International sales leaders usually like to feel like we are ready to deal with anything that the markets may throw at us. However when the worst case happens, international sales managers are often caught unprepared. So how to sell during a crisis?
Whilst the pandemic may have been a so-called “unprecedented crisis“ you can expect crises of various kinds over the years if you stay in the industry. Of course not all crises are created equally and hopefully borders won’t close again to the extent that we saw in 2020 however other kinds of crisis can be expected to occur.
What kinds of crisis can affect your international business?
These fall into a few categories. The worst kind of things that can go wrong in your markets are probably things like wars breaking out and the associated sanctions imposed by the international community. I know a lot of people who did good business in Syria or Iraq prior to the problems of the past years, but right now opportunities are limited. Don’t forget or underestimate terrorist threats here too – many companies didn’t allow their international sales teams to visit Israel in say 2002-2004. I was sometimes the only overseas manager who had visited my partner regularly.
There are also all kinds of natural disasters which might happen to disrupt individual markets or whole regions. This can include things like earthquakes, typhoons, or volcanic eruptions. Think about the devastation caused by the tsunami in 2004 for instance. If you are selling into markets which are prone to such events, be that Turkey or the Philippines then you may need to plan for the eventuality of disruption.
On the slightly less drastic side at least in terms of human life there are things such as regulation changes, financial crises and currency collapse, or bankruptcy of a sales partner.
However, a fire in a factory, machinery breaking down or a key team member leaving the company can all effectively provoke a crisis if you’re not adequately prepared. Raw materials shortages are also causing an increasing number of issues. I’ve had this problem in the past with infant formula & many car manufacturers have waiting lists of up to 16 months right now for new vehicles due to the global chip shortage.
Product recalls can also lead to media crises that spread across the globe like wildfire in these days of digital connectivity.
Oh, and if you’re really unlucky there could be a pandemic.
The only thing which is certain is that crises will always occur whether of the minor or the major kind with shorter or longer term consequences. They can’t be ruled out and should always be expected. Therefore it pays to hope for the best but plan for the worst.
Range of responses
There are many possible responses to all different kinds of crises and the one which is appropriate for your situation depends on the likely timescale that a crisis is going to last. However of course the length of a crisis can’t always be well estimated at the beginning. Who would have imagined in March 2020 that in February 2022 we would still be in the midst of a pandemic?
If you only plan for the ideal scenario though, you will only add to the panic pressure and stress of your teams instinctive response should an unexpected problem occur. All sales managers should have realised by now that crisis management is really tough. According to a study by Deloitte though only 49% of companies actually have proactive plans for likely crisis scenarios.
Is your team set up to thrive or will they crumble under your leadership when the next crisis arrives? What things can you consider to reduce the emotional impact on your team whilst effectively managing the crisis situation?
In order to effectively lead your team through a crisis it will need a flexible and courageous approach.
Survival is priority
When difficult circumstances arise it is up to you as the international sales manager to discuss internally whether a market needs to be retained at any cost or whether you may have to give it up. This is likely to be something that has to be regularly reviewed if a situation goes on for longer than expected.
Whilst on paper that may be a relatively simple calculation for the financial department to carry out and decide upon, it can be more complicated if you’ve been working with a partner for many years. After all these are the livelihoods of people we are talking about not just numbers.
This is a huge topic on which whole books have been written. I just want to touch on it here to say that especially for international business it pays to prepare a catalogue of foreseeable potential risks which you regularly review and grade according to their likelihood. The next step is to at least have some kind of plan about what you will attempt to do if the worst case arises.
It should be a regular process to take measures to reduce those risks as far as possible, taking into account the fact that some risks are geopolitical or simply down to the forces of nature. Anyone living in San Fransisco knows that at some point there will be an earthquake for example, so buildings are constructed accordingly as far as possible.
If you have over exposure though to a single market, such as Brazil, or rely heavily on one single product or one production line then you should contain consider the options for alternatives. If you sell products which fall under the “dual use” agreements then this becomes a more sensitive topic where you need to ensure your teams are trained & prepared for any changes in the rules.
eg. If Russia is your primary export market, then you need to have a plan in place for the event of regulatory changes or sanctions being imposed by the international community.
