How to Deal With a Tough Year of Selling (and How to Bounce Back)

Apr 23, 2021

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in some way. Unfortunately, many businesses have seen significant declines in sales numbers. But, this does not mean that all hope is lost. This is where you as a sales manager can pick your sales team up and inspire them to exceed the latest sales goals.

Whether sales slumps happen cyclically or spontaneously, they’re more of a “when” than an “if” for any sales team. That means planning ahead isn’t just crucial, it’s mandatory.

It all begins with never assuming that a slump equates to failure. Normalize it! Dormant periods are common in nature and should be expected in any working atmosphere not run by robots.

The one thing not to do when your sales team is in a slump though is nothing. Not acting quickly to address negative emotions and a lack of drive in your sales team can have irreparable impacts on your team’s culture.  

But, you may be wondering how to motivate a sales team the most effectively? Here are five steps to help you spring into action and spark that drive in your sales team again — no matter if you are battling the after-effects of a pandemic or surging back after a seasonal sales slump.

Step #1: Inspire Through Storytelling

Do you remember how you felt when you or your sales team were in the midst of a productive streak? This is not about your numbers or your strategy. How you felt is what’s key here.

Marquee with "story telling"
Stories are the most powerful way to turn thoughts into beliefs. 

People are not logical, they are psychological — and that means appealing to feelings, aspirations, and values will be more effective than charts and statistics. Ambitious quarterly numbers won’t raise spirits, just stress. This has been especially true during the pandemic when people’s mood and motivation are often lower both inside and outside of work.

Stories are the most powerful way to turn thoughts into beliefs. Gather a few of your most inspirational stories from times of plenty and stress the parts that carry your company’s goals. This is not the time to be specific about hitting targets as much as getting people into the mindset that the success they’ve seen in the past (whether in your company, a competitor, or an inspirational example) is possible.

Can’t think of any? Ask around. Inciting casual conversations will not only improve morale but send a message that you’re interested in your team. You might discover a sales motivation story you didn’t even know happened.

Another way to do this is to think about any media or experiences you’ve discovered that reminded you of what winning feels like. Maybe it’s a movie, or a podcast, or a really cool conference. Is there a way you can get something like this in front of your team?

If you are looking to use music to motivate your sales team – check out our Spotify playlist featuring our favorite hype songs.

You might be wondering why we didn’t mention books. Did you ever have a manager that gave you a book as a motivational tool? Did you ever read it? Be honest.

Receiving a dense tomb from someone above you can feel like a homework assignment. Work will come but this stage should be about enjoyment and revitalization. Of course, your recommendation should be authentic, but don’t make it feel heavy.

Step #2: Examine the Actions

Remember how we said that you can’t just wait around? Action is key.

Do some quick diagnostics to make sure the tried-and-true methods are still being used. Going through the motions of your best practices should still be a part of your team’s tool kit to keep their instincts and sales muscles strong.

As the old saying goes, 80% of success is just showing up (or, if we may editorialize: consistently showing up to things related to your goals).

But as you examine your funnel, be open to what you can do differently. Thinking about where you’re showing up, how you’re showing up, and what your team is bringing to the table can breathe some fresh air into your pitches as well as your team’s morale. The main thing is to make sure that you and your team’s intentions and the resulting actions still align with your goals.

With this in mind, set a brainstorming meeting with your salespeople and go into Dream Mode. What’s that? It’s Walt Disney’s famous habit of setting meetings where his team was only allowed to think about blue skies as the limit for any ideas. No pragmatism allowed.

A team around a table sharing ideas in a meeting room.
Set a brainstorming meeting with your team and go into Dream Mode where your team is only allowed to think about blue skies as the limit for any ideas.

To guide this meeting, think about your ideal clients, communication methods, and resources. Embrace strange ideas, new technology, self-care methods. Your guiding light is what will garner more leads when it comes to what you sell.

