Selling When Times Are Rough

I don’t know if the product you’re thinking of building will sell when markets get shaky.

I don’t know if the services you’re selling will be in demand.

I don’t know if your day job will be safe.

And yet, I’m banking on two main ideas to get ready for the rough times, and maybe they’ll be helpful for you too:

  1. Selling in rough times is like selling in good times, only the fundamentals are way more important. You can use these fundamentals when selling something small (like an idea) all the way up to selling something big (like a B2B deal);
  2. Even when people hold onto their money, they still have to get moving. So there’s a way to tweak how we sell even when there’s more risk.

I’ll go quickly through the fundamentals (with links to some other articles to dig deeper), and then I’ll show how to make selling less about the money.

The Fundamentals of Selling

Fundamental #1:
There’s Always a Person Who Wants to Make Progress

At the core of selling is this: people want to make progress. They have this thing that they want to move away from, so they can get to some better place. Things used to be okay in this one area, but now it’s time for a change. “Enough is enough”. And so they get moving.

That means that selling is about getting closer to people experiencing some kind of struggle, (and there’s always a ton of those, especially when times are rough) and about helping them make progress.

The other interesting point is this: it’s always about a person wanting to make progress. Even if it’s a business-to-business transaction, or even if you’re just selling an idea, there’s a person at the other end making that purchase decision.

It’s a struggle that causes people to want to make progress, and there’s always a person who is wanting to make that progress. Always.

So let’s just focus on being helpful.

Here are some articles on the topic of finding the struggle and helping make progress.

Fundamental #2:
You’re Always Competing Against Surprising Alternatives

Your competitors aren’t who you think they are.

When people want to make progress, they’ll consider your option, and they might pick a competitor. But more likely than not, they’ll pick neither you nor any of your competitors. They’ll pick nothing.

They’ll choose, instead, to do what they already do. They’ll revert back to their default way of doing things.

They’ll go back to their “I’ll just” alternatives, and those are your real competitors:

  • I’ll just continue using my imperfect solution;
  • I’ll just continue worrying about my other problems;
  • I’ll just learn to do it myself instead.

That’s going to be even more true when times are rough.

There are two reasons why people stick with their current solution:

  1. The struggle isn’t felt strongly enough. In which case, don’t try to sell your solution, and instead consider being patient (because maybe your product is a “not yet” product)
  2. The “I’ll just” alternatives are good enough. That’s the gravity well that you need to compete against. People will always favor their usual ways over changing course, so you need to make your offering more helpful than sticking with their default alternatives.

Some articles to go deeper about this idea of “I’ll just” alternatives:

Fundamental #3:
Clearing the Four Forces of Progress

One way to codify what goes on in the mind of the buyer is to picture that there are these four forces that are pushing and pulling.

Forces Diagram

We’ve already seen the Struggle of the Moment (what gets people moving to make progress) and the Habits of the Present (those “I’ll just” statements, your real competitor).

The two forces on the right are what you have control over: the Attraction of the Solution and the Anxieties of the Solution. One of them pulls the buyer towards a “yes, this, now”. The other pushes back toward a “not this, not now”.

Make sure the top two forces are stronger than the bottom two forces, and you got a sale.

That means that:

  • Only try to cater to those experiencing a struggle (#1);
  • Make your solution produce more attraction (#2) than it produces anxieties (#3);
  • Make sure your solution is way better than their current “I’ll just” habits (#4).

These forces are fundamental whether you sell an idea or a consumer product or a B2B solution.

Let’s talk quickly about price as an anxiety. It’s tempting to want to reduce the price of a product or service, thinking that’s the main anxiety. But consider all the other anxieties before lowering your price. Does your product look complicated to use from having too many features? Does what you sell have properties that make buyers hesitate? Will the buyer be taking a big risk by going with your solution?

For more on these four forces of progress:

Ways to Tweak how We Sell when Times Are Rough

Tweak #1:
Get Closer To the Buyer

When times are rough, people will hold even more to their money. As we saw above, price is usually not the main anxiety, but when the markets are uncertain, the price will swell up as a factor for saying “not this, not now”.

When times are risky, risk is top of mind. To ease the sale, appease your buyer’s risk by taking some of the risk for them. Get closer to the buyer’s risk. Offer more guarantee. Only get paid once the work is done. Build trust by owning more of the downside.

One of the easy ways to align to your buyer’s risk without taking on much more risk of your own is to concentrate on local people. The parents of the kids attending the same school as your own. The people in your neighborhood.

The closer you are to your buyer, the more there is a sense of symmetry in the risk, the more there is a sense of alignment.

Tweak #2:
Dig Deeper to Cut What Doesn’t Sell

Will your current product continue to sell? Will your job be the one that will be the first to get cut? Will you continue getting clients for your skills as a freelancer?

You’ve made it this far. Will you continue your run or do you need to adjust something about what you’re selling?

With the knowledge you have of the Four Forces of Progress, what can you conclude about the struggle you’ve been solving thus far with your product, your job, or your skills? Is it a going to continue to be a good fit?

Rough times bring clarity. The good stays, the not so good gets cut. To avoid losing it all, it pays to dig deeper and to figure out what’s good about what you offer, and what needs to get cut. Reduce anxieties, increase the attraction, and do that for each of the things you offer.

If you’ve got a product with some recent buyers, one way to dig deeper is to interview them about their purchase story. The technique asks a specific set of retroactive questions to try to map out what caused them to purchase your product, what contributed to the purchase and what left them indifferent.

You’ll then be in a good position to cut what doesn’t work before it’s too late.

Stay Sharp!


Get new articles like this one.

To learn to sharpen your sales pages.