How to manage your sales team during a slowdown
Downturn. Slowdown. Recession. Call it what you will.
I’ve been in sales almost my entire career, at companies ranging from Slack to Intercom. When I left for my role in venture capital, we were near the peak of the bubble. Sales was far less efficient than it needs to be today. Every sales leader I’ve spoken to recently from companies ranging from small startups to publicly-traded companies has mentioned that things are getting harder. Budgets are tightening and sales cycles are extending with greater oversight. Clearly, businesses and generally the macro-environment are experiencing major headwinds.
So that brings me to the question of the moment: How do you keep your team motivated and performing? Across the board, these were the main questions that sales leaders were mulling with their teams:
What’s your talk track to your team?
Will you reevaluate quotas and the company plan?
What are some strategies you can employ internally and for your customers?
In this post, I’ll highlight what sales leaders should focus on and discuss actual tactics you can take and immediately apply.
In tough times, it’s important to lead with authenticity. Be transparent; don’t fake optimism. You can be vulnerable and share your own outlook and POV.
Leaders have an opportunity to talk about the team’s history and track record of success. How did you even get here? Look back a year and see what you’ve accomplished.
Drive focus. This is not the time to be a micromanager and get involved in every deal. Trust your team and unblock them by helping them get tasks off their plate and removing obstacles. Focus on the big picture like the key sales metrics that are driving the business forward versus diving into every individual deal. Clear away any unnecessary project work, such as tool evaluations involving new software. Projects need to really line up with near term revenue impact.
Performance Manage the Team
One of your first priorities should be to get to the most efficient team you can. Performance management isn’t fun to talk about, but it’s a critical part of being an effective leader. Evaluate your team. When you’re in growth mode, there can be a tendency to overlook underperformers. Now’s the time to clean up your house. Make sure you actually look at the data — who’s actually performing, who’s efficient? These are more important than who’s most tenured, vocal, or well-liked.
Make sure you retain your top performers. If you can run your team at 95% capacity vs. 110% it’ll give your top performers room to overachieve.
One thing I’d add from personal experience is that you should start this process before your CEO reaches out to you so that you’re prepared and armed for those conversations. This is coming sooner than you think. You’ll want to have prepared a stack ranking of the team across each function. One useful practice is to score both the individual and the role (high, medium, low impact) so you can identify any you might want to transition to a different role.
This is the time to get data-driven about the big picture. Data is key for you to steer your team and business in environments like this.
Maintain forecasting rigor and make sure you’re digging into pipeline. How much pipeline do you have? What are the sources? What’s the quality? You should find yourself evaluating this frequently at a level of depth you aren’t accustomed to.
Take a look at your comp plans, quotas, and forecast a few scenarios so you have options on how to keep your team motivated and do right by them for things that are outside of their control.
A Few Tactics
This is a great time to focus on existing customers. Prioritize retention over expansion, and expansion over new business. Focus on retaining and expanding current customers versus winning new customers. Try to get stickier but selling additional products or expanding use cases. And position yourself for less CFO scrutiny in these conversations. You want to close and retain customers that will be with you for 1, 2, 3+ years. Don’t be tempted to oversell.
One thing I’d add, for completely new business, consider more flexibility whether that’s discounting early months or structuring contracts as 3 + 12 months. In an environment like this, sales cycles naturally extend. Think about discounting or waiving implementation fees if customers sign and implement earlier.
For top of funnel, don’t forget the longtail impact and benefits of content and SEO. Now’s the time to focus on impactful marketing channels but don’t forget to continue to make small investments in content and SEO. Consider tailoring your messaging, language, and positioning as the market changes; this can further be differentiated by SMB vs. Enterprise. Leaders are thinking about efficiency and productivity over growth, so match your messaging with that.
Finally, evaluate your comp plan. Consider quota reductions, spot bonuses, or recoverable draws to keep teams motivated. If quotas or rep productivity shift, you may need to adjust the assumptions in your company’s operating model accordingly.