5 Ways CEOs Can Lead Sales Through a Recession

Aug 9, 2022 | Sales, Sales Strategy

Is a recession looming? I remain optimistic that the economy will continue to do well, but others feel the economic uncertainty. I see it in several sectors. CEOs are getting nervous and laying people off

Traditional wisdom says you must hunker down during a recession and weather the storm. The focus is normally on cost-cutting and survival. And that is the behavior we are seeing from some already, even though a recession hasn’t been declared. 

Think Differently 

In times of economic uncertainty like a recession, two things are true:

The first is that teams need extraordinary leadership. They need to know that the CEO is taking charge, has a plan and will steer the ship. They need to know that decisions are being thoughtfully made using data and strategically executed.

The second is that your focus must be on sales. Sales are important ALL the time, but especially in times of economic uncertainty. And whether you realize it or not, every decision you make will impact your sales somehow. Remember, when I say sales, I am not only referring to sellers, I am referring to meeting your customers where they are and making it easy for them to buy. Sales is about how your customers buy from you. And remember too, that if you are feeling the strains of the economy, so are they. The way you sell will change because the way they buy will change. 

Today, I want to challenge your thinking. Instead of shrinking back, cutting costs, hunkering down (see that mindset), you can lead sales through a recession boldly and strategically (better mindset). I’m sharing 5 ways you can do that starting now.

5 Ways to Lead Sales Through a Recession

1. Look for New Market Opportunities 

Ways CEOs Can Lead Sales Through a Recession new market image

It’s a great time to jump into new markets that are a good fit for your products or services. But before you dive in too quickly and make a costly mistake, do your research. To assess the viability of a new market, consider these questions:

  • Is there a need for your product or service in this new market?
  • Will this new market be willing and able to pay for your product/service? (The answer may be different during uncertain times.)
  • Is the new market big enough (worth pursuing)?
  • Does entering this new market align with your longer-term business goals?
  • How do you plan to test the market before you spend money to go after it?

If you’ve identified a viable market, proceed methodically (but quickly) to pursue it. 

2. Modify Your Sales Strategy

Examine and modify your current sales strategy. Like most teams, yours is probably still selling the same old way. Times have changed, and if your sales strategy hasn’t yet, it will need to now.  You’ll want to look at your approach to the customer to find strategic ways to change to make it easier for your customers to buy from you.

Here are some sales strategy changes you may consider during a recession:

  • Evaluate your products to determine the most profitable ones, then have your sales team focus on selling these offerings.
  • Examine the customer journey and find ways to make it easier for customers to buy from you.
  • Focus on upselling and cross-selling to increase the customer’s lifetime value. Many times there is a goldmine in your existing customer base.
  • Prioritize your existing customers by doubling down on customer satisfaction to increase retention.
  • Consider adding new products or services that round out your current offerings and solve additional customer pain points.

Ways CEOs Can Lead Sales Through a Recession modify your sales strategy image

When you lead sales during uncertain times, as I mentioned,  it’s important to remember that purchasing habits will change. Embrace this reality and seek to understand why and how the patterns are changing. Your research (via examining metrics, talking to partners, and speaking with buyers) can help you determine how to adjust your sales strategy.

3. Be Strategic About Your Pipeline (I call it a funnel.)

Closely examine your sales pipeline. And that means being proactive instead of waiting for your sales leader to bring the sales forecast to you. 

Sit down together and look at the pipeline more strategically. Determine what resources would be needed and what actions could be taken to increase the number of opportunities, the velocity and the close rate. 

Begin by looking at the health of your entire funnel of opportunities. This is where viewing it as a funnel is helpful. The top should be full enough to produce the results you need. We all know that our sales teams don’t close every opportunity, so as you move down the funnel it slims out. The shape of your funnel matters. If you have a bloated funnel that is small at the top and bottom but big in the middle, there’s a problem. Small at the top and big at the bottom, problem. Huge at the top and very small in the middle and bottom, big problem. This is why looking at the shape of your funnel is helpful. You can more easily see the problem and get to work on it. 

