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Selling During a Recession: Q&A with Bridget Gleason and Chris Grams Ashley Dotterweich

Tidelift’s sales and customer success leader Bridget Gleason and marketing exec Chris Grams recently shared their thoughts on sales priorities in a downturn, and how organizations can adapt their revenue teams to selling during a recession.

After the session, Bridget and Chris answered questions from the Heavybit community about selling during a recession. Read on to learn how to focus your sales initiatives on high impact activities, navigating changes to buying processes, and hiring sales roles during a recession.

During your talk, you said that sales teams should focus on fewer leads during a recession. How do you decide that it’s time to drop a prospect? Are there different signals to look for in a downturn?

Bridget: One of the most important things in sales is being good at disqualifying. Sometimes we hang on to leads because it’s something to do. But we can’t afford to waste time right now. Disqualification is important. In a downturn like the one we’re currently in, start by looking at their financial situation and their industry. Right now, for example, if I’ve got a whole bunch of leads of people that are in the food and beverage industry, that’s perhaps I should just let those go.

I would evaluate leads based on the strength of your value proposition, the problems they’re experiencing, and the industry they’re in. If you just find no traction or you find out something new — say they recently lost a lot of money, or they’re in the middle of a merger, those may be signals to move them aside.

You can always come back to them. Let marketing nurture them for a while, but in terms of a sales target, look for someone that you have a better chance of communicating with.

Chris: Last year Bridget and I decided to change our strategy around sales and marketing to a more balanced approach that involved a lot more account based marketing and account based sales. Now we’re spending more of our time on outbound account-based efforts towards the key targets that we’ve identified as good in our COVID Financials model. We’re doing outbound to try to take our fate in our own hands versus waiting for what comes inbound.

That’s not to say we’re not still doing inbound digital marketing. We are, although some of it is even more targeted than it was before. But we’re spending extra time with those key targets — about 75 accounts that we really want. And we’re spending a good percentage of our time going after those accounts.

Again, this isn’t a great time to go out with a hard sales message. So we’re taking advantage of some of these marketing assets we have and using it as an opportunity to educate and build deeper relationships with some of these companies that are larger potential opportunities. Hopefully a couple of months from now we’ll be well positioned to be able to close some of those deals quickly.

Bridget: I don’t want anyone to be under any illusion that Chris has a giant marketing team and staff of writers that’s creating this content. We’ve got a lot of individual contributors from across Tidelift. Somebody on the sales team wrote a blog post, and then is also doing this children’s story. Somebody on the product team wrote a piece that was picked up in The Wall Street Journal.

At Tidelift we’re really big on bad first drafts. Just get it out there and do it and just communicate authentically. So you don’t need a big marketing team to be able to start to put out content that is just authentic.

Chris: Yeah. One of my tricks is that I have a couple of searches in Slack for when I think something will generate potential blog post ideas. People will see me pop up when I see something that I think would be a good blog post idea with the little ear emoji in Slack and I said “Did someone say blog posts?”

And usually I can convince the person to actually write. That’s how Lauren’s post started. She made a comment about working from home and having kids and I came in with, “Did someone say blog post?” She didn’t have time to write it, so she just wrote an outline. I turned it into a draft and then we were in The Wall Street Journal. You really have to push. But again, like Bridget said, everyone’s in sales at our company. Everyone writes content at our company too, if I can convince them.

Right now many teams are reevaluating their budgets, and purchasing decisions can come under more scrutiny than before. How can teams break through barriers within their prospects’ organizations and empower developers to champion us internally?

Bridget: Reach out on wherever you can get an introduction, a warm introduction. I would say that’s always helpful. When you think about who you let in the front door, you let in somebody you know, you let in somebody who says, “Oh I’m a friend of so-and-so.” The closer the association, the better you’ll be able to facilitate a conversation. So use connections wherever you can.

Chris: Create content geared for different personas. We did a presentation that was sort of for you to convince your team to use Tidelift. We actually have a version of basically our corporate presentation that’s more designed for an internal person at a company to give to other people on their staff. Then we have some supporting materials around that. You can go download, sort of convince your team, convince your boss type materials from our website. But then we also create stuff that’s geared to different personas. For instance, we have a free trial that’s geared for the developer persona. It’s mostly promoted to channels where our developers might come, like on individual open source package websites.

We just partnered with 451 Research on a report about our space that we’re in, managed open source. I don’t think there is a developer on earth who would be interested in reading that, but the managers would definitely be interested in reading that and understanding the space. So figuring out how to meet your personas where they are and create content that educates and is valuable to them has really been sort of what’s worked for us. We try to create a bunch of different tools. They don’t all work, so we test a lot of different things and we see what sticks.

Our big thing right now is something called slide docs. Nancy Duarte is the creator of these, she’s an amazing designer. She basically said, who wants to read a white paper anymore? Nobody wants to read white papers. So she created these things that are halfway between like an old white paper and a presentation, but a presentation that nobody has to give, so they’re just readable, well-designed, beautiful documents. Those have been hugely successful too because somebody internally can read them, but it’s a short thing they can send off to their boss and have their boss read in a minute or two versus the white paper that just sits in a folder that they never look at.