Many companies had good business in the past with Iran, but were forced to stop due to international sanctions. If your company has these kinds of business then you need to also have plans in place to safeguard your business survival if something goes wrong.
What actions should you be taking as a sales leader in a crisis?
Explain to the team
It is your role to explain to the team how you see the situation.
Depending on the severity of the crisis which has occurred there may be a certain amount of confusion or even panic. You should stick to the reality as far as you can see it at the present time without venting or causing additional concerns amongst the team. Transparency should be your watchword at this stage as far as possible.
Encourage the team to share their thoughts and ensure that you have clear channels of communication for a dialogue.
Brainstorm possible solutions
Encourage the team to give you their ideas, thoughts and feedback on potential solutions to the situation. It is important that you accept that certain cultures may not be so open for this. For example if you have a team in a country such as Russia or China they may expect a leader to show strong leadership and not be seen to ask the team for solutions. To some extent this will then come down to the culture within your company which you have grown in the period prior to the crisis.
It is important that the team should feel that they are involved in the solution even if perhaps they have been a contributor to the problem.
Even if a specific team member is responsible for a crisis (e.g. if a contract has been lost or a relationship with an important partner seriously damaged) don’t blame. It’s important to show a united front at this time and for you to take care of the health and well-being of your team during the course of whatever is to come.
It’s hard psychologically on your team to be confined to the office or home for an extended period of time, so it’s essential to be cognisant of their mental health.
Leading international teams during a crisis can be extremely stressful so you need to also consider your own health & wellbeing. (See my tips on self care for business travellers, which can equally be applied to stressful periods at home)
Focus on what you can control
Many events which result in global crisis result in situations which seem completely outside of your control. However by focusing on how you react to those events you can at least retain a modicum of control.
Documenting steps taken along with which solutions worked can also help for future crises. For events directly linked to sales results such as a regulation change meaning that products can no longer be imported, or a delay in obtaining a recertification, having a playbook of strategies that have been successful in the past can be helpful.
In a crisis cash is king. It is not the time to be extending the payment terms of your clients except in exceptional circumstances. If one of your markets is experiencing a currency collapse, you may feel that it is worth to offer extended payment terms to your partner to ensure that you at least receive part of the money. In the end the alternative may be to receive nothing so an extended payment term is the lesser evil & if you have a long business relationship sheer human decency may demand you offer this kind of support at least for the payments open at the time the crisis occurs.
You might also consider the direct sales model mentioned below. If you can move a portion of your sales to a direct to consumer sales solution (e-commerce) then you will shorten your cash flow cycle, reducing your risk exposure.
Keep the costs under control, but don’t reduce marketing spend unless you really have to. It’s better to make perhaps drastic changes in how you use your budgets than to cut them completely.
Look at your business models
If you are find yourself in the middle of a global crisis be that financial or, heaven forbid, another pandemic, then it’s necessary to consider how your business needs to change to continue to grow internationally.
That may mean that you look to diversify your product portfolio.
You can analyse how clients are using your product and what they actually need now in order to potentially find new uses for your products. E.g. during the pandemic the need for contactless activity grew exponentially so it suddenly became interesting to install contactless sensors in lifts in buildings.
One strategy which has been proven to work when thinking of how to sell during a crisis is to leverage the lipstick effect. Consider how you could offer a product that is perceived as a small indulgence which people can keep on buying at this time, to keep your brand name at the forefront in their minds.
Diversifying your customer base or perhaps the countries in which you are working.
In the midst of a crisis changes that otherwise might have taken many years to come about can be accelerated thus providing additional opportunities in new market segments. Or customer groups who were not deemed high priority could be tapped in the event of other business collapsing.
What is trending in the markets you are working in (tools such as “Google trends” as well as discussions with your partners can help establish this)? And how can you use this for your own sales?
