Skip to main content

For those working in Revenue Operations, high inflation or signs of a possible recession can be worrisome. But even during a challenging economic environment, there are steps one can take to try and ease the blow. What are the strategies that CROs and financial experts recommend to successfully navigate a recession or challenging economy? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing John McConnell.

John McConnell

John McConnell is a financial planner with over a decade of experience in the industry. He has made it his mission to help people build credit and learn to manage their finances with meaning and purpose. By staying ahead of the curve through continuous learning and education, John provides sound guidance and advice that helps individuals take control of their financial future.

Thank you so much for your time! Before we dive in, we would love to “get to know you." Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?

After college, like many other graduates, I was left with a mountain of student loan debt. To make ends meet, I took on two jobs—one at a local credit repair company that specialized in helping individuals improve their credit scores. It wasn't glamorous work, but it was an important service for people who were struggling financially.

After three years working at the credit repair company, not only had my knowledge grown exponentially but so did my confidence when dealing with clients–something which paid off once I decided to leap into organizing seminars and webinars that helped the average consumer enhance their financial literacy!

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My second job after college was as Director of Operations for a franchise business. I had been working with the company since my freshman year, and they offered me the position upon graduation. It felt like a dream come true—I got to travel all over the country, visiting different locations and helping franchisees get up and running.

It felt great being able to make an impact on so many lives while making money at the same time. However, it wasn’t long until I started to feel myself slipping further into debt each month as long days spent away from home combined with lavish dinners started taking its toll on my budget—a good example of  “lifestyle creep.” 

One day, I was invited to golf by a franchisee on one of my trips, so I arrived early at the country club to rent some golf clubs and buy a box of balls. When it came time for me to pay, however, my credit card declined—twice! Embarrassed, I sheepishly asked the guy in the front if he could run it again but after two more tries, he just shook his head.

I felt like a complete idiot. Here I was, an esteemed business executive, unable to purchase some golf balls with my credit card. It's not like it was a huge expense anyway—just $20 for the rental and the box of balls—but at that moment it felt more expensive than anything else in my life. Long story short, I did what any desperate person would do: call corporate and sweet-talk them into letting me use their company card.

Needless to say, with a few tweaks and sacrifices over time (such as budget setting for the month and setting limits on purchases beforehand where possible, etc.) these little steps soon added up significantly and helped me get back on track and take preventative measures so something like this wouldn’t happen again in the future.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ll never forget my former boss, Javad. I was looking for an internship position at an accounting firm when Javad took me under his wing and taught me how to think critically and make informed decisions. 

He always said: "It's not just hard work that will get you success—it requires smart work too." And boy did he push me! We used to have these intense role-playing sessions where we'd sit in a car together pretending like we were attending meetings or negotiations with clients. It felt weird at first but after a while, I realized what an amazing teacher Javad was! The more practice I got the more confident I became when walking into those important meetings. To this day. I'm grateful for all of his teachings as they have allowed me to achieve success both professionally and personally over time.

Thank you for that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about a time that was challenging for your business based on external factors like the economy? When was it, how prepared were you and what changes did you make to get through it?

When the mortgage collapse hit in 2008, I was unprepared. I had been working in the financial industry for a few years and thought I had a pretty good handle on things, but everything came crashing down around me.

I lost my job, along with so many others in my industry. It was a real shock to the system. I had to start over from scratch, which was not only difficult but demoralizing. The biggest change I had to make was to adjust my mindset—I needed to be more resilient and nimble if I wanted to succeed in this new world. It hasn't been easy, but I've started to rebuild my life and career and adjust my risk tolerance levels accordingly.

Was there anything about the experience that surprised you? What was your expectation and what was the reality?

Nothing good came out of 2008 and If you know someone who says differently—that it wasn't all doom and gloom—tell them to come to find me. If you lived through the mortgage bubble and the government bailout era, you understand how everything changed. I remember watching in horror as the news reported on banks collapsing, people losing their homes and jobs, and a global economy on the brink of disaster.

