Optimism. Opportunity. Growth. These aren’t the typical words you associate with a possible recession. But Meka Asonye, Partner at First Round Capital, and Mike Marg, Partner at Craft Ventures, know how to find bright spots in today’s doom and gloom market.
These two top-tier sales experts offered advice to sales leaders looking to stay on top of their game in this downturn market.
We’ve captured their best tips for supporting your team and managing your customer pipeline successfully over the next 6-12 months.
First things first: how have things changed for sellers?
Sellers everywhere are feeling pressure to find new ways to reach customers. Between the shift to virtual sales, the challenging economic climate, and fiercer competition than ever, sellers everywhere have their work cut out for them.
Companies have two choices, Meka says. They can blame their environments for poor results or make a plan to hit their numbers for the next quarter.
“If you love the product you’re selling, nothing has changed. The value proposition is still there,” he says.
Of course, Mike recognizes that sellers are facing more obstacles. But for him—as someone who sold through the last financial crisis and the pandemic—this calls for more preparation.
“You need to be more paranoid and unwilling to rely on natural momentum to get a deal done,” he says. “Assume something will go off the rails and have tactics to de-risk and deal with those inevitable obstacles.”
In everything, they agree, the role of the seller remains fundamentally the same: to add value for their clients.
How do you manage performance on your team?
Managing your team’s performance is part of every sales leader’s job—no matter what the market conditions look like. Sales experts Mike and Meka remind us of the two fundamental management practices leaders should focus on.
Review the inputs and outputs of your employees
Every good sales manager pays attention to the activity their employees put in, and the quality of work they produce as a result.
“If you follow just the output, you’re at risk of attributing success to things that are lucky or not repeatable. If you’re only measuring input, then you’re at risk for only measuring activity, not the quality of the work,” Mike says. “Measure the activity and the quality of the activity—that's what being a good sales manager is to me.”
It's important to look both at the effort of your employee, as well as their overall impact.
In downturn markets, Mike also suggests that leaders adjust their strategy to ensure teams focus on market segments with a budget. Because leads are scarce during a recession, sales reps need to hyper focus only on qualified leads—and part of qualifying your lead means ensuring they are in a financial position to buy.
Give feedback often
Continuous feedback is essential for growth. For sales managers, that means keeping a pulse on performance throughout the year.
“If you show up to a review and there is a surprise, then you’ve failed as a manager,” Mike says. “That’s always been my thought with any rep.”
Leaders should give thoughtful feedback throughout the year, so sales reps know where and when to course-correct. Then, when it comes time for a review, you’ll know how the rep has performed and their ability to respond to feedback.
How can leaders find and support sales talent during a recession?
Between the great resignation, quiet quitting trends, and an overall change in how employees view their work-life balance, finding top talent in today’s market is hard (to say the least).
To find and support your A-players, Mike and Meka have a few recommendations.
Place a high value on looking for employees who are motivated and eager to learn—even if they don’t have experience. When Mike looks for talent, he looks for someone who’s a sponge for knowledge, adaptable, and driven to figure out how to get the equation right.
Meka’s process for finding great people relies heavily on reference checks. Not just quick phone calls to check off the box either, but deep dive reference checks that truly give you an idea of what it’s like to work with this candidate.
“No one reference checks deep enough,” Meka says. “They ask a couple high level questions and then walk away. You’ve really got to go deep with these reference checks to find where people thrive.”
Another tactic he uses during the interview process is sharing his organization’s struggles. This way, he can understand how the candidate would solve real problems.
Invest in onboarding
Onboarding can make or break how quickly a new hire can ramp up their performance. While your organization may not have the budget for a full-blown onboarding program, there are free ways to guide new hires through their first 30-60-90 days. Mike suggests creating scavenger hunts for new hires. With knowledge-gathering challenges and skill-building tasks each week, they can quickly build their organizational knowledge.
Meka finds it helpful for new account executives to sit in the customer ticket queue to develop empathy and spend time with the developers to build their product knowledge.
Nurture your top talent through training and coaching
Star sellers aren’t always easy to find. If you’ve got one on your team, retain them through talent management strategies like development opportunities.
