Selling Value in Tough Times and Tough Markets

Since customers buy differently during tough times, salespeople need to sell differently.

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Since the Great Depression, we have experienced 13 domestic recessions and four global recessions. Although tough times are painful, they are only temporary. Each economic downturn is followed by greater economic expansion. Tough times are challenging, but they are also necessary. The pain we feel in tough times acts as a catalyst to change.

During tough times, buyers hoard resources. As companies tighten their belts, cut costs and reduce unnecessary spending, buyers become hyper-aware of the dollars they spend. Every purchasing decision is subject to scrutiny. Naturally, this mindset creates a more price-sensitive buyer that will demand cheaper pricing. Salespeople experience this pain with fewer orders and slimmer margins. Since customers buy differently during tough times, salespeople need to sell differently.

During tough times, buyers clarify and streamline buying behavior to align with bare essentials. Buyers convince themselves they don’t need all the extras; they just need the bare minimum. Buyers value-strip your solution and focus the conversation on price.

Too often, salespeople are ill-equipped to manage price resistance. Their fear of losing the business trumps their logic and reason. The seller succumbs to this pressure and relies on deep discounts to save the order. This establishes a dangerous precedent. Buyers expect deep discounts moving forward, even when the tough times pass.

Selling in tough times requires more energy, effort and mental strength. In tough times, you work harder, face more rejection and sell less. As one salesperson put it, “I’m working twice as hard to get half as much.” Although tough times are frustrating, they are necessary to make us stronger. And on your toughest days, remember that this will pass. Here are six ideas to help you prevail.

Attitude drives behavior. Selling in tough times is a daily battle. You fight this battle on two fronts: with your knowledge and skills, and with your thinking and your attitude. Your attitude drives your behavior. Embracing the right attitude begins with positive mental programming.

Mental programming is how you talk to yourself. How would you describe your daily thoughts: mostly positive or negative? If your thoughts are predominately negative, take a mental enema and flush the negativity out.

Positive mental programming is changing the way you process information. Train your brain to view adversity positively. Each day, you’ll experience negative events. Some dwell on the negativity, while others focus on the positive outcomes. The choice is yours.

Be a positive information source. In tough times, there is no shortage of negativity. Turn on the news or read the paper. You’ll notice more negativity in your day-to-day conversations with customers and colleagues. Misery loves company, so be aware of negativity and prune it whenever you can.

Right now, people are hungry for hope. Sharing positive news is one way to lift people up. Scour the newspaper for positive articles. If you hear positive news about your industry, share that information with your customers. Customers will remember how you made them feel in tough times.

Focus on cost savings, not price reduction. In downturns, buyers look to cut costs. This creates an opportunity because buyers are more open to your cost-cutting ideas. Cutting cost is different than cutting price. Cost includes everything the buyer sacrifices, including labor costs, logistical costs, time savings, energy savings, engineering costs, etc. Identify ways to help the customer reduce their overall cost, and therefore add value.

Introduce a benign sense of fear. In tough times, customers receive multiple quotes from cheaper suppliers that promise excellent service at lower prices. Since your customers are looking to save money, these cheaper alternatives look attractive. Customers might even threaten to switch providers if you don’t match the competition. Just because the customer asks for a discount doesn’t mean you should give them one. There is a better option.

Everyone fears something more than paying a higher price. Introducing a benign sense of fear will take the focus off price. For example:

“Mr. Customer, I understand that this cheaper price looks attractive, but does it really make sense to introduce that element of risk? During these uncertain times, you can rely on us. You know what to expect. The only unknown here is if this new, cheap supplier will be able to take care of you when you need it.”

Sell against weaker competitors. Although this strategy makes sense in good times, it’s especially relevant in tough times. Tough times will expose weaknesses. Some companies acknowledge this weakness and seek ways to improve. However, weaker competitors ignore their shortcomings. This creates an opportunity.

The customer pays the ultimate price of a failing supplier. Service levels drop, inventory delays add up, and aggravation and frustration ensue. These customers need a safety net. It is up to you to provide that safety net. Identify your weaker competitors and begin prospecting to their customer base. Offering added support to these prospects will position you as their go-to supplier. Tough times create an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with customers and prospects.

Sell your personal value. The same pallet from the same company but sold by two different salespeople are two different solutions altogether. Companies blend in and look the same, products are virtually the same, but the salesperson remains that one unique dimension of value. Too often, salespeople forget to include the exceptional value they create.

Our research shows that the salesperson provides 25% of the total value in any given solution. Ask yourself, “Am I providing my customers with the full 25% of value they deserve?”

Our research also revealed that knowledgeable expertise is the no. 1 attribute customers look for in a salesperson. Customers expect you to know the answers to their questions. Buyers expect you to understand your products, your company and your industry. Provide the buyer with meaningful insight and ask the questions they didn’t think to ask themselves. If you’re not the expert on your solution, then you are missing an opportunity.

Tough times are part of life, but they will pass. Eventually, you’ll reflect on these tough times in the comfort of a better future. On that future date, you’ll look back and ask yourself, “Did I give it my all? Did I make the most of that time? Did I emerge stronger?” Your action today will determine the type of conversation you’ll have with your future self. Some sellers will merely go through this tough time, and others will grow through this tough time. The choice is yours. 

Paul Reilly is a speaker, sales trainer, author of "Selling Through Tough Times" (McGraw-Hill, 2021), coauthor of "Value-Added Selling," fourth edition (McGraw-Hill, 2018), and host of The Q and A Sales Podcast. Visit to download a complimentary chapter of Selling Through Tough Times. For additional information on Paul’s keynote presentations and seminars, call 636-778-0175 or email [email protected]. Visit and signup for the newsletter.

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