The key to success during a downturn, aside from surviving, is to further entrench yourself with your existing client base and at the same time look for ways to penetrate and position your product in your competitor’s backyard.

All this whining about the economy is making me sick. Stop it! Cut it out! Let me take a moment to put things in their proper perspective.

I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina as VP of Sales managing all of Latin America. Argentina’s unemployment rate was somewhere between 20% and 25% at the time. Their currency, the Argentine peso, although pegged to the dollar, bought you half of what you could get here in the U.S. Rent for a typical 1 bedroom apartment of about 600 square feet started at $1,500 a month with the average monthly wage of a worker being $300 per month (your read that right). Don’t ask me how they could afford to live; that’s still a mystery to me. And, the cheapest you’d ever find a gallon of gas was close to $4 (i.e., a bargain at the time).

“So what!” you say?!

During that time we grew our annual sales from a little over $400,000 a year to $1.5M in sales in less than two years; that’s the so what! When everyone around me was telling me there was no business to be had in the country, I proved them wrong. There’s always an ‘upside to a down market’ and here are ten of them:

  1. The economist and pro-capitalist Milton Friedman in his book Free to Choose reminded us that a recession squeezes out the excess in a market. Simple translation: most of your competitors will struggle or better yet, cease to exist during this period. Less competition equals more opportunities. Score 1 for a recession…yeah!
  2. Accessibility to potential clients is easier since less salespeople are calling on them. This is an opportune time to start building new relations with accounts that at one time were impenetrable.
  3. Here’s something to ponder; when things are going well, the last thing a client wants to do is try something new or rock the proverbial boat. But when a downturn in business occurs, the client’s upper management is screaming for ways to either save money or make them money. At that moment clients are more receptive to finding new ideas or trying something new (i.e., like your products). Which leads into my next point.
  4. Mangers, Directors or simply decision-makers in a company who don’t want to lose their job will work very hard to look busy and will be more accommodating to meet with you. Why? They want to be able to report back to their boss that they’re looking into new ideas and approaches.
  5. Your financial solvency becomes an edge. If your company is well positioned financially, you can offer your services (or products) with extended terms (e.g., instead of Net 30, maybe you could go Net 120 days); something your competitors may not be able to do.
  6. If your competitor has products that are costlier or more inefficient, now is the time to strike; they’re in too weak a position to fend you off no matter how long they’ve been a supplier. Loyalty to a brand (i.e., product or company) goes out the door when times are tight. Highlighting to the client how your product or service can save them money is a welcomed conversation; have it.
  7. Offer them free or discounted training on your products. The biggest complaint we salespeople get when we sell a product is that the client’s employees don’t know how to use the product or that things are so busy they don’t have time to train the employees. During a downturn is the good time to do some on-site training and further embed yourself and your company’s products with the client’s employees. Remember, employees often get a say in what products or services they like to use. Show them love, and they’ll give it back in return. I remember doing free product training at the client’s location whenever we could and the client remembered this when they were ready to start buying again.
  8. Sometimes as salespeople we’re running around with our heads unscrewed trying to stir up new business. But with a downturn comes less money for travel, attending tradeshows and pulling back on marketing events. So what to do? Studies have shown that the best way to grow your revenues with existing products (i.e., upwards of 25%) is to go back and visit those clients who’ve bought from you in the past. Instead of trying to find new clients, go back and data mine your existing client base, create a list of the top 20 clients along with what they’ve purchased in the past, and put a game plan together to go revisit them and upsell them on other existing products.
  9. Beta, beta, beta. If you have a new product you’ve been anxious to test in the field but couldn’t find any willing clients to take the time to do it, now is the time. This strategy alone helped me insert myself into my competitor’s most prized clients which eventually became my clients.
  10. C-Leveling. During a downturn your client’s CEO, CFO, COO and others are worried. Now would be a good time to get your CEO or senior management involved in the sales process. Have your CEO call on your client’s CEO and see if there is anything that your company can do. This has no value other than pegging, in your client’s mind at the c-level, your concern for their well being. Think long-term. If you can help out (or lend a hand) to a client through the hard times by offering them flexible terms, small price breaks on products were permissible and/or extra support, they won’t forget it. And when things get back to normal, as they always do, they won’t forget who stood next to them through the hard times.

The key to success during a downturn, aside from surviving, is to further entrench yourself with your existing client base and at the same time look for ways to penetrate and position your product in your competitor’s backyard.

So how did I do it? During that one and a half year period we focused in on our competitor’s top 5 clients across three different market segments (i.e., a total of 15 clients). For nine straight months we bombarded them with information (product training, price breaks, free demos, et al.) and kindness (took them out to lunch, made ourselves available for impromptu meeting, et al.). Sounds too simple? Try it for six months and then get back to me.

We have it good here in the good old U.S. of A. But we’ve become a nation of sales whiners. When unemployment is 6.5% we see Armageddon. When the credit markets tighten up we come up with reasons (i.e., convenient rationalizations) why the client won’t buy today!

Not all markets are created equal. We shouldn’t generalize what we see in the news and assume it applies to our market. It may, but the direct assumption is a copout. In George Orwell’s 1984 the media was in charge of creating perception to fit some totalitarian agenda.

Today, the media irritates me. They can’t seem to make up their mind whether we’re in a deep recession or shallow depression. Who cares! Pundits be damned! Argentina had an unemployment rate of over 20%, a weak dollar, overpriced gas and yet, by some Keynesian trickier or fortunate turbulence of the invisible hand, companies were still buying from somebody. No economy stands still!

Right now at this very moment, a potential client in your market niche is buying something from your competitor. Stop coming up with reasons (i.e., excuses) why you can’t sell and think of reasons why NOW is the ideal time to expand your business.

About the author

Victor Antonio

Victor Antonio's poor upbringing in one of the roughest areas of Chicago didn't stop…

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