Selling in a downturn – Are your teams being trained with the proper tools for the job?

It’s no surprise that sales strategies are having to pivot to meet the changing demands and context of the current market. This is nothing new – adaptability and flexibility have always been key to sales success. However, it’s the speed of market change that is causing such a headache. Whereas before, companies might be adapting on a quarterly basis, recent events have demanded an acceleration of this process, requiring an even higher degree of agility.

It’s still too early to choose the precise term for the predicted economic environment of Q3 and Q4 2020 – many people are arguing the semantics of slowdown, downturn, recession, or depression – but one thing is certain: it’s going to be a challenging year for sales. However, for those companies willing to apply innovative techniques and adapt rapidly, there may well be considerable opportunity.

“Go for the no”

In a recent article for Forbes , John Greathouse, Professor of Practice at UC Santa Barbara, suggested that the priorities of many companies (particularly SMBs) had to shift, with the protection of cashflow even more crucial than usual to ensure business continuity. To do this, businesses would have to adopt a ‘fail fast’ mentality, or, in his own words:

„In good times, SMBs can afford to devote some of their time and resources to landing huge accounts. However, in the new normal, modest-sized businesses need to optimize the velocity of their cash flows, rather than their average deal size.”

John Greathouse

In his article, Greathouse is focusing primarily on SMBs, since larger companies potentially have greater cash reserves upon which to draw, allowing them to take a slightly longer view of the market. However, one thing which is universally applicable is that companies of all sizes have to be prepared to adapt – and fast – if they are to stay relevant.

No train, no gain

2020 is presenting a perfect storm when it comes to rapid market change – copywriters are struggling to come up with synonyms for the word ‘unprecedented’. Whereas a typical ‘eventful’ year might present one game-changing event, 2020 is throwing up multiple challenges. Global health events have not just changed the way we work, with companies scrambling to adapt to remote working while maintaining productivity, but also who we’re selling to, as traditional customers and markets change buying patterns. Add to this an economic slowdown and a commensurate change in budgets, both for consumer and vendor – and it’s going to be an ‘interesting’ year.

As a result of both the rise of remote working and the onset of an economic downturn, sales teams are having to rethink the way that they engage with customers. The techniques now required to do this are, in many cases, different from those traditionally employed. Mercuri has conducted a detailed survey across multiple industries and roles, to discover how business is changing its training strategies and whether or not the skills being promoted are equipping their personnel with the tools they need.

Key findings

Mercuri’s survey looked at a broad range of industries, from finance to pharma, construction to consumer goods, speaking to executives from C-level, sales, HR, and training. Companies varied in size from 50 to over 5000 employees. There were a number of areas where there was general consensus across industries and roles, but others where the difference of opinion was stark.

Overall, there was agreement that training spend was likely to be significantly diminished in 2020, with 45% decreasing their budget, 30% maintaining, and only 5% increasing. However, while budgets might be being reduced, the money that is being spent is being refocused on specific areas. The highest percentage of respondents are looking at a mixture of different formats (57%), with classroom teaching still featured (32%), but a definite interest in virtual live training sessions (47%) and digital training (52%).

In terms of investing in specific training topics, the top three topics that respondents viewed as ‘very important’ when taking an overview of all industries were, in order:

  • Value based selling
  • Winning new customers / lead management
  • Sales leadership

Remote selling and remote leadership came in a close 4th and 5th.

Interestingly, ‘handling change’ only just made the top ten – a surprise, given the rapid and highly unpredictable nature of market evolution in 2020.

Variations by industry and by role

Although there is general consensus about the importance of value based selling and remote sales topics, there is an interesting level of variation when one looks at the data broken down by industry or role:

Key account management was viewed as considerably important by the manufacturing, pharma, construction, and consumer industries, but was kept out of the top five as a result of being almost dismissed by banking, finance, utilities, chemical, logistics, and IT.

Sales management and territory management also figured highly in the training priorities of pharma, banking, and finance, but was relatively underrepresented elsewhere.

The top three training topics, organized by role:

  • CEO – VBS, winning new customers, key account management / negotiation
  • Sales director/manager – remote selling, VBS, winning new customers
  • HR manager/training manager – VBS, sales leadership, product/tech training

Executives across all industries are united in their belief in VBS and the need to win new customers, while CEOs value key account management, Sales directors and managers embrace remote selling, and HR/training are more product oriented.

Remote selling, leadership, and training

It’s clear from the responses that business has indeed embraced the need for new training topics and methodologies that meet the demands of remote working. While this survey is just a snapshot, it does identify that companies have recognized that there is a pressing need for sales techniques that are fit for purpose in the new reality, both in terms of reskilling teams for remotes sales, equipping managers to manage those teams remotely, and also identifying the rise of value based selling as the perfect way to engage with customers in a compelling and engaging way.

A 2020 Mercuri Prosales Research report, collating relevant data from the last decade to the present day, noted that “80% (of Nordic B2Bs) were introducing new sales channels as a result of changes in customer buying behaviours brought on by digitalisation”. This figure, from their 2017 survey, shows that business has always been aware of the need to respond to alterations in purchasing trends – particularly digital – but the question is whether that change has happened fast enough? The events of 2020, both in terms of remote working and the inevitable global slowdown/downturn, have accelerated the need for adaptability – and training is the key to a proactive, rather than reactive, response.


In future posts we’ll be digging into the survey data on a more granular level, but for now here are our general conclusions as to how companies are adapting to the new reality.

There is a consensus that training budgets are going down, but being refocused on specific areas. However, there is some inconsistency in the approach, with feedback differing from different industries and roles, suggesting that business is still in a period of transition.

The jury is still out on which training methodologies and topics businesses feel are going to be critical in the future, but if there is one conclusion to be drawn it is this:

Companies must learn to identify new ways of selling and associated competences fast and have relevant training solutions on hand with which to adapt, if they are to remain competitive. Those which can shorten the time between predicting sales trends, isolating relevant strategies, and training and reskilling accordingly – these will be the companies that thrive in a downturn.