In short:

  • Admiral Stockdale knew that it’s normal in uncertain times to see both growth potential and stumbling blocks to success.
  • Coming together as a team to assess challenges and create a plan is critical.
  • Here are three selling, profitability and marketing scenarios; in each, there are two sides of the hope/struggle coin.

Let’s start here: Business will not go back to normal. Normal has left the building, taking its come-to-the-office culture with it. This doesn’t mean things won’t improve — they will. But now is a good time to recalibrate expectations.

You’ve probably heard of the Stockdale Paradox, a concept used widely in business to manage through complex and difficult situations. What you might not know is that the Paradox is named for General James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy vice-admiral and aviator and Medal of Honor recipient who was a POW for more than seven years during the Vietnam War.

Stockdale acknowledged the reality of his situation and balanced optimism with realism: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Boiled down: Believe in yourself. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

That ability to think on two planes is a trait of great leaders. Let’s assume a fundamental belief in your company’s and your team’s ability to succeed. After all, pre-pandemic, most teams were doing quite well. The challenge for anyone who watches the news now is striking a balance between “vaccine next week” over-optimism and curling into a fetal position under whatever you’re using as a desk.

Keeping an even keel is difficult. One thing proven to help is to make a realistic assessment of potential outcomes and write down a plan.

Let’s look at three business scenarios that might apply to sales for a company that sells technology that is useful for enabling robust remote work.

Situation 1: Where Are the Leads?

While your product should be selling well, the company isn’t a household name, and generating new leads now is difficult.

Hopeful: Remote workers are more productive, technology is enabling them to succeed, many people prefer home-based work, and employers around the globe are embracing WFH. “We can be a successful business selling remote work solutions.”

Struggling: Our sales team may not be able to make live customer calls for a year. The vertical we focus on isn’t doing well, and that conference we relied on for new leads isn’t happening until late 2021. “How in the world will we find new potential customers and educate them on our value?”

Managing the remote sales paradox: Changing your sales plan is Job #1. Thinking about how you engage potential customers, focusing on new verticals and micro-targeting the highest-value prospects is what matters. Here’s some advice on how to approach sales now.

Situation 2: No One Has Budget, Or So They Say

Your customers are asking for steep discounts. That’s bad for unit margins and long-term profitability.

Hopeful: Security and cloud spending are up, and remote work has brought investment in our technology along for the ride. That will continue, and companies will become comfortable with their ability to make money in the new normal. “I can make full-ticket sales even in this environment.”

Struggling: The other IT technologies I sell are down, finding good technicians who are willing to work in the field now is challenging and every customer wants everything for less. “How can I make profitable sales in this environment?”

Managing the technology spending paradox: Every dollar is under scrutiny right now. Charting a path to profit requires an open mind, careful analysis and discussions with customers. Rethink your operating model and what talent will get you profitable wins.

You don’t necessarily need to offer deep discounts, but you do need to show value with your core products before new customers will spend more with you. Great service now will earn you a deeper engagement in the future as clients figure out their own evolving strategies. Here’s how to conserve cash while maximizing adjusted unit profitability so you can gain some breathing room.

Situation 3: Marketing’s Bag of Tricks Is Empty

Demand generation as the marketing team knew it is dead. Customers are looking for solutions online and finding low-cost competitors that will save a few bucks but won’t meet their needs long (or even medium) term.

Hopeful: The technology I sell is needed in my market, and the new digital normal represents an opportunity to get more leads while lowering my cost of acquisition. In the channel, funding from vendors for demand generation programs is on the rise. “I can find new customers and stimulate demand in this new world.”

Struggling: My sales team doesn’t believe digital works, and the leads aren’t happening. They keep saying some version of: “Social selling? What’s that?” “I don’t know if I can find new customers and stimulate demand when everything is upside down.”

Managing the social marketing paradox: This is a living, breathing, existential threat for firms looking to generate revenue without robust digital strategies, and it will eat you alive if you don’t manage it now. Ecommerce is up double digits, and customers are looking for everything online. They start with search engines and go from there, often looking at social media to determine what their peers are using successfully.

If you aren’t part of that conversation, demand won’t fall into your lap. But many teams simply aren’t thinking that way. Changing your demand generation plan to embrace the new digital normal is Job No. 1; without a shift to marketing-based social selling, you will struggle mightily in this new reality. Here’s how social selling affects your bottom line.

These are just three of the paradoxes leaders may be facing today. I’m sure you can think of others. While your individual trials may vary, the key universally is to identify the problem, understand the opposed best/worst case views and find a path through to sustaining your business.

If you think back to Stockdale’s time as a POW, survival was a series of small steps. Gathering food and water to sustain life. Engaging the brain to pass time. Finding ways to communicate with other prisoners to develop some sense of community. Managing through today’s struggles will also amount to a series of small steps that build on each other to bring you toward your best conclusion.

Without that series of achievable steps, unbalanced paradoxes leave skepticism, squandered resources and missed opportunities in their wake; when balanced, these elements are flipped on their heads and result in optimism, leveraged resources and growing opportunities.

The key is a mindful, inclusive process that involves getting everyone to agree on both the hope and the struggle. Then it’s time to determine next steps, execute and triumph over adversity.

Dr. Ashlyn Szilva is group director of research and digital for JS Group, where she applies her unique experience in research methods, analytics and photography to social media and marketing innovation. She manages the social media influence and social selling strategy for over a dozen technology firms big and small and is well known for her ability to create influencers in a digital normal. Her credo is, “If it isn’t shareable, it isn’t real in the digital age.” Szilva earned her master’s degree and doctorate from Drew University.

Mark Bianco

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