Leadership tips for driving sales in a recession

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

Between the rise in interest rates, energy costs, and general cost of living, businesses are feeling the pinch. Poor morale, meanwhile, adds fuel to this fire. Businesses can’t just stop growing, but how can you keep your sales team motivated in such challenging conditions? Alexis Potter, below, MD at BauWatch UK, a site security firm that depends entirely on outside sales – which is not an easy feat in the current climate. Here, he guides SME readers through his essential advice for motivating sales teams in a tough economy.

Successive interest rate rises over the last year have significantly increased the financial pressure on businesses big and small. We’re all still feeling the impact of the fallout from last Autumn’s disastrous mini-budget, and while we may be teetering on the brink of a recession for the next while, there’s an art to sales prospecting in a tough economy.

When executives focus anew on top-line growth, as so many are doing now, their mental checklist nearly always includes questions about the salesforce. How can its performance improve? How can it support business growth? Some assume, far too simplistically, that if you want more sales, you need more salespeople. This is a conundrum that I faced during the Arab Spring of 2011. Almost overnight, the property business I worked for saw its entire client pipeline collapse. But by the next year, my team had managed to rebuild this pipeline and come back even stronger.

There’s an old adage that recessions are temporary, and growth always follows. And at the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s up to leadership to steer the ship. My best secret is to focus on the things you can control during a recession. This means investing in what you already have – from focusing on customer retention to giving your salespeople the right training, this is what keeps sales-based businesses afloat during hard times.

Leading from the heart 

First, be empathetic. Don’t forget that as much as a recession affects your business, your employees will be worried about their security. It’s important to reference key areas of concern for your people, which are usually job cuts but can also include changes in leadership, their job role – and even the location of the business.

All have a huge impact on welfare and morale. Speeches meant to ‘rally the troops’ can fall flat if you don’t recognise the basic economic stresses of your employees’ lives, including whether or not they can afford to feed their families.

Communication is so important, and you need to show your team that you understand what’s personally at stake.

Internal investment

During an economic downturn, it’s vital to provide your team with the resources they need to succeed, especially if they’re going above and beyond to accomplish goals. Listen to feedback and suggestions, especially from frontline employees, who often have more insight into challenges and issues affecting company performance.

A wise leader will focus on strengthening existing resources. For sales-driven businesses, this means nurturing the skills of the sales team – the heartbeat of the operation. Sharpen skills, boost morale, and turn your people into a force to be reckoned with.

And don’t forget your customers. When the economy is tough, playing it smart on the home front by doubling down on client retention is the secret sauce. Keep them close, make them feel valued, and they’ll stick around. It’s not just good business, it’s survival, and it’s a lot easier to keep existing clients than to win new ones.

All in it together

Be transparent about your business’s financial health, including current revenue and reserves. Being honest about exactly where your company stands can ease minds and may even increase loyalty.

As well as being worried about job security, people will have opinions on the goings on. If left unchecked, gossip and hostility can spread – even if it’s not coming from a bad place. You need to keep your finger on the pulse when it comes to how your people are feeling. Soft surveys like net promoter scores can also help keep tabs on team satisfaction and confirm if you’re doing things right by your team.

Above all, thank people often for the work they do.

I never want my team to feel like it’s ‘us and them’ when it comes to management. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty when it comes to motivating my team. That must be why I recently ended up donning a chicken costume on an all-company call – the result of a lost bet that the sales team couldn’t hit their ambitious quarterly target.

While I’m not suggesting that we all swap our suits for feathered alternatives, laughter is often the best medicine, and this kind of light-hearted camaraderie with your sales squad can be a great way to gain your wings when it comes to boosting morale. You may not be able to stop the domino effect of a recession, but leaders who face tough times with honesty, integrity, and a good sense of humour can inspire others to do the same.

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024