How CEOs Can Lead Sales through Historic Times

Jun 17, 2020 | Business Owners, Sales Leadership

For months, the coronavirus has dominated conversations and news coverage around the world. 

If you’re like most CEOs, in March you watched with growing alarm as massive global companies like Dell, Amazon, Twitter, and Google issued work-from-home mandates, and all trade shows and big events were canceled in response to the outbreak. 

With numbers of COVID-19 cases rising, the government, at both the federal and state levels, enacted extraordinary measures to preserve health and safety. Those measures effectively shut down the U.S. and world economy for two months while experts figured out how to handle this health crisis. Then, the curve flattened, and stay-at-home orders are slowly being removed.  

As cities and states began opening their economies, the U.S. erupted in racial tensions that resulted in even more economic disruption. And, the fact of the matter is, all anyone knows for sure right now is that the economic recovery is going to be a series of fits and starts as the world goes back to work and supply chains are revived.  

Today’s Economy 

Although unsettling, it isn’t surprising that the economy has taken a number of unprecedented hits.

  • The May unemployment rates improved some according to BLS it was 13.3% down from 14.7% in April (but PEW reports they may have been higher). 
  • The Wall Street Journal has estimated a loss of 30 million positions from payrolls and 40 million layoffs this spring as a result of the pandemic. Some economists estimate that 40% of those laid off will not be rehired. 
  • U.S. consumer spending, fell by a record 13.6% in April, the steepest decline since 1959 according to a May 29 article in the Wall Street Journal. Naturally, the consumer confidence index fell from 131.6 in January to 86.6 in May. 
  • Kiplinger predicts that business spending will fall 10-20% this year. 

None of this is good news for your company or your sales team – unless you happen to be one of the companies serving a market or industry that’s actually experiencing growth. Not surprisingly, online retailers including, Walmart, Amazon, Wayfair, and Overstock, have actually added workers to the payroll. Companies making personal protective gear and sanitizing supplies like 3M and Clorox have a demand that far exceeds their ability to supply. Companies with products that support working from home like Zoom, Citrix, and Slack have all seen sharp increases in users. 

The Pressure on CEOs  

CEOs, even under the best of circumstances, are being pulled in too many directions. In the middle of this pandemic and economic turmoil, it’s even worse. You may have been scrambling to apply for emergency assistance from the federal government. You may have had to lay off some of your employees.  

You may be wondering: 

  • What’s the best move?
  • Where will our growth come from this quarter, next quarter, and next year?  
  • How can I support my sales teams to keep revenue coming in and maybe even increase it?  

As a leader, it’s important to know how you will change your vision for success.

Our focus is always on sales growth, and it’s not impossible in this economy. Right now, we’re helping CEOs make sales pivots to turn pandemonium into a path to sustainable sales growth.   

We’re having conversations every day with CEOs to figure out the best path forward, and the answer for every company is slightly different. Rest assured there are answers, but you might have to pivot and pivot again or more dramatically to see growth.

Keep Sales Going 

It can be tough for salespeople to know what’s really going on with customers and prospects with everything in flux. This can make forecasting and delivery a nightmare.   

Any CEO who wants to keep sales strong during tough times needs insight into customer problems and priorities. Your sales and marketing teams may need different skills to get those customer insights. Don’t believe for one minute they can continue doing what they have been doing and be successful and if they can, it will be rare.   

Based on those customer insights, your offering and your message may need to change. A message that once attracted qualified buyers may be completely useless now. In some cases, you will need to find a new market to sell to. Most companies are on tight budgets and are not buying anything that isn’t essential to their success. Your message will have to be that much more focused on how you will accelerate or ensure their success.

Even with the best offering and message for your market, your sales team is probably hearing a lot of objections like, “We’re putting that purchase decision on hold because of priority changes or budget constraints.” These are real and will not be easily overcome. If you haven’t already, prepare your team to have constructive conversations with customers and prospects. Listening will be more important than ever, along with empathetic responses. Sometimes putting a buying decision on hold is not the best decision but your sales team will need a solid understanding to show the customer why it would be better to move forward than to put the decision on hold. The more information your salespeople have, the more solid their relationships are with the right people, the better able they will be to position your company for success.  

Deals are closing and your team can probably save many of the opportunities they thought were lost. Help your sales team focus on the opportunities most likely to close based on the research and customer insights they gather.  Have them maintain great relationships with the others but focus on the most likely. Build a strategy together and triage your pipeline to help your team stay focused on the customer and keep selling. 

Keep Prospecting 

Your customers and prospects are depending on you. They need what you offer. Everyone on the sales team, with help from marketing, should be prospecting. However, prospecting in some markets won’t be successful. Two of our clients sell to hospitality, and that market is not spending right now so they have to find another market. That means their ideal customer profile needs to change. Some research needs to be done to find the best market to pivot to.

Your best source of new business may be expanding offerings to your existing customers. Most of you have a gold mine sitting in your existing customer base. If you have happy customers that are surviving or thriving what can you do for them?

Happy customers are also a source of new customers. It’s more important now than ever to have a formal referral process and training so your team can get a steady stream of introductions to qualified buyers from your existing customers. Don’t overlook this important means of gaining new customers.

Focus Your Company on the Positive 

As the leader, it is imperative that you set an example and focus on the positive but be realistic and authentic with your team. Worried, negative, stressed salespeople can’t do their jobs. 

When markets constrict, negative emotions generally follow. People become fearful. Your sales team needs to stay positive and remember their customers have fear and worry which may cause them to put the brakes on purchases. Despite the circumstances, you all need to stay positive, because negative attitudes rarely work to grow sales. 

Great coaching can help your team win. Just like any sports team that is behind at half-time, they need their coach to help them see things differently and turn them around so they can win the game. In times like these, coaching needs to start at the top of the organization. As CEO you coach your direct reports and hold them accountable for coaching theirs. This may be a new skill or a skill that needs sharpening in order to be effective. Most people don’t know how to coach. Be prepared to bring someone in to teach those skills and be prepared to model them yourself.   

To drive sales in what will be historic times, it’s important for CEOs to set the tone. Get your whole company focused on what can be done, rather than what can’t. Work with your senior leaders to figure out what the sales team will need to be successful. More won’t work right now, we need to hit the “better” button.

  • Ensure positive words flow freely to your team from the top and throughout your team so it will flow to your customers. 
  • Use positive language, imagery, and insights in all your communication with salespeople, colleagues, and customers.
  • When people do a good job, recognize them quickly and publicly. Send personal notes to people, either by email or text. This includes recognizing your customers. 
  • Figure out different ways to measure success that match the climate we are in. 
  • Provide needed training. There are lots of inexpensive ways to do this. 
  • And, for the foreseeable future, every sale should be a cause for celebration. 

Help all your employees understand what is happening in your industry and dispel rumors. Balance bad or alarming news with positive or instructive news. Rather than taking in the constant stream of negative information, look to sources you know and trust to find the good industry news so you can share it with customers and your team.  

These are small steps, but they will pay dividends. Help everyone look several months ahead to a time when things will be better and show them how to help their customers look ahead.

Expert Sales Support for CEOs 

You can reach out to talk about your unique challenges. I have a wide network, deep industry knowledge, and over 20 years of expertise in B2B sales to help you pivot and support the sales growth of your company, even during these historic times. 

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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