But then something amazing happened: recovery started to take place!  Within two and a half years we had made it back to a bullish forecast, with unemployment rates dropping. 

Is there anything you would do differently in future economic downturns? What would be your advice to business owners navigating a recession for the first time?

In any situation, panicking will rarely lead to good decisions. Instead, stay calm and focus on what you can control. A clear head allows you to make informed decisions that are less likely to be regretted later on down the road.

The second piece of advice I have for business owners navigating a recession is to invest in yourself. Make an effort to stay up to date with the latest industry trends and develop your skills through self-learning or training courses. Doing so will make you more valuable, not only now but also after the downturn passes.

Finally, while it’s normal to experience some stress and anxiety during a recession, one thing I’ve decided to do differently is to dedicate time to myself. Spending quality time with family and doing things I enjoy, such as golfing, cycling, and reading allows me to relax, reflect, and practice emotional intelligence. Even if the world around me feels like it's in chaos, I try to remind myself that recessions do not last forever—so stay positive! 

Do you believe that businesses can prepare in advance for such occasions? Is it about being appropriately proactive or reactive? 

Certainly proactive, in my opinion. One of the first steps business owners should take is to create a financial plan that includes options for scaling back costs without sacrificing the well-being and morale of their talent. Setting up an environment early to reduce recession-induced stress in the workplace is essential to the longevity of a business. Inevitably, employees will need to take on more responsibility and workload as owners scale back costs to preserve cash reserves and adjust their strategy to stay afloat.

In your personal opinion, what is the telltale sign that a recession is looming?

I'm always on the lookout for signs of a potential recession but it's hard to say nowadays with a global market. Usually, there are a few indicators such as declining consumer spending and investment—when people stop buying non-essential items or pull back their investments in stocks and bonds. Secondly, I'd have to say watch unemployment levels. If businesses are cutting down on staff due to decreased demand, it's another indication of a possible downturn in the economy in the next 12 to 18 months.

What are your thoughts on the current state of our economy? Is there anything you’re anticipating or preparing for now?

Many changes are happening in our economy right now and plenty of uncertainties are on the horizon that needs to be monitored closely. That being said, I think it's important for businesses (and individuals) to plan and stay informed about current events to help navigate the current complex and ever-changing state of our economy. One thing I primarily focus on to help diversify and hedge risk (and make sense of the current situation) is by taking a look at the key trends that are influencing our economic landscape and how they may shape our future. For example, the housing market is known to be the primary trend to monitor.  With better insight, I diversify my investments and portfolio so that I don't experience an outsized impact on my overall portfolio.

Let's get to the meat of it. What are the five most important things a business should do to successfully navigate a challenging economy?

1 . Maintain Cash Flow

A healthy cash flow is essential for any business, and this is especially true during difficult economic times. To ensure that your cash flow stays positive, create a budget and track expenses carefully. This will help you identify unnecessary expenses that can be cut and areas where you may need to invest more money. Additionally, it’s important to maintain relationships with suppliers and creditors so they’re willing to work with you in case of an emergency or unforeseen crisis.

2 . Focus on Efficiency

Cutting costs is one of the most effective ways to stay afloat during a recession, so take a close look at your operating costs and identify areas where you can trim down expenses without compromising quality or performance. This could involve streamlining processes, utilizing automation software or outsourcing certain tasks to third-party vendors instead of hiring full-time employees. One company I consulted realized they were spending too much time manually entering data into their accounting system; an inefficient process that left them vulnerable during an economic downturn. To alleviate the problem, they implemented automated software which allowed them to quickly input data with minimal effort—resulting in cost savings as well as greater efficiency overall. 

3 . Utilize New Technologies

Technology has come a long way since the start of the pandemic, and businesses should take advantage to stay competitive and efficient. For example, cloud computing systems allow businesses to store data remotely, artificial intelligence has become increasingly popular for customer service tasks, and chatbots can automate responses quickly and accurately without human intervention. All this saves time and money.

