There is opportunity in adversity, I have been told, and I happen to believe it. Since adversity is unpleasant it is sometimes hard to look close enough to find the silver lining, but if we can get over the unpleasantness we might be able to prosper.
I have been reading and writing about the economic consequences of this recession recently and last summer about what was then the high price of petroleum. The two have come together in interesting ways presenting one of the best opportunities to come along in a while.
We recently did a survey of people who manage sales in which we tried to identify the issues of most concern to them. While the idea for the survey originated in the summer energy crisis, it ended in the panic of the early recession. One choose-all-that-fit question stands out in my mind. “What changes are you making in your sales organization as a direct result of the economy?”
Most obviously, the people who answered—nearly three-quarters managed sales at some level—said they were cutting back on non-essential hires. That’s typical of a recession and almost serves to define it. The next highest scoring issues involved travel, either cutting back or finding alternatives and these issues caught my eye.
In some ways it’s easy to cut back on travel. Fewer people in the sales group automatically results in lower travel costs, but at the price of less coverage. Alternatively, simply driving more and flying less can improve bottom line results, but what we do instead of traveling is the heart of the issue.
Last week I noted how Oracle held an on-line trade show and how the company and its customers saved a boodle on housing, entertainment and transportation costs. How much? I don’t know because I don’t have the raw data nor do I know how many people would have stayed home if the option was a conventional show. And it will take time to know if the event was positive for sales, so there were many unknowns.
As luck would have it, though, I met up with Joe Gustafson, CEO of Brainshark, the other day and he gave me an inkling of the magnitude of savings. Brainshark is not a virtual trade show company like On24 or Unisfair. Instead, Brainshark produces an on-demand environment where companies can deposit their marketing media such as video, audio and PowerPoint slides. Users of the media can review and rate the content and the system can rank them for effectiveness. Users can be anyone. Think of it more as the library you go to simply because it’s what you like to do and you’ll be close.
Brainshark’s approach is somewhat like Kadient’s, another company in the same approximate market, which uses its tool to support the sales process through playbooks. To oversimplify, the two differ in their uses and the audiences they serve.
At any rate, Gustafson told me this story, which is equally useful in a recession or in a carbon footprint abatement strategy. Brainshark had a customer with a thousand sales people and no money to put on its annual sales kick-off. The company had been planning to spend north of three million dollars for the event when the CEO said there was no budget.
Obviously when the CEO says there is no budget he or she does not mean don’t have the event. It is simply the driving force or necessity that is the mother of invention. Gustafson’s company helped this customer stage an automated and asynchronous sales kick off that delivered the training and information to the sales team for about $500k—a fraction of the original budget.
Was it the same? No. There is a lot gained at a sales meeting from the group dinners and workshops and tall tales told around a hotel bar, but it got the job done. There is also a lot to be gained from learning a lot of new material at your own pace rather than through two days of bombardment by PowerPoint too.
The stale economy is cause for numerous re-thinks like that sales meeting. I suspect that even when the recession ends there will be lessons learned from it that will cause permanent changes to the ways we sell and market. As I have noted before, face-to-face meetings were more frequent before on-line conferences made them less necessary in the last recession. This time, larger meetings and information dissemination might be up for permanent change.
Companies like Brainshark and Kadient have been around for many years, tending small patches of the market. A discontinuity like a recession or the high price of fuel or the concern about carbon footprints is often enough to tilt the scales and cause a tipping point. Put all of them together and, regardless of the health of the economy, a permanent change looks to be afoot.