Ready for a Rebound

Overcoming a slow start to the sales year

It wasn’t long ago that fans of the National Basketball Association could be excused for turning off a game if a team was leading by 15 to 20 points in the first half. Such leads were mostly insurmountable, even with a half to play.

No longer.

The latest regular season, which ended in mid-April, featured a record 38 comeback victories by teams that trailed by 20 points or more during a game. The previous record for victories after trailing by 20 or more was 30, set last season.

Sales managers whose teams fell well short of first-quarter revenue goals take heart. If NBA squads can reverse course and come out on top when trailing by 20 with only half the game left, it’s possible, even in the world of complex B2B sales, to make adjustments and still meet this year’s sales targets.

Sales slumps are a certainty. How sales managers and sales reps respond to them impacts a slump’s length and severity. Sales management veterans we spoke with and others who have commented on the internet state that a prolonged drop in sales should be viewed as an opportunity to review a B2B company’s go-to-market strategy from start to finish.

Does a marketing campaign need to be refreshed? Is lead generation falling short? Are reps failing to secure enough initial meetings? Is low motivation a problem?

If you’re losing market share to a competitor, it’s imperative to figure out why — fast!

“You can’t solve a problem that you don’t understand. To prevent a slow first quarter from dragging down the rest of the year, the first step is to diagnose what went wrong in Q1,” says Julie Thomas, president and CEO of ValueSelling Associates, a sales training company. “Once you identify the challenge, you can prescribe a solution to remedy it. That solution could involve compensation/bonus/recognition, customer incentives, innovation on the product side, enablement to expand skills, lead generation activities, sales process optimization and/or efficiency.

Analysis and Avoiding Paralysis

It’s important to accurately assess what led to the downturn and not act out of panic. Brendan Connaughton, head of growth marketing at sales proposal software maker Qwilr, recommends dissecting every stage of the sales process, beginning with how your sales funnel is being loaded.

“Are your marketing and outbound campaigns reaching your ideal customer profile? Are you using techniques like lead scoring to effectively prioritize your sales team’s time,” he asks in a blog post on busting sales slumps. Connaughton recommends focusing on fundamentals and implementing small fixes first.

“When you’re in a sales rut, just like when a team is down by a lot, it’s easy to panic and think you must go for the big shots. However, it’s probably not what will serve you best, or what you really need to get your rhythm back,” he states.

Instead, he suggests reviewing the sales pitch to see if it needs tightened up and/or doubling down on prospecting emails and networking efforts. “They may seem like elementary steps, but that’s part of their power. Even small steps in the right direction eventually lead to where you want to go,” Connaughton states.

Sales at Thinksia, a provider of fractional chief marketing officer services as well as marketing and branding consulting, were off to a slow start in the first quarter of 2021. Timothy J. Williams, the company’s marketing and brand strategy executive, says a meticulous assessment of the marketing and sales process resulted in changes on several fronts. The sales team at Thinksia is composed of around 20 members, focusing on both inside sales and field sales activities.

“We revitalized our sales training by incorporating new methodologies and external expertise, emphasizing consultative selling and customer success. This approach not only improved our team’s skills but also strengthened our client relationships,” Williams said. Thinksia partnered with Sales Performance International (now Richardson Sales Performance) to create a three-month intensive program focusing on solution selling techniques.

At the same time, Thinksia restructured its incentive program to reward not just closed deals but the behaviors that lead to them such as client engagement levels, lead nurturing and effective follow-ups. Williams said this adjustment fostered a more engaged and creative sales process, aligning team efforts with strategic goals and significantly boosting performance.

Lastly, the Thinksia team switched to Salesforce CRM, which Williams says allowed the team to streamline the sales process, manage leads more effectively and gain deeper insights into customer behavior. “The decision was driven by the need for a more robust system that could integrate with our other tools and provide deeper insights into customer interactions. This technology-driven approach optimized our sales efforts and led to a more personalized customer engagement strategy,” he said.

The combined efforts enabled Thinksia to overcome the slow start and achieve a year of robust sales growth and enhanced team morale. “Our flexibility and holistic approach to sales performance improvement were key to our success,” Williams says.

