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4 Sales Tips To Thrive — Not Just Survive — In an Economic Downturn

An illustration of a woman watering a series of growing trees: sales tips.
getting ahead in rough times means we have to expand our opportunities. That’s only possible when we stretch into new areas we don’t know inside out. [Malte Mueller]

Don’t let shrinking budgets and reluctant buyers halt your sales momentum. Build a reputation for quality that attracts buyers, and go after deals outside your comfort zone.

We thought selling would be easier after the pandemic. Instead, we’ve been hearing “no” more often. Customers are fearing for their jobs, tightening their belts, and “starting to freak out.” It’s no surprise that almost 70% of reps agree that selling has gotten harder

After talking with other sellers, and using Dale Carnegie’s principle to “get them saying yes, immediately,” I’ve come up with four key sales tips that can help you land a deal, even in tough times. Spoiler alert: It’s not always about doing what’s safest.

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Sales tip #1: Compete on trust, not price

You might think that during an economic downturn, the most important thing is price. Actually, it’s trust. Eighty-seven percent of business buyers expect sales reps to act as trusted advisors, according to Salesforce’s latest State of Sales Report. They don’t want discounts. They want outcomes.

How do you build trust? It’s the big things, and the little things. It’s filling a jar with big rocks, then sand. I learned this from my dad, who worked in construction during the Great Recession. He was working sun up to sun down in those days, and even sleeping on the jobsite, focused on the big things: getting the job done right, and on time. He lost bids at first, but his work ethic allowed him to deliver the deals that mattered. 

“If you lose the first bid on price,” he told me, “just wait. If you’ve built trust through your actions over time, they’ll come running back to you, after the person who won on price couldn’t follow through.”

The problem is, I see sellers lose focus of the little things, which can be a costly mistake. One client said they chose me because I always responded to their emails quickly. This means there’s someone out there who lost a deal to me because they let an email sit for too long in their inbox. 

The details add up and show your customer the sum total of your credibility. Create polished presentations, follow up on meetings with helpful notes and next steps, and check in to see how your customer is doing. That’s how you build customer trust

Sales tip #2: Go after your moonshot deals

When we’re feeling the heat during an economic downturn, we get so focused on winning that we only take on accounts we know we can win. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck described this as a fixed mindset (“My ability is set in stone”) versus a growth mindset (“My ability can be improved”). 

But getting ahead in rough times means we have to expand our opportunities. That’s only possible when we stretch into new areas we don’t know inside out. Carve out time every day to ask yourself: “What accounts would I go after if I wasn’t afraid of losing a deal?” Those are your moonshots, but don’t let them scare you. After all, there are footprints on the moon. 

Start by looking at your sales plan. This will show you the kinds of industries, company types, and buyer segments that have valuable prospects. Identify the accounts that are high-value, but out of your comfort zone. Ramp up to build credibility with them, whether it’s by researching competitors, reading business books, or asking questions in community groups like Salesblazer. Sell to your fixed list (easy wins), and your growth list (moonshots).

Sales tip #3: Show the return on not investing 

You know the drill when it comes to showing ROI: Quantify the benefits of buying in terms of cost savings and revenue growth. In tight times, though, that’s not enough. People are scared to make big moves, but they’re also buckling under the weight of inefficiencies and unnecessary costs. That’s why “you can’t just show the benefits of change,” said Anita Nielsen, sales expert and owner of LDK Advisory Services, in an interview. “You have to show the cost of staying the same.” 

To show the return on not investing, try to quantify the total cost of ownership (TCO) of your customer’s current solution. You’ll never be exact because you won’t know their true costs. “But deep questioning will get you far,” said Nielsen. “When I dig in with people, they tend to give me numbers that help me make my case.”

As part of customer discovery, Nielsen recommends asking three things. First, how would the customer rate their operational costs, such as the cost of maintaining a clunky system: high, as expected, or low? Second, what are their strategic costs? For example, they may want to enter a new market but their current capabilities will create delays, affecting potential revenue. Third, ask about the latent risk in their current setup, such as the potential for a data breach due to outdated systems. 

Sales tip #4: Be the calmest voice in the room

When I’m on a flight that hits turbulence, my instinct is to look toward the flight attendants. If they’re calm, I’m good. Similarly, our customers look to us for reassurance more than we realize. This is especially true if we’re doing our job right, becoming so trusted that we’re thought of as an extension of their own team. 

Several years ago, I had a customer whose project was initially marked for a 16-week delivery. Then their budget changed, and we had to split the project into two, billing the first part in one quarter, and the second part in the second quarter. “No problem,” I said, cheerful as ever.

There’s something the customer didn’t know then, and never will (unless they’re reading this, I suppose). This request sent me into a tailspin. The people I needed to deliver this project were available only for a specific time period, and our own finance team had stringent rules we had to break. 

Still, I made it happen, and the customer was happy. They will never know the acrobatics and the hair-pulling I went through to deliver on budget and on time, because I projected calm. Credibility begins with perception. It’s critical to tune into your emotional state before customer interactions to know when you’re at risk of conveying stress and negativity. If you’re not able to self-regulate and put on a positive face, postpone the conversation until you’re calm enough to continue.

It all makes me wonder, actually. Are the flight attendants secretly freaking out, too?

When ‘no’ is on the tip of their tongue, guide them back to ‘yes’

The sales process is one big conversation. “Yes” keeps it going. “No” stops it in its tracks. Our job as sellers is to keep the conversation moving, because as long as we’re talking to the customer, we have a fighting chance. 

This is true whether times are good or bad. It’s just that when they’re bad, the “nos” start piling up like Tetris pieces that are falling suddenly faster. 

Doesn’t that sound fun, though? Sellers are a special breed. We love a wild ride. We’re made for times like these.

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Brittany Schmid President and CEO, Dale Carnegie Los Angeles, San Diego, Bay Area, and Sacramento

For the past eight years, Brittany Schmid has been president and CEO of Dale Carnegie in locations throughout California, where she offers corporate training programs to help companies create more empowered and engaged employees. Her parents were graduates of Dale Carnegie training, and she was raised with its principles at heart. Schmid lives in San Diego with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys motorcycle rides along the coast in her free time.

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