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17 tips for selling in a recession

Written a couple of years ago when this latest recession first hit….

Trust is a paradoxical thing. It requires risk-taking when we’re risk-averse. It requires doing the opposite of our first instincts. Recessions are the same. The thing our prospects and clients want to do—cut costs, squeeze suppliers and customers, and scale back plans—paradoxically drives the recession deeper.  Trust is about relationships, not transactions. Thinking of downtimes per se is transactional thinking. Thinking of downtimes as one half of a business cycle is relationship thinking. And it’s what you do in tough times that determines how others trust you in the good times. Trust is based on being willing to put the other’s needs first. But in a recession, the instinct to take care of Number One has the same trust-destroying effect as selfishness does in personal relationships. And it hurts business development in both the short and long run. Building trust in professional services involves four principles: client focus, collaboration, taking the long-term view, and transparency. Here are seventeen trust-based tips for selling in a recession organized around these four principles.

Client-Focus Tips
Tip #1: You’re a practice area head in a professional services firm and project or client
relationship managers report to you. When was the last time you visited your top three or four clients? Go visit, with your client manager. Your agenda? “Just wanted to hear what’s new with you. Besides our own services, what can we do for you?” And don’t even think about charging the time.

Tip #2: You’re a one-person consulting shop. Recessions drive changes in client needs. Can your firm change on a dime to meet new client needs? Of course you can; you’re a one person firm. Ask yourself what’s changed, new, and critical to your clients and prospects because of the recession.  Now ask what you can do to help. (“Increase sales” and “cut price” don’t count.) Then redesign your offerings.

Tip #3: You’re a consulting firm. Don’t succumb to your clients’ and prospects’ argument of, “Hey, we’ve all got to pitch in here, can’t you lower your rate for us.” Pitch in, yes. Make strategic investments, yes. Re-tool your offerings, yes. But don’t lower your rates. It just says you had “padding” before. And an insolvent consultant is no help to clients.

Tip #4: Just to practice the principle of client focus, go drop quarters in someone’s parking meter, or pay the toll for the guy behind you. It’s cheap behavioral training for client focus. And it makes two people feel good.

Collaboration Tips
Tip #5: If you’re a consultant of any type, write your next proposal seated next to your client. Bring all your backup records, rent a conference room, and collaboratively proceed to write a joint proposal. It’s better to deal with the issues there than to deal with the issues at the final sales meeting.

Tip #6: If you’re a professional services provider, sit down with your client and see which portion of your services could be performed more cost effectively by the client, or how your costs could be reduced. For example, if preliminary research needs to be done, ask if the client has someone who could do it, and get approval to rely on it, or use it as a base. If you charge for materials, let the client make the copies and produce the books. When you travel for the client, offer to use the client’s travel service if the client can get a better price on travel.

Tip #7: If you’re professional services firm has underemployed staff, offer to swap similarly underemployed staff with a client. Both will gain valuable perspective and experience without being taken off critical work. The employees involved will feel grateful and challenged. And the linkages between the firms will be strengthened. None of which would easily happen in good economic times.

Transparency Tips
Tip #8: Buy two tickets now for a major cultural or athletic event.  Send one to a highly-favored prospect or client, with a note saying, “We will get through all this,  together, and I look forward to celebrating with you once we do. Keep this ticket in a safe place,  because mine is the seat next to yours.”

Tip #9: Help everyone you know who has been laid off – provide advice, contacts, and/or just listen. These are people who are potentially great clients down the road; but don’t do it for that reason, do it because you care.

Tip #10: If you’re a consulting organization, now is a great time to establish your alumni network. And if you already have one, kick up the level of involvement. Host cocktail parties in various locations. Establish or update the directory. Get your alumni an intranet page, or a devoted Facebook group or other aggregation. Facilitate their networking.

Tip #11: Consider what you can offer your clients’ children. Seriously. A financial planner in Canada offered free investment planning education to a client’s 12 and 14 year old children. His co-workers chided him because there were no fees associated with it. His response was, “Are you kidding? Their father loves me for it; that’s good for referrals. And someday his kids will inherit a lot of his wealth. I’m in this business for the long haul—my lifetime and the lifetimes of my clients.”
Of, if you’re an accounting firm, it’s tax season. Everyone thinks you’re busy. Surprise people with a two-to-three hour clinic for your clients’ kids who are now college graduates on how to do their own taxes.

Tip #12: If you offer a client a special “one off” deal, be clear about why you’re doing it. For any deal you craft now, imagine doing the same deal 100 times under similar circumstances. Would you? Would your client? If you didn’t answer “yes” to both, go back to the drawing board. Don’t worry about what you’re going to “get” in the near term, or even from whom. It all works out in the end when we’re willing to do what’s right. And the end is what matters when we’re living this principle.

Taking-the-Long-Term-View Tips
Tip #13: Once you develop your plans for addressing the recession, share your information and concerns with key clients, including how your plans could affect the relationship. This can create an intense, positive discussion.

Tip #14: Don’t BS your customers about where your own company stands—financially and otherwise—because you’re afraid of looking bad or making your clients or partners worry. Tell it like it is. They can handle the truth. Leave spin control to the ordinary companies out there. When fear rules the land, truth telling serves as an anchor to those who don’t know what to think.

Tip #15: During your next client visit, ask yourself, is there an elephant in the room? A hidden objection, a pricing concern, a weakness, a broken promise? Take the risk and do the counter intuitive thing by saying something like, “Hey, I might be way off-base about this, but if I were in your shoes, I might be wondering …. Is that an issue/concern for you?” You have to unlearn some old bad habits to be transparent. But there are few faster ways to build trust.

Tip #16: Now is the time to ask for feedback from your clients. Honest feedback. Really honest feedback. Now is also the time to offer feedback for your clients. Honest feedback. Really honest feedback.

Tip #17: Tell the truth about your own emotional reality. If you’re stressed or worried or anxious, saying so will build intimacy. We’re not advocating a public panic attack; we all have to manage our emotions well during tough times. But to an extent we’re all in a similar boat right now and being real about it has its own rewards. Not the least of which is you are far more likely to get the straight scoop from your client about his/her reality, which puts you in a much better position to be of service.
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If you’re a leader, be prepared to lead in a most personal way. The month after 9/11, Koh Boon Hwee, then-chairman of Singapore Air, noted how the US airline industry reacted to the drop in travel by laying off huge numbers of employees. By contrast, at Singapore Air, Koh took a massive pay cut; his direct reports took sizable hits; and everyone took a significant but smaller pay cut.

He laid off no one. It’s no wonder that travellers, employees and shareholders alike are loyal to such companies. They live the trust principle of long-term focus, and are richly rewarded for it.
Editor’s Note: Mark Slatin, Andrea Howe, Stewart Hirsch, and Sandy Styer contributed to this article.  Charles H. Green is a Contributing Editor of RainToday, and a speaker and executive educator on trust-based relationships and trust-based selling in complex businesses. He authored Trust-Based Selling and co-authored The Trusted Advisor. He also leads Trusted Advisor Associates. You can reach Charles at