Mindset Over Market Conditions

Slow sales periods can be caused by market downturns, but a fatalistic mindset will drag out a soft market far longer than is necessary, says Michael Hinkle, founder of JBI (Just Buy In), a Los Angeles-based sales consulting and coaching business.

Hinkle worked in commercial real estate sales for two decades before starting JBI last year. He shares his insights on selling in good times and bad in his book, “Treasure Hunt: A Common- Sense Approach to Building a Successful Sales Career.”

“No market is ever dead. I don’t care how slow things get, somebody’s doing business in any market,” he said. “You will always find some activity in your market. Are you presenting a quality enough product with a solid enough service level to capture what business is there? You have to ask yourself that tough question when it’s going hard?”

Hinkle said companies frequently reach out for his services when they hit a rough stretch. He works with senior management and individual sales reps on a one-to-one basis. Tough sales climates can trigger some sales reps to revert to ineffective techniques, such as product information dumps, Hinkle said. Managers must reinforce the tactics that have proven effective.

“A lot of salespeople focus on product knowledge and what their product is going to do to make the client’s life easier.

When that’s all you’re focused on, you’re busy telling them all about why they should use the product, yet you don’t even know what their buy reasons are. They may not be looking for your product to be the solution to a particular problem that you’re focused on thinking you’re going to solve. They may have a completely different issue.”

The most effective tool a salesperson has is their business card, not product brochures, Hinkle emphasizes. “I can’t begin to tell you what I’ve got to offer to fix your life until I find out what problems you’re having.” Assure them that you’re ready, willing and able to tailor a solution to their unique needs and you are more likely to close a sale and establish long-term accountability.

Revamp Your Incentive Program

A slow start often requires a fresh look at what motivates our teams. Transitioning from one-size-fits-all incentive programs to more personalized, flexible rewards can make a significant difference, says Marc Bishop, director at Wytlabs, a digital marketing agency.

“We focus on understanding individual motivators and aligning them with broader company goals. This personalized approach not only boosts morale, but also encourages a more cohesive and motivated sales force that’s ready to tackle challenges head-on,” Bishop told SMM via email.

Gabriel Lukov, head of inbound growth at Businessmap, a provider of enterprise agility software that helps clients align companywide goals, says his company implemented a non-cash incentive program after sales dragged. The company previously relied almost solely on a commission structure to motivate its sales reps.

“Giving monetary rewards wasn’t enough, so we introduced a point-based reward system where sales reps could exchange points for unique experiences like team dinners or workshops. This increased enthusiasm and competitiveness within the team,” Lukov said in an email.

Research by McKinsey revealed that up to 55% of employee engagement is driven by nonfinancial recognition. This aligns with research by McKinsey and others that shows employees frequently leave a job because they do not feel appreciated by their company, particularly their immediate manager.

When Jake Butler was director of sales at food delivery company DoorDash, his team of 60 reps who called on restaurants to sign deals with fell well short of its goal in the first quarter of 2022. A three-pronged approach of increased accountability on manager coaching, new partner discounts, and the introduction of additional non-cash incentives fueled a rebound that helped them hit an aggressive end-of-year revenue target.

“We didn’t feel like we got that much out of cash bonuses, and when I talked with reps, they told me the cash incentives lacked instant gratification because they got piled into their paychecks and were taxed,” Butler said in an email. (He has since left DoorDash.)

“We unlocked budget to do fun offsites and raffles when teams hit their goals. The incremental revenue would be far greater than what we’d spend for the incentives, so it was a relatively easy sale to finance.”

Patience, Persistence and Confidence

Sales managers must quickly determine the root causes of a sales decline while making sure to maintain their reps’ motivation and confidence. Implementing extra training signifies a company’s commitment to righting the ship. A focus on fundamentals and a cool demeanor can be contagious.

“The best thing you can do is control what you can and try not to worry about what you can’t. If you can do that and stay motivated, you’ll be able to overcome any bad season,” states Connaughton. “If you take the right approach, it can become your most significant catalyst to success. Instead of letting your sales slump bury you in an ocean of worries and anxieties, let the lessons you’re learning skyrocket you to the best version of your sales self.”


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