Bridget: Also just making sure that the messages that are being sent, I would continue to reach out to the managers also. Because if they’re hearing things and you’ve got a strong message to them about cost reduction specific to what’s going on now and then they’re getting the pressure from developers, you’re going to have a more compelling, and it’s actually great to be able to do it that way.

What should we do if we have trouble getting to the manager or decision-maker, if the developer is reluctant to introduce us? Is it too pushy to go around them and reach out to someone else on the team? 

Bridget:I think it’s okay, but you have to be careful. We get the question a lot internally where we also have developers who are downloading and using the trial. We’ll make sure that the message that we send is thoughtful and we may say, “Hey, we’ve interacted with several people on your team around this product. We’d love to have a conversation if you’re interested and tell you…” So there’s ways to do it that are not pushy and salesy. Just be informative and educational.

Chris: But we’re absolutely not okay with just having a single point of failure in an account where you have one contact, and the entire hopes and dreams of closing that rest with that one person. We try to get as many people on the account as we can to have backups in case that person goes on parental leave, or if they lose their job or something.

We’ve had that situation where we’ve had big accounts before where we just sort of are all resting on one person responding to our email and they don’t respond for two weeks and that’s no fun. So it’s always a key goal is to have as many different avenues into a key account as you can.

How should POCs operate in an environment where you’re trying to close deals faster? We’d talked in the past about how to approach POCs, how long they should be — how has that changed?

Bridget: We’re actually having that discussion right now. The way that we’re thinking about it is we think about what sort of value we want to deliver, and what the success criteria is for the pilot. You should be really clear about what can you prove there and for what kind of use case. So if sales wants to do a two week POC we’ll ask the technical services team, “What success criteria can you prove out in two weeks?” And they said, “We’re not going to see results in two weeks.”

So we started building up, all right, what can you show in four weeks? What’s going to take three months? So we first did that exercise, then we went back and said, “All right, if we want to make them shorter, what can we demonstrate in two weeks?” Because I don’t like doing POCs longer than two weeks. I don’t like a free trial longer than one week and I don’t like the POC longer than two weeks. It turns out that we altered the success criteria that was still important, but it’s something that could be demonstrated within that two week period.

You’ve got to look at just map out what’s realistic in terms of success criteria. For regulated industries,  sometimes it will take six months to get a package, or six weeks to get a package approved. So we can show in two weeks a process by which that will be able to happen and how it will happen more smoothly.

Another thing on a POC is you better have the right group demonstrating it. When I was at a previous company, we would have teams do POCs with log files that were non-critical. So they would finish a POC and say, “Yeah, it gave me information but I don’t really care about that information.” It’s because they picked the wrong team. So we had really strict criteria of even when to start a POC. So again, making sure you go back to the right targets, you have the right success criteria, and it can be proved out in the amount of time that you’re allocating.

What are your thoughts on free POCs or free trial periods?

Bridget: You don’t want to be the only one with skin in the game, where you’ve got people that are sort of evaluating your product but it doesn’t really matter and it’s not guaranteed to lead to something. We would agree to a free POC if the success criteria is clear and that there’s agreement if we meet the success criteria, then we are moving forward with a purchase.

How has the recession impacted your approach to deals and discounts? Do you change the way that you prioritize contracts from multi-year to single year?

Bridget: One of the things we haven’t heard is to make the product cheaper. We haven’t heard it once, and I’ve actually never seen it work across the board. There are things that you may want to do to reduce friction to get started. Sometimes, if we know that a certain department has a certain budget amount that they need to get under, we can work out a contract where it builds as it goes. I wouldn’t discount to discount, but if there are ways that you need to accommodate a particular peculiarity within a budgeting process, I would certainly consider that.

If we want it done within a certain timeframe, we may use a discount. Based on volume or multi year, we always look at having end of the quarter specials. I’ve seen discounts done in the past if they agree to do a customer testimonial or a case study or something like that.

I think the key whenever you give a discount is to make sure to frame it as “If I give you this discount, then this is what I get from you.” Because otherwise you’re saying that the product isn’t as valuable as you said initially, and that erodes trust.

Is hiring someone for sales right now a wise move? How do you decide if you have enough momentum to hire?

It really depends on the company, the salespeople you have, and the amount of deals that they’re processing. The best way that I’ve ever found to do sales capacity is looking at a combination of inbound volume and the amount that they can do outbound. What is the capacity in terms of activity? What is the yield, in terms of what you expect that they should be able to produce?

I work this with our CFO and we’re kind of always looking at sales planning. Right now we’ve got enough headcount to handle what we’ve got now and if we need to probably through the end of the year, but we always keep an eye on that, COVID-19 or not. I would be a little bit more conservative right now, because I think it’s really hard on both individuals and companies when you hire and then have to lay off.

So I would err a little bit on the side of being conservative. But I think you should always have a good pipeline of people who you’re talking to in the background. It’s really all about modeling. Salespeople would always rather be a little bit busier and have too much demand than they would to have too little. So I think we can afford right now to just wait a bit before bringing on new folks.

Learn more about selling during a recession

To learn more about how your sales and marketing teams can adapt to an economic downturn, be sure to watch Bridget and Chris’ full presentation on Sales Priorities in a Downturn. And stay tuned to the Heavybit library for more videos and articles on managing your business during a recession.

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