Selling in a Recession? [Part III]

Winning the Competition for Corporate Funds

This post is part of a series to help B2B organizations understand and implement sales and marketing alignment. Part One was about making sure you have the right information to get started. Part Two showed how Marketing can Support “Provocation-based Selling” and help B2B sales teams and executives to close more deals.

Go get a piece of string and try to push it up a hill. Or remember AOL, you would do a search and make coffee come back and see your results maybe? It was like watching paint dry. Who has the time?

How Marketing can Support “Provocation-based Selling?”

The approach, I am about to describe can ensure success to any company with decent (i.e., not necessarily exceptional) product offerings in a relevant product or service category (i.e., not necessarily a recognized hot category). Furthermore, I will cover marketing’s role and  make the following assertion:

Unless your company is a bona fide leader in an established, growing product category, every time you lead with the product (as most software vendors still do), I can assure you that you are likely to fail in today’s market. Missed Part One? Start here.

How can you Sell in a Recession?

In this part III, I want to cover three topics related to the hand-to-hand combat required for high-tech sales teams and executives to close deals. So let’s begin.

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Marketing Support

To make this sales process work, the sales team needs significant marketing support in these four areas: introductions to line-of-business executives, provocation development and delivery, war stories, and diagnostics. Each requires a program to develop. Here are some key learnings:

  • Introductions to line-of-business executives. This is the only lead generation program that matters. Be careful not to waste a lot of resources on getting leads lower down in the organization. That tactic works for mature markets, not for emerging ones. Instead, the vendor should focus on getting the organization chart right, targeting the key individuals, and then working its executive network and their contacts to find a way in. Treat the way in as a precious resource and be sure the sales team is well prepared before you use it. Second chances are rare.
  • Provocation development and delivery. This is a job for the brain trust. The sales team should have developed an industry-wide point of view on the key issue at hand that is truly provocative. At the same time, research on each prospect, particularly a study of securities analysts’ reports, blog posts, news releases, and SEC documents, should provide additional material. The field cannot be expected to do all this without marketing support. I use several tools: LinkedIn, Datanyze, Rapportive,, Buzzsumo, and HubSpot.
  • War stories. This is a job for the salesforce. At every gathering, webinars, trade show, seminar, or the like, everyone in the sales team needs to interrogate customers, partners, even competitors, about what is working, what is not and who is trying what with what success or lack thereof. Marketing’s job is to read the blog posts, new articles, periodicals, and comb the web for the same information. Twice a year sales and marketing should gather to capture and share war stories. Again, these are not customer references but rather customer anecdotes about the broken process they are suffering from. They are the mainstay of establishing credibility in executive conversations.
  • Diagnostics. Marketing should work with the best minds in the organization to set out a template for a diagnostic specifically targeted at the problem being addressed. The field should be familiar with this template but should still call in the “A-Team” for top prospects, not because the field could not do the work, but because we want to build deeper connections to the prospect team.

Target Job Titles

It goes without saying that, to sell a complex enterprise-wide solution or project to a large corporate or government customer, sales teams must inevitably target ‘C’ level executives at some point during the sales process to be the key sponsors of any enterprise-critical investment, alongside the middle managers and others who also play important roles in the relationship. Furthermore, to align interests, it is important to bear in mind the different roles that each constituency has in the decision process. Here are some general examples, each with their respective concerns and responsibilities:

  • Chief Executive Officer (CEO): Ultimately responsible for the company’s competitiveness and success in the market, and thus for strategic investment decisions. Normally delegates the vendor selection decision, but uses trusted strategy advisers on key issues. In difficult economic times, it becomes more engaged in signing-off on key investments.
  • VP-level line-of-business executive (such as VPs of marketing, sales, operations, or engineering): Ultimately responsible for the effectiveness, efficiency, and integrity of their organization’s operations and results. May have strong vendor preferences in their area of expertise, related to which vendor best understands how to address their business problem. May or may not delegate the vendor selection decision.
  • Chief Financial Officer (CFO): Ultimately responsible for the Return on Invested Capital and thus the funding decision. Normally participates in the vendor selection decision as a member of a steering or investment committee.
  • Middle manager (in marketing programs, product lines, materials management, supply chain, regional sales, customer service, etc.): Ultimately responsible for managing the resources and projects under their direct authority, related to their primary functional goals. Has strong views about the productivity and efficiency of their department’s activities and tends to defer to IT specialists in their department or in central IT function for IT product selections and investment decisions.
  • Chief Information Officer: Ultimately responsible for information systems enterprise-wide. Cares about maintainability and compatibility with legacy systems. Has strong technology preferences relating to aspects such as architecture and scalability, as well as strong ‘SLA’ preferences, which impact the vendor/product selection decision.
  • Purchasing/procurement manager: Ultimately responsible for supplier selection, pricing, and sourcing decisions. Has strong views about pricing, discounts, and other terms and conditions which impact both vendor and product selection.
  • End-user (in any of the operational or administrative functions): Ultimately responsible for using technology to do their job more efficiently. Generally has strong views about feature/function/benefit attributes of offerings from technology vendors.
  • IT Director for line-of-business: Ultimately responsible for installing, training, and supporting their user community. Cares about user satisfaction and productivity.

