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Back to the Future: Three Ways to Calibrate Your Sales Force to Survive a Downturn and Pursue Future Growth

While the scope and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in modern times, the economic retrenchment it has triggered, along with the dawn of a new economic cycle, is not. And when it comes to economic cycles, it’s not just a matter of market highs and lows. Every new cycle lays the groundwork for new waves of companies, and even new industries, to emerge as drivers of economic growth. Historically, when companies successfully navigate economic challenges it is because they use downturns as an opportunity to gain clarity on sales force priorities, including re-examining target markets and customers, sales coverage models, talent requirements and sales capacity.

For sales organizations, there is no doubt severe headwinds exist today. Pressure to discount products and services will increase, the prospect of hitting annual sales targets seems daunting for many, pipelines may dwindle and competitive forces will be pervasive. And that’s just the revenue side of the equation. Many companies will also downsize their workforces. While sales teams are usually not the first functional area to cut employee costs, sales leaders will be under pressure from their CFOs to reduce expenses. Variable controllable costs, such as travel and entertainment budgets, simply do not offer sufficient reductions. The question then becomes, how can sales functions best respond if sales growth and business retention are the surest path to shareholder returns?

While there are several tactical, short-term sales compensation and quota-setting actions that companies can consider to retain their sales team, the reality is that businesses need to prepare for a longer, lower growth business climate. During Q1, the U.S. economy shrank at its fastest pace since the last recession as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic shut-down, signalling the end of the longest economic expansion on record. These numbers point towards the inevitability of recession. Whether one plays out in full, or current events simply temper business conditions to usher in a period of stagnation, it’s now more important than ever to remain proactive by resetting sales priorities, adjusting sales force deployment and refocusing sales force efforts – all of which can pay significant growth dividends down the road.

This article discusses three primary planning areas that can better calibrate the sales force to survive pending business conditions and be better positioned for future growth opportunities. If sales leaders are able to persevere with sales forces with a higher level of “recession-proofing,” they should be better aligned to focus on what they do best: selling and generating profitable revenue.

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