It’s easy for an entrepreneur or a CEO to feel like a leader when things are going well, but the challenge is to keep that confidence and drive in the face of economic downturns, business turnarounds, and stressful personnel situations. Working twenty hours a day, losing your cool, and falling back to a no-risk strategy are not conducive to long-term success.
I saw some practical tips for business leaders under pressure a while back in the book “The Outside the Box Executive,” by Richard Lindenmuth, a seasoned interim CEO, who has stepped in and revitalized more than his share of struggling companies. I’m convinced that his advice is equally relevant to early startups, where the challenges are legion and the path is far from clear.
I agree with Lindenmuth that emotional intelligence and stability is a must in these environments. He calls it strategic empathy, which is sincerely focusing on the individual, but always with the big picture of the business as top of mind:
- Expect anxiety on the team and deal with it directly. When things are not going well, or when the future is clouded with unknowns, expect to find people on the team who are scared and angry. You have to act quickly to communicate strategy, be the role model for calm, and stand up to outliers before the whole team becomes dysfunctional.
- Let them say no, and actively listen to team input. Of course, no leader wants to hear negative views, but it’s important to show empathy and reach everyone on an emotional level, while containing your own emotions. People need to know that it’s safe to express their opinions. Once you get beyond the negatives, most people have real contributions.
- Focus on team members who will tell it like it is. In any organization you will find people who will tell you what you want to hear, or who are fighting for their own survival. Although you must listen at every level, the best leaders look carefully for that middle ground or middle manager that can see the big picture and effectively implement change.
- Don’t send a representative in lieu of direct contact. Lack of your physical presence is read as detachment, or lack of leadership. Direct contact, to people at every level, is the best way to generate trust, respect, support, and action. A recipe for failure is assuming that you can deliver a message once, and get it passed down by subordinates.
- If you see something broken, fix it now. Decisive action inspires confidence. People’s perception of your leadership and trustworthiness is directly related to your word-action alignment and behavioral integrity. Show them what you expect, and people will follow your example. If everyone is fixing problems with confidence, the business will prosper.
- Everyone has to pull their weight in the same boat. Create an environment that encourages and rewards participation and progress, with no penalties for missteps. Define a common goal, such as improving the customer experience, and eliminate any contention between the internal towers of development, marketing, and sales.
- Practice the eight out of ten rule. Generally, out of ten ideas, eight are not usable, but that’s the only way to get to those two good ones. So welcome all suggestions and praise every attempt, which will encourage more ideas. This may also be stated as the Pareto principle, where 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the efforts.
When the business is struggling, it also makes sense to bring in outside help for a fresh perspective. This could be a peer, or independent business advisor, ideally one who has been through a similar kind of struggle in their business. The best leaders put aside their pride and emotion, and listen carefully to guidance from outside the organization.
When real change is required in business, a unilateral top-down business leadership strategy is rarely effective. Successful CEOs and entrepreneurs instead listen, learn, empathize and include everyone in the challenge. With their leadership, and everyone invested in the company’s survival, the odds of success go up dramatically. Are you ready for that really tough challenge?
Startup Professionals Musings
Right now, entrepreneurs and small business owners are likely getting in their own way when it comes to sales, whether from fearing the future or feeling like their offerings are no longer relevant or important. If you’ve lost a few clients or opportunities due to COVID-19, you might lack confidence and assume that now isn’t the time for customer acquisition.
However, this is the perfect time to double down on your sales efforts. Why the optimism? Research shows that while opportunities may be harder to find, some potential prospects are thriving. Almost 30 percent of consumers said they’re not delaying any purchases, and only 50 percent of B2B buyers said they are. Your job is to stabilize your business by finding the companies and individuals who are buying.
Of course, you may not know how to jumpstart your sales team’s efforts right now, especially if you’re strapped for cash. The best part about the following five tools and tactics is that they’re all scalable, and many of the tools offer free, basic versions to minimize your upfront investment.
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Here’s how you can increase sales when the odds seemed stacked against you:
- Refresh your sales funnel
Lead generation is essential for business. That’s why nearly nine out of 10 B2B marketing pros put lead generation at the top of their to-do lists, according to Jumplead. This research indicates that now is not the time to let qualified leads slip through the cracks. Show each prospect that they are valued by following up regularly and delivering on your promises.
A great partner to help you stay on top of your sales funnel is HubSpot. This platform provides a free customer relationship management feature that allows you to organize your CRM for multiple functions across your team, including marketing and sales. HubSpot offers everything you need to proactively approach your sales funnel, such as prospect tracking and automated follow-up emails.
- Plan a “social selling” strategy
No matter where your prospects land on their buying journeys, staying top of mind is vital to make sales. “Social selling,” like when you contribute original content on LinkedIn or share relevant guidebooks on Facebook, can help your sales team build credibility, promote your brand, and stay connected to your audience. The key is consistency. Create a regular posting schedule and stick to it.
Groups are perhaps the most elusive lead generation tool on LinkedIn, but once you crack the code, networking groups will become an easy addition to your daily social selling routine.
Here are some quick tips for joining and getting the most out of them:
- Select active groups. Many well-intentioned efforts have expired in LinkedIn Groups. Inactive groups plague search results, meaning there is no easy way to find your diamond in the rough. Spend time locating relevant groups with a pulse.
- Select groups based on your ideal customer profile. Use simple keywords that describe your business to search for groups within your vertical, geographic location, etc.
- Monitor and respond. Groups are useful only if you engage with the network within. Like other posts and create your own discussions!
- Use persona-based messaging
Getting to know your prospects on a deeper level is essential. Persona-based messaging helps you speak directly to your targets’ pain points at scale, and targeted campaigns lead to 18 times more revenue than broad ones. Plus, when you craft emails to appeal to a specific persona, you can increase conversions by 10 percent or more. Consider creating or updating your target personas (if they existed before COVID-19) and learn where your prospects are at this moment.
- Make authentic connections despite the lack of big events
Connecting authentically outside of large-scale, in-person events is one of the hardest parts of selling in the COVID-19 era. Sales teams often designate large budgets for industry events, in-person meetings, lunches with referrals, etc., but most of these events are canceled for the foreseeable future. Organizations are having to create strong digital presences in order to fill their pipelines with prospects from other channels.
Strategic organizations are pivoting from the high-cost, in-person events to low-overhead digital summits, webinars, and even Zoom happy hours. Creating an industry-focused Zoom networking event will provide an introductory social interaction for your prospects (who have only “met” you via email).
Bonus tip: Use video in your prospecting emails. Vidyard makes this easy with their free screen recording extension. Record a personalized one-on-one message for your most engaged prospects. Putting a personalized video in your emails can increase your email opens and clickthrough rates by more than 20 percent.
- Automate your outbound campaigns
Did you know that it takes about six to eight meaningful touchpoints to generate a viable sales lead?
Creating a strategic outbound campaign takes a lot of research and resources, so automating the process is the key to success. Schedule multiple follow-ups on multiple platforms for the best results.
When it comes to sales engagement, Outreach is a must-have tool for the perfect multitouch campaign. Using templates like the Agoge sequence, you can optimize your efforts by starting from a tested baseline, reviewing the metrics, and iterating your approach.
No matter how much it feels like an uphill climb, don’t decrease your sales efforts, even when times are tough. Use these five tactics and tools to equip your team with the resources they need to keep your company afloat.
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