A CSO’s New Year Action Guide for Uncertainty

Chief sales officers must anticipate and prepare for changes in the environment that can threaten business success.

The mixed signals from the economic, political, geopolitical and trade dramas of 2019 show little sign of clearing, but chief sales officers (CSOs) must position their teams to drive business growth no matter what lies ahead in 2020. Three actions are critical to take now:

  • Prepare strategic plans for uncertainty, economic or otherwise
  • Manage costs while maintaining sales effectiveness
  • Leading sales talent amid changing economic conditions

Prepare strategic plans for uncertainty, economic or otherwise

Strategic plans must be fluid enough to adapt to changes in the external environment. Periodically assess the organization’s ability to respond to disruptions in the economy. When changes are necessary, make sure to have a communication strategy that keeps every part of the sales organization aligned.

Actions to take now:

  • Prepare the sales organization proactively to respond to changes in the economic environment and actively communicate these changes to the organizational leadership and sales force.
  • Define and monitor strategic triggers that are the leading indicators of a turn for the business and communicate them broadly so the entire organization is aware when a change is on the horizon.
  • Evaluate the function’s current effectiveness at key sales activities and its ability to execute strategic plans.

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Manage costs while maintaining sales effectiveness

During uncertainty, sales executives’ first instincts are often to stop discretionary spending, lay off staff, reduce training and cut capital investments. Successful sales leaders consider the possible unintended consequences of these actions and focus on the long term. CSOs should apply a disciplined, holistic and sustainable approach to optimize rather than simply cut costs.

Actions to take now:

  • Benchmark key sales investment metrics to know where the sales function currently stands.
  • Consider cost reduction alternatives that lead to scalable cost savings. 
  • Evaluate and agree on a set of longer-term investments to protect through any period of budget pressure.
  • Assess business continuity impacts, and ways to minimize those impacts, in the event of reducing technology or other external operating expenses.
  • Engage business-unit leaders to develop two to three actions to grow immediately without increasing selling expenses. 
  • Balance cost reductions with productivity investments that can help maintain top-line activities, driving sales growth while at the same time cutting costs.

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Lead sales talent amid changing economic conditions

Without a high-performing sales team, organizations will fail to survive changing conditions in the turns. As organizations become more risk-averse they risk losing their best talent by hampering seller creativity and innovation in individual deals.

Gartner research on sales culture shows that skilled sellers who operate in a team climate characterized by high levels of autonomy, collaboration and creativity are, on average, 15% more likely to stay with an organization. This is compared to sellers whose organizations stress strict process adherence.

Proactively develop and role model a strategy for talent management that encourages managers to coach in a way that promotes recession-proof skills and minimizes departures of high-performing sellers.

Actions to take now:

  • Limit productivity declines and departures of high-performing sellers by developing recession-resistant skills in reps and coaching them in a way that encourages innovation and ideation.
  • Identify sales approaches that yielded results in the last downturn, and modify training or other enablement to quickly reprise those behaviors, skills and processes.
  • Boost and reinforce sellers’ business acumen and listening skills so they are capable of uncovering vital information about how customers are preparing — if at all — for a downturn and how it would affect customers’ needs and relationship with your organization. Doing so, sellers can uncover new business opportunities and provide meaningful services to customers.
  • Encourage frontline managers to coach for creativity and problem solving, connect sellers to the company’s vision, and help them understand and align their work to the overall strategy.
  • Establish a focused strategy, in tandem with HR/recruiting, to lure top sales talent and leadership away from competitors during a recession.

Download now: Winning in the Turns: A CSO Action Guide

This article is based on insights that are part of an in-depth collection of research, tools, templates and advice available to Gartner clients. Gartner for Sales Leader clients can read more in Winning in the Turns: A CSO Action Guide.

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