This blog post is written by Sam Arnold, Strategic Account Executive at CaptivateIQ. Sam is a SaaS sales expert with a track record of success, having closed dozens of new business opportunities ranging from $100k to $1M. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking, hiking, biking around San Francisco, and strength training.
“When the going gets tough,” they say, “the tough get going.”
Yet, “going” has two meanings, doesn’t it? It could mean buckling down, hardening resolve, and working harder to overcome tough times. It could also mean leaving to find better times somewhere else.
If you want your sales team to be in the former category, then you owe it to them to read this post.
In sales, tough times come in many forms:
- Customer churn
- Low market interest
- Beloved leader departs
- Falling win rates
- Product problems
- Service delivery problems
- Competitor gaining market share
- Disheartening layoffs
- Economic recession
- Global pandemic
Every sales team will experience several of these challenges at one point or another. How they perform during these challenges, and whether they choose to stay or leave, depends on what their leaders do before, during, and after they start experiencing them.
Empathize With Your Salespeople
When a tsunami forms, the surface of the water is calm. Ships at sea float peacefully while meters beneath them, any scuba divers in the area are tossed around like rag dolls by terrifying whirlpools.
Your salespeople are the scuba divers. They are typically the first to feel the chaos of bad times and the ones who feel it most acutely. When they surface, you would be wise to listen to their stories of the currents below before they make landfall.
It’s a misconception that salespeople only care about amassing personal wealth. While money is a motivator, it's not the only one, and money’s value to salespeople is not solely about their bank accounts. Like everyone else, they also care about advancing their career, working at a prestigious company, work-life balance, and feeling like a success. In sales, large commissions don’t guarantee any of these, but it's impossible to achieve these without also earning large commissions. Commission can therefore be thought of as a canary in a coal mine for salespeople: if commissions are decreasing, so are other motivators.
Understand that salespeople are individuals with different strengths, weaknesses, traumas, triumphs, fears, and desires. And this is a good thing. It means you can often make up for temporary shortfalls in commissions by helping in other areas. If this were not true, you could only ever attract and retain salespeople with money – and there will always be a higher bidder.
Set Realistic Expectations
Tony Robbins says happiness isn’t about where you are today in absolute terms. Rather, happiness is relative to where you are today compared to yesterday. A sense of progress is what people need to feel content with their life. On the flip side, a sense of regression causes immense pain.
Ignoring this fact until bad times arrive gets people into a lot of trouble.
Consider that sales is one of the first places companies stop hiring when revenue slows down. That means most of your salespeople were hired during good times. They were enticed to learn about your company after being told of your smashing success. They were told tales by recruiters and hiring managers about sky-high attainment, consistent lead flow, and mind-blowing W-2s.
Now imagine you are a sales rep who walks into a company after being sold on things like this. And a few months later, you can count the number of leads you received on one hand, you are losing deals, and certain customer logos have disappeared from your website. What would Tony Robbins predict about how you’re feeling?
Don’t fall into this trap. Resist the urge to oversell your company’s success during hiring. Instead, paint a realistic picture to sales candidates about how things are going, what isn’t working as well as you’d like, and how things might become challenging in the future. If a candidate is scared away by that, then it’s probably for the best.
If You Want Peace, Prepare for War
If you haven’t been to the gym in a few months or years, then starting back up is going to be difficult and the soreness that results can be debilitating. But suppose you have been going to the gym consistently, even if you have taken it easy on yourself. In this case, it's trivial to continue working out or to increase the intensity when you need to step it up.
Think about the important behaviors during bad times and ensure that your team continues to perform those behaviors even when they can deliver sufficient results without them. The worst thing you can do is let good times atrophy your team’s bad-times-muscles.
Outbound prospecting is an obvious example. I have been on sales teams that received a consistent flow of inbound leads and who never prospected. When the leads inevitably ran dry, no one had any idea about what outbound prospecting email would get meetings. If only we had figured it out in the months before we needed it.
Other behaviors to incentivize during good times are achieving better pricing or contract terms, getting referrals, case study commitments, or promoting marketing initiatives.
Reflect on the ways your business might turn south in the future and ask yourself what behaviors your team would need to get better in each scenario. Can you make investments in tech or processes right now to make those behaviors easier? Can you tweak your commission plan to pay for those behaviors, so they are incentivized to do them before they become a necessity?
Communicate Early and Often
Oh no, it’s happening. The bad times. They’re here! Or are they?
It's basically impossible to know if you are in truly bad times until you are far into them. Predicting your company's future is only slightly easier than predicting the fate of a stock price. There are too many variables at play to predict accurately. Overall market conditions or historical performance are no guarantee of an individual stock’s performance tomorrow.
Communicating negative news or trends to a sales team can be an anxious task for many leaders. How much do you share? What is helpful for them to know, and what is only causing unnecessary worry? If everyone sort of knows what’s going on anyway, why address it?
It's always better to over-communicate bad news because:
- Your salespeople probably already know the gist of it
- They may view the situation as worse than it actually is
- Hiding or downplaying bad news destroys trust
- Knowing that leaders are on top of it is comforting
When sharing bad news, resist the urge to give a business school lecture filled with sterile metrics and charts. Salespeople are experts at converting metrics into mutual action plans, and that is what they will expect of you. So if things are bad, describe how bad they are. Address the relevant causes. Describe the solutions you’re pursuing. Name names: who exactly is accountable for what, by when?
Remember that communication goes two ways. Give your sales team plenty of time to ask their questions and voice their concerns. Respond meaningfully to them.
Total transparency at the individual level is important as well. It should be easy for sales reps to see how they are performing relative to their peers and how exactly they are being compensated. You don’t want your sales team wasting cycles tracking their attainment and commissions – get a tool for this. While it's always important to ensure people are paid correctly, calculation errors cause a far larger impact during bad times. Don’t let it happen.
Unite As One
Before big wins, you will have small ones, and those can be used to provide that all-important sense of progress. Whereas before you might only have posted big wins on Slack, you may go through a period of posting all wins: small deals, renewals, meetings booked, customer praise, and so on. This is also a good time to invest in sales training, define promotion tracks, and start tiger teams to improve long-broken processes.
Just as bad news is inevitable, so too is good news. Your sales team's confidence will grow after turning around one or two declining metrics. They will become more optimistic. They will become more resilient.
Along the way, you may lose some reps. You must display a positive attitude about attrition when it occurs. Treat them exceptionally well as they leave. Prioritize paying them commissions that are owed to them. This will earn you respect from remaining sales reps. It also leaves the door open for departing reps to come back in the future. And if any of them do, as long as they parted on good terms, consider letting them. Customers who churn for a competitor and come back to you afterward are almost always your best ones, aren’t they? Why would “boomerang” employees be different?
There’s a shared camaraderie in every sales team I have been a part of that reminds me of my time in the restaurant industry. Anthony Bourdain compared a well-functioning kitchen to the crew of a ship. Everyone has their own motivations and goals, but they also identify with the group. They strive to do their part and help shoulder an immense burden. Getting through tough times together, whether as a kitchen cook during dinner rush or a sales team in a recession, creates strong interpersonal bonds. With adequate preparation, empathetic communication, and a dash of luck, the good times will come again, bringing not just business success — but lifelong relationships, too.