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Selling through a downturn: 5 tips from CFOs

April 11, 2023
Dan Morgese

Dan Morgese


That’s the percentage of B2B tech salespeople who hit their quotas last year. For reference, a normal year is closer to 70%.

Why was last year so low? 

That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because of economic instability. There was the shock we all felt in the earliest weeks of COVID-19, there were about two years of unreasonably frothy economic activity, and there was the shock we all felt two years later, when pandemic restrictions started to ease.

That’s a lot of volatility. A lot of instability. A lot of reasons for CFOs, the people in charge of companies’ wallets, to be extra-careful.

In fact, according to our own Gong Labs research, we’ve found CFO involvement in deals has doubled since 2020

For B2B tech sellers, what it means is a sales process that looks dramatically different from how it did just four or five years ago. Potential deals are getting more scrutiny and being held to higher standards than ever. Existing deals likewise.

Three CFOs recently sat down with Chris Orblob of QuotaSignal to offer their perspectives on how sellers should adapt to this new dynamic. These included Michael DiFilippo (Invoca), Jim Kelliher (Drift), and Gong’s own Tim Riitters. This article covers the five most notable takeaways from their discussion.

5 things sellers should keep in mind to sell well in an economic downturn

1. Realize that the CFO’s perspective has shifted from, “What do we need to invest in to grow?” To, “How can we get the most out of our existing investments?”

CFOs are placing extra scrutiny on the return on investment (ROI) of current investments, renewals, and prospective investments. They are setting more definite plans and allowing for less deviation. When an area of potential investment arises, they think about it first from a perspective of budget neutrality: “What can this replace that we’ve already planned for?”

This puts more on the seller’s plate. They have to craft the strongest business cases possible (more on business cases below).

2. Identify how your solution could impact the leading indicators that CFOs care about.

CFOs decide when to accelerate/decelerate investments according to a few main indicators:

  • Revenue per sales rep
  • Quota participation
  • Churn rate
  • Pipeline growth
  • Sales cycle length
  • Layoff forecasts

Sellers need to be able to convincingly and succinctly tie their products to these key indicators. Sellers also need to demonstrate that positive effects on these indicators will happen in a short timeframe—immediately, ideally, not many months in the future.

3. Frame your solution in terms of benefits that are attractive to CFOs, given the current economic climate.

Overall, CFOs care about four main things:

  1. Can you reduce their costs?
  2. Can you help them grow revenue more efficiently or predictably?
  3. Can you mitigate the risks they’re up against?
  4. Can you improve customer and/or employee satisfaction?

Depending on their industry, they may also care about regulatory compliance, and whether your solution will help them remain compliant (e.g., with higher, more provable data quality).

How can you, as a seller, create low-risk environments to prove your solution will deliver the results you promise? How can you craft trials and/or proofs-of-concept (POCs) that rely on smaller teams, in shorter timeframes, that demonstrate your impact on these key areas?

4. Know when to get their CFO involved.

Although CFOs have gotten more involved in deals than ever, the fact remains: Executives are strapped for time, and don’t want to get involved in deals unless they absolutely have to. This perspective was overwhelmingly shared by the panel.

You, the seller, can do a few things to minimize CFO involvement:

  • Make sure your team has done their homework, established the value of your solution, and concocted a strong business case before the CFO gets involved
  • Collaborate closely with your champion to clear up as many questions/objections as possible before CFO involvement
  • Ask: Can we leverage an FP&A team or other business partner that understands what the CFO cares about? How well can we anticipate their needs before we make contact?

5. Building the best possible business case is more important than ever.

The success of deals hinges more than ever on the simplicity and reality of the business case. A few best practices to keep in mind when assembling business cases:

  • Succinctness. Is your business case expressed in as succinct and easily understandable a way as possible? CFOs don’t want to waste time clarifying areas that don’t make immediate sense. 
  • Reality. Is your business case realistic? Does it reflect what the CFO knows about the business—e.g., are their data points, like current costs, reflected accurately?
  • ROI commitment. What kind of ROI are you offering? If you promise that the CFO’s team will save 20% of their time, is the CFO willing to reduce new headcount by 20%? If not, productivity gains is not a compelling ROI offer.

We’re seeing a shift from B2B tech companies spending as aggressively as possible in the name of growth to as efficiently as possible in the name of continuity and efficiency. Sellers must reevaluate each element of their sales process in order to appeal to this new buyer perspective. Ultimately, they will emerge stronger sellers—better at assembling strong business cases, and better at anticipating buyer needs before they become objections.

So as your working your deals and your champions undoubtedly loop in their CFOs, keep these tips in mind. To make it even easier for you we’ve put together a cheatsheet: 5 Revenue-Boosting Ways to Sell to CFOs in an Economic Downturn.

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