4 Things Your Competitors are Doing to Emerge from the Downturn Stronger Than Before

COVID-19 is reshaping the market like we’ve never seen before. As the pandemic wears on, leaders must determine which way the wind is blowing and set a course for solid ground. Everyone needs to find their own way.

Your customers, more than anything else, are your compass as you navigate these choppy waters.

The best companies are tweaking sales systems, adjusting their go-to-market strategy and rediscovering customers’ needs as they evolve.

Even if your business is thriving, you can’t do nothing—that’s like saying nothing’s changed. And your customers’ buyers might not be so lucky with a potential painful boomerang back to your business. Oh, the layers of complexity and talk about important defining moments…

Related: The Recession Planning Framework for SaaS Startups

When things get tough, how we respond keeps the door open or closed. Thriving during a downturn requires a willingness to listen and experiment—and to hold no assumption as darling.

Here are four actions the fiercest of companies—and perhaps some of your competitors—are doing right now to emerge from the shutdown stronger than ever:

  • Putting the customer first
  • Experimenting with product/market fit
  • Pivoting sales to meet buyers
  • Doubling down on the candidate hiring experience

1. Putting the customer first

Priorities are shifting and will continue to shift. It’s what you do with the “shifts” that matters the most.

Regardless of how busy you are or slumping sales, now is the time to have a laser focus on your customers.

During times of growth, companies can still succeed despite overlooking the needs of their customers. These days, though, people are experiencing entirely new pain points. They’re isolated, insecure and trying to make heads or tails out of their businesses.

Addressing their needs with compassion, understanding and sensitivity while you seek to help is vital to retaining people.

In other words: Go slow to go fast.

Companies that offer reassurances through mapping back to the above are being welcomed and rewarded for their efforts. By contrast, companies using the same old messaging come off as tone-deaf.

Even before the pandemic, 59% of consumers felt that companies had lost touch with the human side of customer experience.

Ask yourself: Do your communications demonstrate empathy and care for your customers? If not, why?

When the defining market trait is uncertainty, a comforting and low-pressure sales experience is key to winning customers, as seen below.


Every communication should help people feel heard and valued—even if they’re spending less.

Also consider how to differentiate yourself, as there are so many choices today. Otherwise, you’ll just be “another ____.”

Here are some ways to stand out:

  • Value: Your product’s benefits outweigh its cost to help your buyer
  • Importance: Your product is critical to success
  • Uniqueness: Your product is completely unique or offered uniquely
  • Superiority: Your product is faster, more effective, etc.
  • Exclusivity: Your product cannot easily be copied
  • Profitability: Your product creates more cash flow than it costs
  • Improvement: The product substantially improves your buyer’s processes or performance:
    • Get better / be better
    • Solve a problem
    • Achieve a goal

Seek to understand and use that important insight to think about creative ways to tackle negotiations with customers you can’t afford to lose. If you’re going to provide flexible pricing or waive fees, make sure communication is open and clear expectations have been set (early and often).

What you do now in sales, marketing, product, etc.—and how you do it—will shape the road for what happens next. Choose wisely.

Mark Cuban said it best: “How you treat your employees today will have more impact on your brand in future years than any amount of advertising, any amount of anything you literally could do.”

2. Experiment with product/market fit

As the marketplace shifts, new constraints are giving rise to new opportunities.

The best companies are refining their product to meet customers where they are today. You shouldn’t be pretending nothing’s changed, assuming your buyer’s business is the same, or try to force customers to stay the same.

You can’t survive a downturn by shutting your eyes and grasping onto your product/market fit for dear life… be at the wheel and keep your eyes on the road,” said Rob Moore, CEO of Crossbeam.

It’s time to stress-test even the most basic assumptions. Begin by writing down all your assumptions, think about why you have them, what your buyer is responding to, then test, record and repeat.

Executing a large batch of small and measured experiments over time gives you the best chance to gain insight into the evolving needs of your customer.

For example, you could:

  • Tweak your value proposition to emphasize security and immediate gains instead of your brand’s reliability
  • Shift from a partner-driven sales model only to embrace a demand generation strategy
  • Adjust your pricing model to accept deferred payments for highly-impacted industries
  • Reevaluate your T&Cs. Are there creative ways you can create winning outcomes that reduce the risk for both parties to get through this. For example, a client of mine who deals in the enterprise had a 30-day out-clause for six-figure+ deals that take months to onboard. Who do you think was cut first as a variable cost?

Tools like BurnRate.io allow you to forecast and tweak financial models for best, worst and expected-case scenarios in an accurate and responsive way.

Out of anything I could ever say, please know that your marketplace will always speak the loudest.

Related: Founders, Extend Your Cash Runway by Taking These Steps Right Now

“The bottom-line is you have to build a lens to allow users to see a new world rather than features to help them see an old world better.” –Bret Taylor, CEO of Quip (acquired by Salesforce).

Stay true to your company vision and what makes you a stand out given what your buyer demands. As you adjust, be prepared to pivot based on your findings for your business versus what everyone else is telling you to do or getting caught up in trying to replicate what everyone else is doing.

3. Pivot with real customer input

In good times or bad, your go-to-market strategy must change with the demands of your market.

This means it’s time to think about your Customer Value Proposition (CVP) and Ideal Customer Profile (ICP). A great way to do this is to galvanize the people that matter in one place.

One of the best things I did during a hard time was convene executive leaders from top accounts and prospects (who weren’t competitive with each other) for an intimate roundtable discussion.

As one of my key customers moderated the discussion, we dug into the top themes and trends collected from their feedback ahead of time. This was a special opportunity to facilitate a conversation that packed a punch for them while helping me remain top of mind without the icky sales tactics.