Think about the channels and the models by which you are selling.
By this I don’t just mean a change to embrace e-commerce or omnichannel solutions but a true consideration of how your your business model might change.
Instead of selling B2B you might consider a pivot to sell directly to consumers. Or you could consider different models entirely. During the pandemic Daimler changed the business model for leasing commercial vehicles from a monthly fee to one calculated on the basis of kilometres driven. Don’t forget all sales models have a sell by date so a crisis could be the push you need to analyse yours and to see how they could be adapted to become more futureproof.
Review & Revise
After the crisis is over, it pays to review the steps you took and see what can be learnt for the next time, or what has to be changed. These could be fundamental issues but also small things that make a difference to your results and brand position on the chosen markets.
How efficiently do your teams really work?
Although international sales teams are used to being on the road and acting independently that doesn’t mean that they use all of the tools which are made available to them in the most effective way.
A period where the team are not able to travel for a while could be an opportunity to give them additional training and mentoring. In regular daily business, this is often rather far down the priority list. Such training can take many forms but can also include your CRM system and any other tools which you are using in your business. You also could include some education on intercultural topics to further better understanding with both teams abroad and clients, sales techniques, deepen their product knowledge etc.
Now is the time to make sure that eg the CRM is being used as a tool to make the team member’s working lives more productive & not just something they’re filling out to keep you off their backs… Working smarter rather than harder is a key part of how to sell during a crisis (without burning out)
If business is slower due to a contingency this may leave your team with extra time resources. These could be used to do the kind of project which everyone has on their “to do some day” list but which are often postponed over several years due to a lack of time. That could include a workshop to brainstorm improvements to the playbook which the sales team use for example.
Strengthen relationships to clients
If you have a period where for one reason or another the team are not travelling as frequently to visit customers, then you have to find a way to maintain the loyalty and engagement of your partners. One way to do this is to offer them virtual education on both your products as well as how to market and sell them in the country.
By having online regional or global events with your partners, you can facilitate discussions which may lead to additional valuable insights on consumer usage and market developments.
Think about ways that you can be of service to your partners, even if you are perhaps not actively selling to them at this time.
It may not be an immediate sales growth strategy, but is a more long term approach to strengthening your market presence. Don’t forget that your partners are also living through the same difficult situation that you are experiencing.
Building new business
This was the most complicated part of international sales during the recent pandemic. It could also apply during a financial crisis when the budget situation does not allow you to freely visit all of the markets that you would be interested in building contacts in. One method to build new relationships when it isn’t practical to visit is to leverage other relationships that you may have.
You can use your network as well as virtual events organised by Chambers of commerce and the like to meet new potential clients. You might consider engaging a specialist consultant for the target region who also has a network they can leverage.
And don’t forget to ask people that you know for introductions. Almost all of us know companies who have complementary products to ours and who may have clients who would be suitable as partners for our products.
How to sell during a crisis? Lead from the front!
In the end, the question as to how well your team comes through a crisis will largely depend on the quality of your leadership & how you can motivate your team to come up with innovative solutions.
Of course, if you are at a company with really deep pockets, you can just throw cash at the issue for most crises and buy market shares at a time when the competitors are struggling. How many of us have that luxury though?
It’s extremely rare for the whole world to truly be in a deep crisis simultaneously. Even during the pandemic this was not the case, as the Asian markets and the rest of the world have been closed at different times. This is one of the advantages of expanding internationally – you spread your risk.
By remaining open for new ideas and solutions as well as having an open ear for the concerns of your team you can find ways to at least maintain your presence through most international problems.
Succeeding with international sales during a crisis means that you have to closely observe the customer psychology, whilst observing the trends that emerge. If you don’t meet the client where they are now (rather than however you think they should be buying your product) then your sales will stagnate & fail. Engaging fast and often on the other hand with customers will help your teams survive and perhaps even thrive during the crisis.
Many of the points I’ve outlined here about how to sell during a crisis apply equally for domestic sales, but as ever the level of complexity increases in the international arena.
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