Ways CEOs Can Lead Sales Through a Recession pipeline image

The key is keeping the top filled with qualified opportunities and keeping them moving forward or out. Keeping the top full is what most of your teams struggle with. It has to be a joint effort with sales, customer success and marketing aligned because what goes in the top are new opportunities with existing customers along with new opportunities from companies you haven’t done business with yet. 

Then examine all the open opportunities at the top of the funnel. Are there enough, are there too many to actively move forward, are they a good fit? Decide if there are any that need more resources and a team applied at this early stage and if there are some that are just not worth pursuing. 

You’ll likely close more deals by being more selective about which opportunities are pursued and focusing resources on those. Your salespeople will benefit from the strategy and structure your pipeline plan provides.

4. Increase Alignment Between Sales and Marketing

Of course, you want your sales, marketing, and customer success teams to always be aligned. However, as you lead sales during a recession, you’ll want to pay closer attention to how your teams work together and how you can increase collaboration.

I discussed this in an episode of Sales Talk for CEOs with Jonathan Siddharth, CEO of Turing. Your go-to-market machine should be an engine that feeds qualified leads to your sales team so they can do what they do best – have sales conversations, close deals, and work on account expansion. You can only get this when sales and marketing (and customer success) are aligned.

  • To create better alignment, look first at the customer journey so you can break down silos. 
  • Then, focus on improving communication and collaboration between departments. Hold weekly meetings with the entire go-to-market team.
  • Share important information in all directions so no one is left out of the loop.
  • Determine what needs to be shared with all departments that typically only sales and marketing would know.
  • Coordinate marketing campaigns with sales so prospects get a unified and consistent experience and message.
  • Set shared goals to encourage departments to work together. 

This is a good time to do a Voice of the Customer survey to get feedback straight from customers that the entire Go To Market Team can use to improve the customer journey. 

5. Get Creative with Hiring

Ways CEOs Can Lead Sales Through a Recession hiring image

One final piece of advice for how to lead sales during a recession is to get creative with hiring. Now conventional wisdom would tell you to avoid hiring (and start firing) during a recession. However, we’re not only facing a recession but also a massive labor shortage that has companies around the country scrambling to find top talent. So, what should you do if you are affected by this shortage?

Many CEOs I talk to believe that you need to add more salespeople to your team to grow more sales. And they think it’s a mathematical formula. Want to double sales? Double the size of your sales team! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that (perhaps you found that out the hard way).

So, scrapping that idea, as you lead sales during a recession or times of uncertainty, you’ll want to be strategic and creative with hiring decisions. And as it turns out, another salesperson may not be what you need.  

As I discussed in my recent Sales Talk for CEOs interview with Juliana Stancampiano (CEO of Oxygen), CEOs should think differently about building their sales organization. Juliana’s method (which has worked brilliantly, by the way!) is to ‘scaffold’ around the strongest members of her sales team. What are they good at? Have them do more of that! What are they not so good at? Hire new people who excel in those areas to take those duties off their plate. This strategy is about finding each person’s zone of genius, so they become more empowered, productive, and successful in their work.

You CAN Lead Sales Through a Recession

In closing, I want to leave you with a little motivation to let you know that you CAN lead sales through a recession—even if sales aren’t your strong suit or you feel out of your comfort zone. Work with your sales leaders to get a plan together. Read articles and listen to podcasts to get ideas. Reach out to me so we can discuss strategy! Your team is looking to you for exceptional leadership, and with the right approach, I know you can deliver it to them.

Alice Heiman

Alice Heiman

Alice is nationally known for her expertise in elevating sales to increase valuation for companies with a B2B complex sale that have exceptional growth potential. She’s originally, from the widely known Miller Heiman Group. Spending her time strategizing with CEOs and their leadership teams to build the strategies that find new business and grow existing accounts is her passion.  Her clients love her spirit and the way she energizes their sales organization.


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