Mike encourages sales leaders to offer sales training to their rising stars. The value of sales training is the ability to “crystallize and make a system of repeatable action—like writing a good email or a good cold call.” These kinds of investments help employees grow and the organization scale.
“Bolster that with a plan to continuously coach and reinforce whatever system you are adopting,” Mike says.
This way, leaders reinforce the lessons learned, and change can stick.
Meka agrees that managers should invest time in coaching and developing their people. He says that leaders, especially in middle management, should give feedback on calls, so their sellers can continuously get 1% better.
Both experts agree that leaders must share their institutional knowledge regularly. The faster you can facilitate learning, the better your organization will be.
Manage your underperformers
When reps aren’t performing well, leaders should vocalize what they need to correct. For example, if their product knowledge needs to be stronger, you can assign them coaching in that area.
In these scenarios, Meka looks to see if a rep is self-aware enough to know they are not meeting expectations and whether or not they’re proactively trying to close their gaps.
Give your rep some time to implement feedback. If they can’t seem to make changes, Meka feels strongly that leaders should let them go and bring on someone who can.
Mike agrees. “You don't have time to change someone's fabric or what makes them who they are—especially not in a high-growth startup environment,” he says. “Your ability to learn, how much you care, and your effort are really hard to change.”
How can leaders manage their customers in a downturn market?
It's no secret that the current macro conditions are hard for sellers and customers alike. But this should never get in the way of taking a customer-centric approach. To retain clients or deal with cancellations, Mike reminds us to return to the basics of adding value to clients.
“Cancellation does not start at cancellation. The renewal process starts right when a client is onboarded,” Mike says. “You’ve got to make sure your success team is thinking about renewal from the second a customer is onboarded.”
- Finding ways to add value to their business, and
- Looking at their activity to make sure everything is running smoothly.
Meka also emphasizes the importance of thinking long-term with client relationships. If you value the client, you can pause their contract in challenging times or offer a temporary downgrade on their plan.
“Be empathetic with customers,” Meka says. Some customers might try to use the recession as an excuse to get a discount on your product, but most customers will appreciate the gesture—and your company.
Whatever your client’s circumstances may be, changes in the economic climate provide a new opportunity to get to know their needs better and to try new approaches.
How should sales leaders build relationships with their CEO and investor board?
Sales leaders want to make a good impression on their boards and CEOs. The best way they can do this is to have a reliable growth strategy, which they can communicate upstream to leadership and be accountable for. To do this, consider the following:
Have a bulletproof forecast—and be ready to present it
Going into any board meeting, sales leaders should have a solid prediction of sales figures to present.
“Ideally, you've built this over time where you can call the number at the beginning of the quarter,” Meka says. Always assess where you end up at the end of the quarter, and do an audit to ensure your forecast is always getting more predictable.
Presenting to the board
When presenting quarterly results to the board, Mike says to start with the big picture and keep filling it in with the next level of detail. Investors should walk out of a presentation knowing key points, which include:
- Did you hit your target or not?
- By how much?
- Why did this happen?
- What derailed us?
- What almost derailed us?
Be prepared to talk about the different levers of business and what drove performance by segment and channel. Know your reasons for loss and attrition. The board should leave any presentation with a clear eye view of what happened and what the plan looks like going forward.
When creating and preparing these presentations for the board, Mike recommends using a template each quarter. He keeps the format and style the same each time so that it builds a cadence and repetition with the board.
“I build a system that works,” he says. “I spend time in the board meeting talking about things that have changed since the last board meeting.”
Preparing for this might be nerve-wracking, but it's a good practice to summarize progress each quarter, build repetition, and process change.
Don’t expect your board to solve your problems
Meka warns leaders not to lean on their boards to solve revenue problems. Rather, use your meetings as a check-in to talk about what happened and what you’ll do about it. Discuss problems with the CEO before ever meeting with the board.
Recession-proofing your team and organization
It won’t be easy, but that doesn't mean it won’t be possible.
At the core of their advice, Mike and Meka remind us of the fundamental sales practices that remain constant, even in a difficult environment.
When the going gets tough, keep your consultative sales hat on, focus on customer centricity, and apply management best practices to your team.
Salesroom is your sidekick in selling and can help alleviate many obstacles so that your reps can focus on what they do best—discovery calls, selling and making sure your clients are happy.