Don’t make any decisions at this meeting. Let your team sit with it for a few days before setting a separate meeting, in a separate space to think only about how these ideas (or versions of them) might happen. Combine with a project manager and congrats — you’ve just made your dreams actionable.

Step #3: Pep & Provide

Now that you’ve allowed your staff to recharge and brainstorm, it’s time to make any new business experiments and/or an enthusiastic return to sales as easy as possible.

First, the rallying cry. Getting everyone on the same page is crucial. A pep talk meeting is a great way to do just that. Plus, it’s a significantly effective sales motivation tool. When planning your pep talk, make sure it does the following:

Sets the Stage

Get real about the stakes. Recognize frustration as something everyone is feeling, and be specific. Paint the picture of where things are really at right now. What exactly needs to be overcome?

Defines Success

You’ve been vague up until now, which is great for feelings but not for bottom lines. Using all the feedback and reflection you’ve collected, determine what you’re specifically asking of your team and set realistic goals. If there’s a way to make this interactive and invite them into the conversation of defining success, all the better. If there are things that just need to get done or goals that must be attained without a discussion, explain why.

Instills Trust

Don’t micromanage a strategy and don’t call out the weaknesses of specific team members. Reinforce how everyone is in that room for a reason — they were hired for what they brought to the table, not what you brought out of them. You want your sales team to believe that you trust in their abilities.

Use any ideas that came from the brainstorm to write an email of resources that are sent to your team after the pep talk meeting. This may take some additional planning along with your pep talk, but know that providing easy, actionable tools will help them act sooner. Doing this will also instill trust by showing your reps that you care about them having what they need to succeed.

Some examples to include in the email could be:

  • A list of new places, people, and platforms for your salespeople to target
  • Step-by-step guides to new marketing strategies
  • Links to e-courses or online sales training about interesting topics that may have come up
  • Examples of how discussion points could apply to your team’s biggest clients

Encourages Collaboration

Motivation can come from within your team itself as well. Going back to the psychology of things, many people intrinsically want to help others, feel that they are valued members of a team, and be acknowledged for their expertise. Reps on a sales team are no different.

Use your pep talk meeting as an opportunity to encourage peer-to-peer collaboration and promote an environment that values the success of the team as a whole. Reps will feel supported and inherently leads to higher levels of motivation.

Step #4: Give Reps Autonomy

Think back to your early days in selling. You probably know, as a sales rep, there’s almost nothing worse than having a sales manager who is constantly breathing down your neck or micromanaging processes. Especially when it’s been a slow sales period and you’re trying to dig out of it. Even worse is having a sales manager who does not arm you with what you need to be able to succeed on your own.

A great way to motivate your sales reps is to make sure they have the know-how and tools to do the best job they possibly can. It’s a lot easier to make sales when you have everything you need to do it.

This means empowering your reps with updated on-going training in areas that need to be reemphasized, similarly to what you would do after a sales kickoff event. Also, bring in some new or updated techniques that your team may enjoy learning along the way. Make sure each rep also has an up-to-date sales playbook to utilize and refer to as needed.

You also want to provide your team with powerful tools that make their day-to-day easier, processes more streamlined, and allows them to focus on building relationships and closing deals. Ensuring that you are investing in mobile-friendly sales tools will make the effort even more effective.

Then, it’s time for you to get out of the way and let your reps’ results speak for themselves. Giving your team the autonomy to go out and get the job done shows them that you trust that they are capable of being successful independently, no matter if they are in the office or on the road.

Trust equals respect. When your reps feel respected, they’ll be more likely to go the extra mile to be successful.

Step #5: Incentivize to Thrive

Yes, we’ve saved incentivization for last.

If you introduce new incentives too early, they can feel like bribes. Remember, you want your reps to trust you. Waiting to introduce them after the first four steps can make them feel more authentic to your work in revving up your team.

Men and women in business suites race down a track chasing a carrot.
Bonuses, contests, giveaways, team rewards and humor are just a few incentives to inspire your team.

