How to Expand in Periods of Uncertainty
In a modern society where there’s a 24/7 news cycle, and a single tweet can move financial markets and influence customer decisions even in good times, how do we even attempt to keep up in times of uncertainty? The events unfolding around the world have everyone rethinking how to interact with customers.
Reflecting on the current environment, I remember the financial crisis at the end of 2008, which was a very trying time. Rising through the sales ranks over many years, I worked with customers of all sizes. Sometimes I had one contact, sometimes I had many. One thing I paid attention to was how they referred to me. I despised the words “vendor” and “supplier” as I knew that if that was what I was to them, I could always be replaced. I worked hard to become a business partner, and once I became a “partner,” it opened up opportunities for both of us to succeed. After all, business partners help each other, rely on each other, and trust each other. During times of uncertainty, if you have not already achieved “partner” status with your customers, work to find opportunities to build that trusted relationship. It is possible to retain and expand your customer base during difficult times. Here are some ways to get started:
1. Be On Offense, Not Defense
In 2008, after our own round of layoffs, the head of sales came into my office and asked, “now what?” My answer was, “I don’t know, but let’s go ask our customers what they need from us.” The answer was…flexibility. Our customers explained to us that our competitors were firmly holding them to the letter of the law in current contracts, and they feared they could not meet those obligations. So we did just the opposite. We let them renegotiate! We created contracts that allowed our clients to use less in tough times and escalate in the back half of those contracts when things improved. Was it short term pain? Sure. But it paid off in massive long-term gain. We gained market share in 2010 and 2011 with these clients as they appreciated our customer-focused approach in assisting them through a rough patch in their business cycle. That flexibility led to deep, long-term relationships with these clients. Communicating early and often will show you care.
2. Get Creative
Don’t be afraid to ask your customers what they need. And to listen. Each customer is unique. Some may be wondering how they will pay for your services as their own sales decline, and others may be wondering how they will get everyone trained on your software product amidst layoffs. Once you know what your customer needs, offer ways to help. Do they need additional support in rolling out your service? Ask some colleagues to join you in a group training effort. Remember that product idea or feature that was important to them that you couldn’t tackle in the past? Now might be the best time to revisit that conversation. Are they struggling to pay you in the short-term? Figure out a payment plan for them or offer a way to ramp up your partnership to help them increase sales to their customers. Share a best-practice that you see your other customers exhibiting. Offer support where you see a challenge. Customers will face tough decisions. Go out of your way to make continuing to work with you an easy decision.
3. Engage Upper Management and Advisors
In uncertain times, it helps to engage people who have been there before and to elevate the conversations. Your CEO, management team, board, and advisors may likely have survived times like these throughout their careers. Ask for their help, whether it involves interacting with your customers or providing strategic guidance on ways you can weather the storm. Many have been in your shoes during times like the dot com bubble, 9/11, and the financial crisis of 2008. They made mistakes, learned lessons, and are well-positioned to help you think through how you react in difficult times. In the end, you are all in this together, so don’t be surprised if they jump at the chance to help you out. Most of us have influential mentors, again, who have faced times like these in the past. What a great time to lean on them for advice and critical feedback on how they would approach a situation or how they have handled difficult times in the past. Their lifetime of successes and failures can help guide your ship in these rough waters.
4. Become the Solution
While times of uncertainty can be stressful for everyone, they can also uncover opportunities that may not have existed in the past. Are there ways that your service or product can be useful in maintaining or growing a customer’s business while they weather the economic storm? One shining example of listening to customer needs and creating a solution comes from one of our current portfolio CEOs. Given the fact that the incremental cost for many high gross margin SaaS solutions is low, he offered to help current prospects get the product implemented into their workflow and use for free for a period of time. His plan, being implemented right now, enables these companies a solution as they find themselves forced to transition entire call centers to a work-from-home situation. This workforce is typically not a work-from-home group. He also offered to assist their management teams with remote coaching and training. This solution is being embraced and will lead to future opportunities for the company.
5. Your Customer Success Team May Hold the Key
One group to turn to for insight is your Customer Success Team. These are the people who intimately know the details about how you and your customers are interacting. They know what challenges your customers are facing, what is working and what isn’t, and what is on their wish list. They know the influencers, they know who supports you, and who at the company would rather work with another supplier. This group can become your greatest ally - an inside source to the most valuable information during a time of crisis. The success team also has a much different relationship with a client than a direct sales person. This is the team a customer calls for help when things go wrong. Customers know they can rely on these people to answer questions and get into the weeds with them when they need help. Go to them and pick their brains. They are a valuable part of your organization, and by engaging them, you involve this priceless resource as you address this company-wide issue. Work with them to develop a plan to provide an even deeper level of support for your customers, and it can pay off in both the short and long term.
There isn’t a blueprint or a secret sauce to what we are currently facing. Businesses go through cycles and face challenging situations all the time. I don’t know anyone who predicted a global pandemic in early 2020. Accepting the reality of the situation and moving with speed and urgency matter not only to your organization but to those that you serve. Admit to your customers that you don’t have all the answers but want to work side by side to determine what is best for them. All companies will face uncertainty, and in times of national crisis, innovative thinking can set you apart from your competitors, provide opportunities to maintain and build deep relationships, and create long-term success for your company and your partners in business. By using these techniques, I have seen first-hand how well they work to maintain and grow a business, keeping it on track even during uncertain times.