The global lockdown has been a real test in the effectiveness of communication for many B2B startup founders whose companies’ sales processes are relationship-heavy and depend on face-to-face interactions. Being able to effectively engage with different stakeholders and build culture during times of uncertainty is quickly becoming a leading indicator for how well a B2B company will weather the storm.
Based on my experiences and those of my peers, I’d like to share the following insights, which are applicable both now and in all major crises your business may face.
1. Manage your own psychology.
“In case of emergency, secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” We receive these instructions when we fly, and they apply here too. You cannot communicate effectively and lead if you cannot manage your emotions, so put on your oxygen mask and take some deep breaths.
Once you can think clearly, you’ll realize that your competitors and your customers are in the same situation. What’s important is your relative performance. Even if your sales are down 50% for the year and you have to lay off staff, as long as your metrics are better than your competitors’, you’ve done well. Be sure to separate the broader macroeconomic effects (which you don’t control) from the effects of your concrete efforts in this crisis. Keep that context in mind and focus on the things that you can control, not those you can’t.
2. Communicate to employees.
With your emotions under control, communicate to your employees who you rely on to execute effectively during this crisis. Clarity is crucial in times of uncertainty, so decide what actions you will take and be very concrete in your communications.
As much as we wish this weren’t true, during an economic downturn, it’s often better to overreact. The market will punish you more if you make small incremental changes and correct course every few days. This will also undermine the confidence of your team in your ability to manage the situation, so be truthful with them and don’t sugarcoat the situation. Share things like how much money you have left in the bank and your burn rate. Then empower them by giving them a mission. Cutting costs is all defense. Outline your offensive moves — the current market condition you can exploit to drive revenue and position the company better vis-a-vis the competition. Remember, it’s all about relative comparisons.
3. Engage with your board and ask for help.
The role of your board is to guide you and help you through tough times. Are you considering revised pricing, changing your go-to-market strategy or cutting costs? They are your advisors, so use them. They have many more data points from all their portfolio companies, and you will probably get more of their attention now than ever, so take advantage of their perspectives. If you need specific help, tailor your requests to their areas of specialty.
In turn, your board is counting on you to clearly communicate results and forecasts. You don’t control the market, so separate the general market effect and show what you can affect by making changes and adapting to the situation. Give them a clear picture with numbers and share if-then scenarios. Consider a bold move if necessary. If your business model hasn’t been delivering and you’ve been considering a pivot, now can be a great time to iterate your business. Remember that a crisis will kill mediocre business models, and there are no static businesses. Should your analysis show you need to raise money to survive, ask them for a clear commitment.
4. Put yourself in the shoes of customers and prospects.
Your specific communication will be very dependent on your business model, but everyone needs empathy right now. Your customers are also in this crisis, and as a large company, they have more to do than you — more coordination, communication, cuts, etc. Remember that actions speak louder than words, so think about what you can do to help lighten their load. You might proactively identify and eliminate bottlenecks or, if you’re a SaaS business, make sure your infrastructure will work well under stress, rather than just saying, “We are here for you.” Customers will notice, and that will generate goodwill.
As for prospects, understand that very little is under their control to push the deal forward. The procurement and finance departments of large organizations probably have limited maneuverable space right now. Use the time to map the whole customer journey, think through the friction points and identify what you can do proactively to make it easier for them. For example, move from an annual commitment to a monthly commitment, perhaps with a few months of a free trial.
5. Get creative with your strategic partners.
For enterprise startups, strategic partnerships are key. If you have not done so already, identify the players in your domain that are strategic to your go-to-market strategy and engage with them. The exact players will be very specific to your domain, but the common thread is that none of us exist in a vacuum — we’re part of a larger process. Think about win-win options. Would a joint offering make sense to eliminate some friction in the customer journey? Or could they be a good investment partner and help provide much-needed stability during this crisis?
Being a leader requires a special kind of communication that inspires your team, reassures your board and excites your customers, prospects and partners. By focusing on what you can control, acting decisively and communicating clearly, you can strengthen what’s working and rethink opportunities to reveal the true staying power of your business.