How Contrary Thinking Fuels Growth During Economic Downturns

Preamble: This article was written and posted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The author acknowledges the human and economic upheaval present at the time. The advice and ideas are not intended to disregard the pandemic measures needed such as social isolation, etc. 

One of my favourite sections at my local library is actually outside the library entrance. It’s a community bookshelf run by a volunteer group to collect library donations. This bookshelf is filled with used books and an honour-system pay box. I love it that our library offers this.

I recently purchased an old book that was originally published in 1954. Given the talk of a looming recession, finding this book was timely. It’s called “The Art of Contrary Thinking” by Humphrey B. Neill.

While the causes of recessions vary, the reactions to them tends to be the same: consumers reduce spending; businesses cancel or postpone projects; and corporations go into layoff mode. Neill calls these reactions “sameness of thinking” and crowd reactions based on emotions (i.e. fear). Considering that humans are fear driven creatures, it’s both understandable and predictable.

Sudden and dramatic change, while unsettling at first, can actually be an opportunity for creative thinking in business. Economic downturns can be a catalyst for examining new market opportunities, and taking an honest look at what’s working in your business, and what’s not.

Recessions also expose the greatest risk factors in your business, so it’s a good time to face those head on and correct them, to reduce their impact on your business going forward.

Even if you’re in essential services industries like IT security and healthcare, it pays to use economic downturns as a trigger to reduce complacency in business practices.

Neill encourages making well-thought out responses to economic changes and adopting a “nonconformist” approach to using your mind. As a leader in your business, you can set the example for your team by taking a contrary response to market contractions.

Given my focus on sales solutions for B2B companies, how does all of this apply to your sales department? If you would like to try a contrarian approach and actually grow your sales during times of economic downturn, read on for my tips on how to do just that.

Pursue New Market Opportunities

How many times have you thought how profitable it could be to explore new target or export markets, but didn’t devote resources to it? It’s likely because you were too busy and perhaps also satisfied with the level of growth in existing markets. Take this time to roll up your sleeves and conduct the research to identify where solid market opportunities exist. 

This research is the first and necessary step in laying out your action plan and budget. Engage your sales team in the process so they can share insights and propose a sales strategy. It will provide a fresh focus for the team during a challenging time. While you may decide not to implement the plan immediately, at least it will be ready when the economy improves. But with the right strategic approach, implementing the plan sooner could be the more lucrative option.

Shift Focus on Products and Services

If you don’t do so regularly, spend some time analyzing reports on your customer buying data. Are certain products declining in demand? Is now a time to offer new products to existing customers, especially if the product will help them in a time of economic uncertainty?

Conducting customer surveys is a powerful way to engage with customers on what products and services are needed. You may be missing out on lucrative upselling opportunities. But these surveys are best done over the phone and ideally by your sales team, as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with loyal customers. Grab my tips on customer survey best practices here. 

Acknowledge Your Customers’ Fears

Entrepreneurs are considered to be some of the most optimistic personality types in the world. It’s what keeps you going in tough times! But your customers may not share your optimism. Recessions are a time of great uncertainty. Many companies try to increase sales with their existing loyal customer base to bring in low-hanging revenue. Instead, work with your sales and marketing teams to come up with affordable ways you can alleviate your customers’ fears. This can include things like complimentary service add-ons and strategy consultations. Letting customers know you have their backs is great PR for your business.

Don’t Cut Your Sales Staff

Now is not the time to reduce your sales force. They are the ones bringing in revenue. However, this may be an anxious time for your team as they face smaller or cancelled orders, a longer sales pipeline and reduced commissions. 

Tougher economic climates expose the gaps in talent in your sales team. A solid performing sales team runs on process, instead of depending on individual sales person talent and natural selling ability. Talk with your sales people and gauge who are the most anxious and frustrated.

This a great time to facilitate creative brainstorming sessions with your sales and marketing teams. There is a goldmine of ideas there just waiting to be tapped into. And rather than cut back on team spending, do this as a staff retreat day when timing permits. It will boost morale and keep the team committed to your business.

Find and Reallocate Wasted Money

You are likely already doing this with your accounting department. Even the leanest companies can find ways to cut costs or reallocate funds without reverting to layoffs. Business leaders share with me that one area that gets too little attention is the compensation plan for their sales team. They know it needs revisiting, and now is the time to do it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you need to implement the changes immediately. But you should begin the review process, especially if it’s overcompensating mediocre sales people, and undercompensating your star sales performers. 


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Photo credit: Gerd Altmann



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