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Spring Journal

Volume 32, Issue 1

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Henry Kissinger once said, “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” Although this sentiment probably rings true for most senior executives, when crisis does strike, it hits quick and hard, with blithe disregard for the calendar. Its affect on a business – its people, operations, and sales can be debilitating.

Too often, when crisis strikes, sales are all but forgotten. Selling is not a priority because everything else must be. Lawyers, accountants, consultants, financiers, customers, employees, the media – everybody and anybody – demand priority. Your most vital resource – time – disappears.

Preserving sales is vital. But it can be too easily put off, with often devastating results. BakerER, a consulting firm that helps executives remove the strategic and workplace obstacles that prevent business growth, conducted a study of public companies that had experienced a crisis. The study concluded that almost half of these businesses dropped in revenue by more than 25 percent in year one after the crisis had hit. For almost one fourth of those same companies, the sales slope was even more severe in the second year, with sales dropping to 40 percent. If you believe the adage that numbers don’t lie, you might agree that sales become victim to crisis – publicly and immediately.

During crisis, or any significant change, internal and external perceptions of your company shift. Externally, vendors question your creditability, customers question the quality of your services/products, investors lose confidence in corporate leadership, and partners wonder if you will tarnish their reputation through your association. Internally, your sales team is forced to interact with hesitant customers, your manufacturing team faces a morale issue, your public relations and marketing departments are feeling the brunt of the public eye, the human resource department must deal with embarrassed and confused employees, and you must confront the shareholders. Unfortunately, each of these factors can have tremendous negative impact on current and future revenues.

So, how do you maintain your sales momentum during a time of crisis? How do you keep your sales team aggressive and focused when everyone else in the organization appears consumed with the fallout? Below are eight critical tools to shield your sales in times of crisis.

1. The Sales Force Is Your Best Information Source

Your sales team can provide invaluable front line data on the true and perceived impact of the crisis. Actively solicit their perception on customer reactions and uncertainties. Then, ask them the level of trust or credibility your organization has with them – your own sales team. Augment that “insider information” by asking your customers, and other channel partners, the same questions. Discussions with outside analysts and other influencers can provide similar value. Is communication clear and consistent? Does the organization seem to be ready for change? How committed is the sales team to its company? Do they feel connected, or as a disjointed part of the whole? How are virtual sales people, channel representatives, and other customer-facing individuals feeling and reacting? Use this data to paint a three-dimensional terrain that highlights the key vulnerabilities of your company. It can frame and guide your next steps.

2. Rationalize Outside Forces

Your sales team is in limbo. They may not know who to trust, what information is real, who to blame, and most importantly, they aren’t certain about the future. At home, kitchen table discussions are tough or even embarrassing. Spouses, significant others, and family members want to know, “What will we do if you lose your job? How will we pay the mortgage? What if you don’t get your bonus?” Their careers are tied to the company’s reputation and brand – and now that brand is tarnished, beaten up, most certainly not what it was before. Headhunters, competitors, and even customers know that now is an opportune time to poach your best and your brightest. Recognize this fact, and ensure open dialog with your sales team. Ask them how they are handling the situation. What is their “day in the life” experience? Provide them with the communication tools and information that will allow them to deal confidently with customers. When necessary, create incentives to encourage the team to stay on board. Keep the dialog constant throughout the crisis and in the aftermath. The end of the crisis may just mark the beginning of your sales challenges.

3. Refocus Marketing and Public Relations

Your sales effort will need support from all – specifically from the marketing and public relations staffs. Current efforts spent on overall branding and advertising may need to be redirected, for the short term, to a more targeted sales channel focus. Budgets may need to be bolstered or re-allocated. Communication must be swift and aggressive in securing customer, prospect, and analyst confidence. Key customers should be “touched” often. Internal marketing will be just as important. Ensure “shielding sales” is on every employee’s agenda with frequent and cohesive communication.

4. Guarantee Your Best Stay Committed

There are key individuals, at all levels, who will be essential in ensuring the success and survival of the sales organization – and the company as a whole. Identify the key people who must be on board if you’re going to survive the crisis. Then, make that happen. Talk to those individuals and uncover what they need in order to remain part of the team. It’s not always money. More likely, they’ll have questions that relate to the post-crisis management structure and individual careers. Don’t open a dialogue without the commitment to carry it out.

5. The History Lesson

History will play a large part in the reaction and actions of your sales team. Look in the mirror and be honest with what you see. Does past experience consist of broken promises and garbled communication? Was the crisis ignored? Was the sales team “blamed” for not meeting goals without recognition of the landmines buried in its path? What reaction did customers have? If there has been a crisis in the immediate past and the perception is that things weren’t resolved adequately, admitting mistakes or just recognizing failed attempts will be a powerful influencer now. The same is true if history tells a better story. If a previous crisis was managed effectively, use that history lesson as a confidence builder.

6. Re-Assess/Refine Performance Measures

Your sales team has agreed to quotas and measurement criteria based upon pre-crisis factors. Now, to whatever extent, that status quo has shifted. Do performance measures need to be adjusted? Do quotas need to be lowered? Is your sales team forced to “put out fires” rather than sell? Recognize these changes, and adjust the sales team’s compensation measurements accordingly. Keep them simple with clear expectations. Define what needs to be achieved over a period of time. Most importantly, make the change, don’t deviate or waffle. Launch a plan and stick to it. Constant changes and shifts in compensation structures will erode the credibility and trust of your sales force.

7. Encourage Senior Management’s Open Door Policy

Your sales team is fighting on the front line – dealing with tough questions, sweating through uncomfortable calls, and enduring to drive the company forward. To the extent possible, make the senior team available to them for sales support, executive calls and questions. Provide the sales team with an advocate at the highest level of management. Communicate with the customer-facing team continually and frequently. Be honest and direct.

8. Ensure Strategic Alignment

In the end, the crisis, whatever it is or was, will have an impact on your revenue and entire organization. After surviving the initial impact, stabilizing and shielding sales, you’ll want to take a broader look at your organization. What else has changed or needs to be shifted given the new reality? Corporate strategies, marketing positioning statements, communications, and processes all may need to be altered in the wake of the new situation. For example, a product-tampering crisis may require new safety processes to be put in place. Or a financial services company touting trust might want to reposition their communications message after surviving an SEC investigation. Be ready and willing to react to your new reality.

Throughout the crisis you strive to build commitment from your organization – specifically, your customer facing team. Each action and reaction by senior management affects the trust and vulnerability of the organization, including its credibility internally and externally. Keep that trust and credibility reservoir high. Manage it adeptly and aggressively. The crisis will end, but beyond managing your way through it, the organization needs to see the aftermath of the crisis clearly. Planning must consider the new reality. Since it’s most difficult to focus on sales during a time of crisis, it may help to begin dialog with your sales team now. Listening and responding to your sales organization today could help you mitigate a crisis tomorrow.

Tim Gregory and Ed Moed, both experts in sales and crisis management, are principals in Sales Shield, a unique service offering designed to help a company’s sales force effectively raise the confidence of current customers while continuing to successfully sell during a crisis.