4 . Invest in Employee Training

Keeping employees up-to-date with the latest industry trends and technologies can increase productivity levels across the board by improving morale and efficiency within the workplace. During tough times, investing in employee training also helps ensure that your team has the skillset necessary for success when the economy recovers.

5 . Focus on Customer Service

Last but certainly not least, focusing on customer service is key when navigating a challenging economy—it’s what sets successful businesses apart from their competitors! Providing quality customer service helps build trust between your business and its customers, which translates into loyalty, a metric that can have a huge effect on sales figures over time. Consider offering customer loyalty programs or discounts for returning customers. These types of initiatives go a long way towards building positive relationships with clients who will then be more likely to recommend you to others!

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind? 

Cutting too many corners: To save money, some businesses make drastic cuts that may not be necessary or beneficial in the long run. These shortcuts often come at a greater cost later on as they may result in reduced efficiency or quality control issues that could damage customer relationships or reputations. Businesses need to take a balanced approach when making budget cuts—prioritizing investments that will provide value over time compared with those that may just offer temporary relief in the present moment.

Neglecting employee engagement: Employee engagement is especially important during difficult times because it can motivate employees to stay focused and productive while also providing them with much-needed support. Most likely, they're suffering similar financial and emotional strains at home. Companies should strive to create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their concerns, asking questions, and offering feedback so they have a better understanding of how their work contributes to overall success despite any roadblocks that may arise along the way.

Losing sight of long-term goals: It's easy for businesses to get caught up in short-term solutions when facing hard times, but this can lead them down a slippery slope if they forget about their long-term goals altogether. Companies should strive to maintain a balance between taking care of immediate needs and staying focused on their ultimate vision for success. Otherwise, they risk becoming stuck in an endless cycle of putting out fires without actually advancing towards bigger objectives down the line.

Difficult times are never easy, but with the right mindset, they can be navigated successfully. Keep an open mind when it comes to adapting new approaches to navigate through uncharted waters ahead.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

If I was to pick the single most important attribute, I would say it's to remain calm and composed. People look up to their leaders in difficult situations, and it's up to those leaders to set the tone for how their team should respond. It's easy for emotions to run high during stressful periods, but a leader must remain levelheaded so they can make rational decisions and present solutions that will help everyone move forward together. A great leader doesn't just accept adversity–they use it as an opportunity for growth by offering solutions and inspiring others through their resilience and determination.

Lastly, are there any silver linings or opportunities that can come out of a recession? We’d love to finish on a positive note if you can share.

Without a doubt! There are two ways I look at it. Businesses have increased buying power as they can take advantage of lower prices from supplies, allowing them to invest the extra money externally and/or internally as they gain access to quality talent.

On an individual level, recessions present an opportunity for personal growth and development. This gives individuals a chance to step outside their comfort zone and try new things like starting their own business or changing careers. Naturally, this involves a reassessment of their values, goals, and what matters most.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

If you're interested in following my work, I have plenty of content available online. My blog is a great resource and it's regularly updated with informative pieces on topics ranging from debt management to credit score analysis. I also post to Medium with insightful advice and wisdom gathered through years of experience in credit repair help.

Last but not least, I post helpful articles about personal financial responsibility on selfgrowth. With these three channels full of valuable information, clients can easily stay in tune with the ever-evolving field of personal finance and credit repair coaching.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success!

By Phil Gray

Philip Gray is the COO of Black and White Zebra and Founding Editor of The RevOps Team. A business renaissance man with his hands in many departmental pies, he is an advocate of centralized data management, holistic planning, and process automation. It's this love for data and all things revenue operations landed him the role as resident big brain for The RevOps Team.

With 10+ years of experience in leadership and operations in industries that include biotechnology, healthcare, logistics, and SaaS, he applies a considerable broad scope of experience in business that lets him see the big picture. An unapologetic buzzword apologist, you can often find him double clicking, drilling down, and unpacking all the things.