Selling During Uncertain Times

For the past year, every executive and sales leader I work with has shared some feelings of uncertainty. The consensus has been that the recent bull market run is too good to be true, and many of my clients were prepared for a recession at any moment. The time has come. Covid-19 has created fear, uncertainty and bear market conditions. On Monday, March 16th, 2020, the Dow Jones fell nearly 3,000 points marking the worst day on record. Many CEOs are questioning their sales leadership as sales teams start missing sales targets.

These uncertain times are exposing and crushing sales teams that don’t know how to help customers make confident purchasing decisions. When the market is uncertain, sales teams that help accounts anticipate change, determine appropriate next steps, and guide decision making can actually see their sales improve while the competition struggles to survive.

In the latest Gartner CSO Quarterly Report 1,100 B2B accounts were surveyed on what factors led to a major purchasing decision. What the research suggests is that customer satisfaction and motivation to change suppliers had insignificant impact on the purchasing decision.1

  1. 2019 Gartner Account Growth Buyer Survey

Since customer satisfaction, the belief that the incumbent supplier is the best choice and likely to be recommended, and motivation to change, a belief that opportunities to improve exist with an other supplier, don’t really play a significant factor in closing sales…what does?

Decision confidence, which consists of the belief that the right questions were asked, the best information had been identified, likely changes had been anticipated, is driving account purchasing decisions. Nearly 70% of B2B accounts are overloaded with organizational complexity, conflicting priorities, and organizational roadblocks, all driven by market uncertainty.

The Buy- Sell Hierarchy

The New Successful Large Account Management by Robert Miller and Stephen Heiman first introduced the concept of the Buy-Sell Hierarchy in 1991. The Buy-Sell Hierarchy 2 (below) is the best model to help understand why customers buy in an era when it’s easier than ever to find information that influences the purchase decision. It evaluates your relationship with your customer — and, more important, how your customer views your company as a partner. According to the Buy-Sell Hierarchy, firms that make an important contribution to a customer’s business or organizational issues are less susceptible to pressure from price, competition, and features and benefits.

In today’s uncertain market the best contribution you can make to your accounts is instilling confidence. Confidence in their future. Confidence in your company’s future with them. Confidence that your company’s offering eliminates chance, solves a problem and adds measurable value. Accounts need to feel confident in the information your sales reps give them. The information sales reps share with accounts ultimately shapes the accounts decision to buy or not buy. How do your accounts perceive your sales reps?

2. Buy-Sell Hierarchy from The New Successful Large Account Management by Robert Miller and Stephen Heiman.

Changing Sales Rep Perception = Sales Growth In Uncertain Times

Sales teams that sell on a level 1 or 2 of the Buy-Sell Hierarchy resort to “giving” and “telling” tactics during times of uncertainty.

  • giving discounts
  • giving promotions meant to capitalize on fear
  • telling misinformation to manipulate a sale

Giving is a responsive posture that operates under the assumption that more is better (more savings, more value, etc.). Telling is overtly sharing opinions, stories, and anecdotes that manipulate an accounts decision making process in your company’s favor. Sales teams that will succeed in today’s market wont “give” discounts or “tell” customers how to move forward. Instead, they will contribute to organization change (Buy-Sell Hierarchy Level 5) by helping accounts “make sense” of their decision to purchase or not purchase. If you want to close more deals your sales team must help accounts assess where they most struggle, be willing to re-scope the solution or issue as circumstances quickly change and advice the account on how to best model the value of our offering 3.

3. Percentage of Sellers Closing High-Quality Deals, By Approach from 2019 Gartner Buyer Survey

Train Your Team To Be “Sense-Makers”

During this time of market and uncertainty and reduced selling activity, invest in training your sales team to “teach” not “tell”. Skip the “giving” of discounts and promotions, and hold your customer’s hand during these trying times. Teach your team how to approach the selling conversation with empathy and a broader perspective that take into account all the unknown factors.