How to keep selling in an economic downturn

What a ride we were on the last few years! The stock market rose to unheard-of levels, and unemployment was lower than ever. Then along came the coronavirus. It began slowly, and we thought it was contained. But it spread rapidly and uncontrolled around the globe. No one was ready. No one was prepared.

Now we must get prepared—for COVID-19 and for selling in an economic downturn.

It’s scary, frightening, and depressing. People are afraid to leave their homes, even to go to the grocery store. In some areas, including my home state of California, we’re not allowed to leave home except for essential errands.

Everyone is impacted, and now we’ve heard the “p” word: pandemic. We’re also hearing the dreaded “r” word: recession. Economists’ forecasts of a recession range from 65 percent to 95 percent, and their projections keep increasing.

China is closed for business, and the U.S. stock market is in shambles. The New York Stock Exchange has closed its trading floor after two people tested positive for the coronavirus. Electronic trading will be the norm for a while.

This economic downturn is primed to become another global recession. The United States Senate just approved a House-passed coronavirus relief package that includes provisions for free testing for COVID-19 and paid emergency leave.

The good news is that we’ve been here before, not so very long ago, and we know how to survive (and even thrive) during a recession. The trick to surviving Recession 2020 is to protect your business now so you can keep selling in an economic downturn.

Familiar Territory

Remember what a roller-coaster ride the last recession was? The turbulent economy in 2001 and 2002, followed by the recession in 2008 and 2009, was frightening. We heard that recovery would be slow, and we might even experience a double dip.

Now that we’re facing Recession 2020, let’s remind ourselves: How do we keep selling in an economic downturn?

In previous recessions, clients told us budgets were cut, then they opened their wallets with some money and just as quickly closed them. What did we do? First and foremost, we stayed in touch and asked how we could help them. We connected our clients, colleagues, and peers with resources in our network. We managed to increase sales in our businesses by focusing on forging strong, long-lasting relationships.

8 Tips for Selling in an Economic Downturn

The sales landscape has changed. It will never be the same. (And probably shouldn’t.) We must continually evaluate and adjust our business strategies and, in many cases, work differently—adopt new approaches for selling in an economic downturn.

(Image attribution: George Becker)

But some things never change. Sales success is still determined by relationships and referrals, so the “8 Killer Steps to Recession-Proof Your Business” that I wrote in 2008 still apply today. Here they are again, with a slight refresh:

1. Broaden Your Perspective and Narrow Your Focus

It’s time to step back and develop strategies for your business that will separate you from the competition and create a leap in demand for your products and services. Just like looking through the lens of a camera, you see the broad landscape first. Then, you adjust your lens and focus on a specific image.

Do the same for your organization. Look at the big picture and then focus on a specific strategy and go for it. Don’t let anything distract you from your new focus. Consider assembling an informal group of advisors and get their input and creative ideas. Include people who have differing points of view. (Not easy, but critical.) You might also decide to create new strategic alliances or alternate distribution channels—both important for selling in an economic downturn.

2. Be Nimble and Innovative

You’ll never have all the facts. Make quick decisions—whether to go after a new market, launch a new product, cancel a product launch, close an office, or expand internationally. Be fearless and make tough choices. Get rid of your sacred cows. When the economy slows, the pace of your decision-making must speed up.

3. Dazzle Your Current Customers

Your current customers need care and feeding. Don’t ignore them at the expense of new business, because they are your best source for new business.

Call your clients. Find out how the coronavirus and the economy are impacting their businesses. Offer to help any way you can. Send them an article, put them in touch with someone else in their situation, or even offer to provide a service with no fee. Yes, no fee. Now is the time to help. Period. Do whatever it takes.

4. Prioritize Wisely

The most important activity for any salesperson is to do what’s “closest to cash” the first thing every single day—whether it’s following up with a prospect, writing a proposal, or closing a deal. Whatever will keep you selling in an economic downturn.

Most of us get buried in email every day and surface a few hours later. If you do what’s “closest to cash” first, it doesn’t matter if other things on your list don’t get done. They’re just not that important.

5. Become an Expert

Companies hire experts because they can’t afford to make mistakes. They want to be assured of results for their business. Position your company as the expert with a specific product or in a specific market niche.

This is counter-intuitive—especially in a tough economy. We often think if we don’t mention everything we do, that we will miss an opportunity. The opposite is true. The narrower your focus (think camera), the better your market position and the easier it will be for your team to keep selling in an economic downturn.

6. Stay Connected

If you want to get more business, you have to network like crazy. Never let your network go down. I usually suggest attending a minimum of one event a week. You never know who you will meet and what you will learn. Go to events where your clients go. In-person networking is an essential referral marketing activity.

Of course, these are not normal times. Until the COVID-19 threat has passed, you’ll need to find safer ways to connect—for example, video or phone. Just don’t rely on social media to keep your network going. You’ll need to put in some elbow grease if you want to stand out in the crowd.

7. Don’t Cut Prices, Increase Value

There’s always a lot of chatter about cutting prices in a lagging economy. Yes, clients will negotiate on price. That’s their job—to build business while watching the bottom line. How many times have you submitted a proposed price to a client and had them say, right off the bat, “Great! Where do I sign?” It doesn’t happen. Our clients always want to get the best deal. (Don’t we all?)

If you must adjust your price, then adjust the scale of your project or the deliverables as well. Always get something in return and write it into your agreement. Instead of cutting your price, consider how to “get in and get started.” Divide your offering into smaller chunks, get results, and create traction. Think smart, not big. It’s always smarter to have a smaller piece of something than a big piece of nothing. So be smart, don’t retreat. Keep selling in an economic downturn.

8. Talk ROI

Now is the time to reposition your business by clearly demonstrating that what you offer will bring results for your clients. Do the math with them … or better yet, ask them to tell you their ROI from working with you. That’s a key way to combat the Recession 2020.

The 9th Killer Step to Recession-Proof Your Business

Full disclosure: There is a ninth step, but it’s deserving of its own blog post, so I’ll delve into that topic in a couple weeks. Those of you who know me well can probably guess what it is.

What are you doing to ride this roller coaster? Let’s start the discussion below…

Wondering how your team will keep selling in an economic downturn? Invite Joanne to lead a discussion about “How to Boost Your Sales in a Volatile Economy” at your next virtual or in-person sales meeting. Email or call 415.461.8763.

(Featured image attribution: Pixabay)

This post was originally published on September 30, 2011 and updated March 20, 2020.