If you’re going to do this, the topic needs to map back to what’s important to them to command attention. Especially when there are so many virtual meetings available.

Outside of special moments like this, the discovery process to pivot hinges upon speaking with every single customer.

A great way to hone in on your optimal CVP and ICP is via a “film review.”

By listening first-hand to customers, you can more easily test, iterate and tweak your messaging to meet the market where it is versus where you think it should be or want it to be..

A “film review” consists of one person who conducts a call, a second who reports on positive feedback and a third who tracks what needs improvement.

Image source

This team-led approach is a quick and reliable way to redefine your buyer journey and approach. It helps to keep the team cohesive at the same time which is key during times like this.

To be thorough, try different messaging channels to see what resonates.

Tools like Chorus.ai and Gong.io can help you record and review these “film reviews.”

When it comes to really honing what your customers want so you can take meaningful action, now is not the time to assume.

Crowdsourcing can be your best friend when approached properly. ThoughtExchange takes this to the next level through distilling data your target audience is sharing to equip you with actionable insight to break away from the risk of making the wrong assumptions.

As you gather the data, segment your audience into three groups:

  • Segment A is aligned with your existing ICP
  • Segment B is contextually aligned
  • Segment C is no longer aligned

This is a powerful framework to pinpoint where you should be spending your time.

Listening while seeking to understand is a key step in crafting a go-to-market strategy that’s effective.

Remember, the customer holds the keys. Always.

4. Double down on the candidate experience

Smile, you’re on display.

Candidate experience was and always will be important, but the way you treat people now (or don’t), will determine your ability to hire remarkable people in the future.

According to LinkedIn, nearly 46% of hiring professionals said the outbreak has negatively affected the candidate experience at their company.

As companies scramble, hiring is becoming more vital—and challenging—than before.

With so many great people flooding the market, your chances of hiring the right sales leader or salesperson decrease.

Why?

Knowing how to hire right was already a problem before the pandemic.

A sales leader’s tenure for tech companies is 19 months.

Sales turnover is nearly 3X more than any other function.

So, having more candidates to choose from just makes it harder if you’re flying blind with a system that doesn’t work.

The marketplace is flooded with people. You want the best of the best and you struggled to pinpoint the best before. How do you think that will change now?

It certainly shouldn’t be at the expense of a person’s interview experience with you.

The best salespeople want to see that you’ve got your act together. They want to see how you’re leading through this difficult time. They want you to have a strong offering that’s resilient to the market, solves problems and gets sold in a way that won’t alienate people.

Related: Hiring a Remote Employee? Use This Onboarding Checklist

Walk your talk. Show candidates:

  • What the path ahead looks like
  • How they can find success within your organization
  • How your offering has changed and what that means in the short and long-term
  • How buyers are making purchasing decisions now and after the market recovers

Speak in detail about how you’ve adjusted expectations for the downturn and what your team’s performance looks like at the moment. If you’ve had to make tough decisions, that’s okay—talk about it. Candidates will find out one way or the other and it’s less painful to have a real conversation to confirm or deny if the opportunity makes sense to make a well-informed decision together.

Austin Belcak summed it up well during a recent LinkedIn discussion on the topic:

Here’s the big secret, though: The cream of the sales crop sticks with those who treat them well.

I’ve developed a hiring checklist over my 20+ years of enterprise sales, sales leadership, startups and recruiting that reduces the margin for error significantly:

  • Use a scorecard
  • Ensure you know who you need to hire before you begin—don’t approach the interview process as an experiment
  • Don’t ghost if the interview isn’t a fit
  • Share and receive feedback openly and transparently
  • Keep the door open if it doesn’t work out
  • Communicate what’s expected from candidates before, during and after the interview process

Only hire if you know your runway can support it beyond the short term. Frivolous hiring is expensive but can also earn you a bad reputation.

Embracing a long-game mindset to carefully contemplate the big picture is key.

Consider the consequences of a horrible candidate experience:

  • Dissatisfied customers typically tell 9-15 other people about their experience; some tell 20 or more.
  • The business world is a small sandbox, so play nice. You might want to hire these people in the future. They could be a source of referrals. They could be a potential customer, or be in a position to hire you one day.
  • We’re living out loud in this digital age. Customers are making purchasing decisions based on the way you run your business beyond just your product or service. How you treat people is telling.
  • Your employees will treat your customers the way they’re treated.

How you treat people impacts your ability to recruit both now and after the pandemic. Good begets good.

The power of resilience

As the saying goes: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Resilience starts at the top. Taking meaningful action is what earns you a seat at the table, strengthens partnerships, and brings your customers closer to you.

Stay flexible in how you address your customers’ needs. When the market corrects, you’ll get left behind if you haven’t made the proper adjustments along the way.

What was happening with your customers weeks ago versus now will influence what you do and how you do it.

It’s tough out there! Don’t forget to take care of yourself.

“Personal maintenance is the safety net that catches you as you’re weathering failure. It’s not just how you protect yourself when things go poorly, it’s how you focus your superpowers when things are going right.” –Bob Moore, Co-Founder & CEO, Crossbeam

Founder & CEO

With more than $100MM in revenue sold and named one of Sales Hacker's Most Dynamic Women In Sales, Amy Volas is a sales fanatic turned entrepreneur. She was bitten by the startup bug many moons ago and couldn't imagine spending her time anywhere else. She created Avenue Talent Partners to help with the tremendous task of growing startups through some of their most valuable assets—sales leaders and experienced, enterprise salespeople.
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