercial benefit your offerings generate, to increase senior-level consideration and allow you to exert more influence when competing for internal funding
  2. Invest in pilots or smaller scale implementations that reduce the size of the ‘ask’ for the buyer and enable you to create a beachhead for subsequent growth
5. Play the long game – under target pressure, sales organisations inevitably push harder for short-term decisions that can detrimentally impact their longer-term aspirations. It may be painfully slow and immensely frustrating at times, but clients typically choose partners who best empathise with their current financial and operational challenges. It might not yield immediate results, but rest assured that glacial decision-making thaws and how you’ve conducted yourself in the down-cycle should position you well for the upswing.

Key takeaways

For B2B sales organisations, leaders and salespeople, it can be tempting to blame the external environment and see your predicament as more uncontrollable than ever before. Elite athletes and adventures rarely have the luxury of blaming external factors or waiting it out until the cycle turns. Breakthrough performances or improvements happen when you face into the stark reality of the situation and realise that you simply need to be better in the face of more difficult conditions.

The opportunity for B2B sales organisations is to effect real change now – they must understand and adapt their approaches in order to hit targets, grow market share and maintain belief. It might not feel like it at the time, but the headwinds that a softer cycle bring are a blessing for any organisation that’s looking to improve its targeting, solution selling capability, commercial muscle and execution discipline.

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