Of course, selecting incentives depends on your available resources. But remember, authenticity can go a very long way. Here are some examples of common incentives:

Bigger Bonuses

This may be the first thing to come to mind. But studies show that this is also the most expensive way to motivate a team. One study suggests that you need to consider a bonus that’s at least 8% of their base compensation to truly increase productivity. Considering your team’s salaries or commission structures, is that possible?

Of course, if you have a sales team that is already motivated by money, this may make the most sense. But be sure that any additional, short-term bonus incentive is fair and the conditions are well defined. Inciting jealousy or resentment will make all of this useless.

Competitive Contests

What’s more human than a little survival of the fittest? Healthy competition activates the reward centers in our brains, but balance is key. If the stakes are too high or if the risk of failure is too great, it can undercut any benefits.

Consider smaller rewards for smaller parts of the funnel. Instead of say, the person who closes the most client deals, why not reward other aspects of the funnel, such as the most lead generation or best at housekeeping issues. These can be rewarded with smaller gift cards and help get more menial (yet crucial!) aspects out of the way for bigger, team-wide wins.

Using a leaderboard is a great way to enable your team to visualize the progress of the competitions and get real-time updates of standings.

Great Giveaways

Avoid the anonymity of yet another iTunes gift card by considering giveaway prizes that speak to a lifestyle or identity that your team desires. Would what your sales reps really like actually be the latest tech gadget or even a Rolex? Compared to that 8% compensation mentioned above, you may be able to do a lot more with a lot less.

If you’re managing a small team, you may want to go even more custom. Do your reps enjoy football games or exclusive spas? Which are their favorites? What would make their life easier right now during the pandemic? Or their family’s?

Also, mine your current client list: perhaps some of them may be able to provide a product or service at a discount or in exchange for something you provide? Doing so may strengthen your professional relationships while giving you great items for a giveaway and saving your company some serious cash.

Team Rewards

Sales professionals enjoy celebrating their successes and having a good time. And celebrating with your teammates is even better. So, another great option for incentives is team-based rewards which will motivate the entire sales force to work together as one unit towards one common goal. You could plan a team lunch at a local restaurant, throw a party, or even take everyone on an outing that they probably wouldn’t take on their own dime.

Men and women playing golf at Top Golf.
Team rewards like a fun evening at Top Golf can say “thank you” and build community in your team. Source: Top Golf

It doesn’t even have to be anything extravagant. Small gestures that bring a team together go a long way. Create a memorable experience that will further bond and motivate your team.

Keep in mind that it is usually best to plan the team reward for during a workday. Cutting into your reps’ personal time for a team outing can be a big ask. Especially during a pandemic when stressors outside of work are at an all-time high and personal time is even more valued.  Planning a fun activity into a workday timeframe is a small yet powerful gesture.

It will show that, alongside tangible results, you value and prioritize your team’s emotional well-being and happiness. Your reps will appreciate this commitment and often return the favor by striving even further to meet goals.

Humiliating Humor

A perfect example of this is one sales manager who offered to dye his hair (permanently) bright blue in exchange for his team beating a previous sales record. And it worked.

It’s not just about humiliation, of course. It’s about showing how leadership is just as committed to the goal as their team. With the right creative thinking, it might even create a branding or marketing opportunity for your company (see link above). But when doing so, make sure to think about if it matches your company’s culture.

Utilize These Steps to Bounce Back From Sales Slumps

So why exactly do these steps work when you need to motivate a sales team? They reinforce the “why.” Each of these steps works together to remind your team why they are there. You’ve appealed to their emotions, ambitions, team spirit, work needs, and financial needs — but all through the lens of “why.”

If that sounds too simple, it’s because it is. The biggest productivity roadblocks come from sweating the “small” stuff. Balancing the many priorities that dominate our to-do list — both personally and professionally — can sometimes make us see the forest for the trees. But laser focusing on what compels sales reps to do their best provides the most motivation.

Start implementing these steps today to launch your team out of sales slumps and start moving forward towards success after a tough sales year.