Each of these groups requires a different dialog and thus differentiated sales and marketing materials though in this article we are more interested on describing an approach for engaging successfully with “C” level executives.

In emerging markets, such as those being targeted by vendors in e-business categories such as collaboration, procurement, and others, the first four audiences above tend to be key. In established markets, such as cloud-based, client/server ERP or CRM, the last four above tend to become more important in the sales process.

Third, how you make it happen, get into action

Though it has been borrowed straight from the management consulting business, this ‘provocation-based’ approach is still uncommon enough among high-tech vendors that it can result in a definite competitive edge for those companies that use it competently.

Therefore, it is worth going beyond merely getting one or two aspects of execution just right; field engagement, for example, is especially critical.

In sharp contrast with what most executive teams decide to do with respect to new market initiatives, this is not a place to put your less experienced or less talented resources.

On the contrary, companies need to put their most experienced consultative people in the SWAT team(s) they field for the first solution-focused initiatives; even if they are fortunate enough to discover that as many as 10%-15% of the sales force has strong consultative skills, they should make sure to allocate their best business consultants as domain experts on the sales team.

Teams of two or three people – i.e., sales rep, business consultant, and possibly systems engineer – are probably best, provided that they can have priority call on other resources on the ‘bench’, including the executive ranks, as well as operational resources such as technical support, product engineering, customer service, finance and operations, as needed.

Above all, the most valuable characteristics to recruit from internal as well as external sources are as follows: non-conformist, even rebellious, thinkers, who are also determined, action-oriented types who will go through walls to achieve the mission.

Goals, metrics, and compensation plans are also important; these must be quite different from the time-honored revenue-based objectives that are typical of most sales plans. If accelerated penetration of a target market segment is the overriding goal, then all goals and compensation must be geared toward incenting and rewarding the teams for achieving, say, the first three-to-five deals of a defined size and scope within the target segment.

On the balancing side, any other objectives must count as anti-metrics – which means that any focus or energy spent on other activities may need to be actually penalized in the SWAT team’s compensation system.

Only in this way can such initiatives succeed. Oh, and last but not least, executive management must also be incented and rewarded in proportion to the importance of taking this hill, versus accomplishing the plan through other means related to business-as-usual activities.

In this case, the executive team needs to manage all the company’s business, not just the (new) target initiative. Nonetheless, their quotas and comp should represent a mix that is tilted toward the success of the target market initiative.

So that when push comes to shove, they will continue to prioritize resources, including their own attention, to the initiative that results in maximum shareholder value for the company – i.e., the strategic one that is aimed at securing market dominance for the company.

We’re listening.

Have something to say about your thoughts on selling in a slow economy? 

Share it with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

If you missed Part I? Start here.

Are you not getting the results you had hoped for with your current marketing agency? Let the experts at this Denver marketing agency help you generate more web traffic, converts more leads, and close more sales. Our team knows just what it takes to build and maintain a proven marketing strategy that drives high-quality leads. For more information, check out our marketing services or contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs and our services.

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General FAQ’s

How do you sell in a recession?

Improve Sales In A Recession Economy
1. Focus on Customers. Customers are egocentric.
2. Focus on Existing Customers. Every business builds a vast network of customers who are already sold.
3. Fine-Tune The Profit Path. Each stage of the sales process needs to be examined.
4. Add Value to the Product.
5. What is True Demand.

What products sell well in a recession?

Powerhouse Products: What’s Selling
Products Doing Well in the Recession. The retail industry is slowly creeping into a recession, from unknown sources like COVID-19 pandemic.
– Netbooks. In general, computer companies have been doing pretty lousy in this recession.
– Gardening Supplies.
– CBD.
– Condoms.
– Alcoholic beverages.
– Pets.
– Smart Phones.

What industries are recession-proof?

Food and Beverage. No matter the state of the economy, people must eat.
– Retail Consignment. When cash flow is weak, people typically don’t buy new furniture, books, or clothes.
– Information Technology.
– Repair Industry.
– Health and Senior Service Industries.
– Cleaning Services.

What does it mean to be in a recession?

The classic definition of a recession is two or more quarters during which the economy shrinks. A “recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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By George Schildge

As a digital marketing and conversion optimization expert, I work with startups, small and mid-sized businesses to help them develop processes to get predictable, scalable revenue growth. I work closely with management teams crafting marketing and sales strategies to promote the brand, generate more leads, and convert more leads into sales. I have a unique ability to balance rational, linear thinking and lateral creativity giving me a hard-nosed sense of operating reality, instrumental to a company’s growth.

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