Sales and the COVID-19 Pandemic
I’ve seen a lot of advice lately about everything from…
- selling during the pandemic
- to working from home
- to managing a newly-remote sales force (with surprise visits during web conferences from pets and children)
- to helping organizations shift to virtual instructor-led or online training.
I’m not a crisis management expert, by any means, but I’m rarely short on opinions [cue laugh track here]. On the sales front, I sold during the 9/11 aftermath (I was running my own consulting business at the time), and I’ve helped sales forces weather a few other economic (and business model disruption) storms. On the training front, I’m a long-time advocate of vILT (both as a standalone teaching method and as a part of a blended curriculum). On the WFH (work from home) topic, I’ve done that full-time from 2000-2003, part-time from 2013-2015, and full-time again from late 2015 to the present. So, if you are struggling with these issues with your business, I’m happy to talk to you.
I’ll focus here on some sales advice for times like these.
First, I recommend you read these posts by Matt Heinz, Dave Brock, Mike Weinberg, and Dave Kurlan – all friends of mine, all of whom get it:
- Matt Heinz: https://www.heinzmarketing.com/2020/03/is-it-ethical-to-keep-selling-right-now/
- Dave Brock: http://partnersinexcellenceblog.com/buying-during-difficult-times/
- Mike Weinberg: https://mikeweinberg.com/?s=coronavirus
- Dave Kurlan: http://www.omghub.com/salesdevelopmentblog/why-you-will-finally-pay-the-price-of-not-selling-value
I have my own take on things, as usual, but there’s some great advice in there to start with as well.
The best approach to selling right now should not be that different than what I’d hope it’d always be. But, based on the hundreds of horrible prospecting approaches I receive, I know that best practice is not common practice. The current crisis highlights the need for a behavior shift, so it’s even more critical now to get it right. If you’re not already thinking about sales in a buyer-centric way to create “human differentiation,” this is the time to start.
I believe that sales approaches in a time of crisis require a mix of Relationship, Value, Patience, Intent, and Empathy. If you need a way to remember that, just think about serving up “R-Value-PIE” (our value pie).
On its own, “Relationship Selling” is not sufficient in modern selling, but developing good relationships remains critical. Rather than back-slapping camaraderie, delivering donuts, or traversing a golf course together, think in terms of:
- Expressing caring and concern for others
- Developing trust
- Demonstrating a buyer-centric mindset
- Keeping your commitments
- Focusing on the outcomes that others want to achieve
- Being authentic, transparent, and acting with integrity.
What do these things look like? How would someone judge whether or not they applied to you? Think about that, and what you would need to say or do to help someone else feel they apply to you, and then structure your sales approaches accordingly. If you struggle with that, sometimes it helps to identify what the opposite looks like – how you don’t want to be perceived – and then structure your approach to avoid that.
Value is like beauty – it’s in the eye of the beholder. At SPARXiQ, we slice up value in terms of:
- Business (performance, financial, metrics)
- Experiential (providing a better employee or customer experience or process)
- Aspirational (furthering the organization’s mission, vision, or underlying values)
- Personal (positive impacts on the buyer as an individual, either in their own life, work-life, or career trajectory).
To the best of your ability to judge, what matters most to your buyer right now? In a time of crisis, consider Maslow’s Hierarchy. It’s likely that Personal Needs and need for safety are elevated – so it’s best to check in on the person first (aligned with the Relationship theme above). Then, if that goes well, you can progress to the other things that matter and where you might be able to relieve stress or help their company through a difficult time.
If you have a product or service that can help your customers or prospective buyers now to get through this difficult time in better condition, it’d be negligent, in my opinion, not to reach out. We just need to do it based on the relationship and value advice here (and with patience, intent, and empathy).
When I started doing top producer analysis years ago, I was surprised to see patience consistently emerge as a differentiating factor between the top and middle producers. When you think of top sales performers, it’s not the first trait that comes to mind. Eventually, I began to think of patience as a superpower of selling.
What do I mean, and why is it important now?
When top reps see that a buyer has a problem they can solve with their product or service, they rarely pounce on it. Average and low producers almost always jump on it. Rather than be a product-pitcher, even when there is NASA (Need And Solution Alignment), the best reps take a deep breath and slow down. They ask questions. They gather more facts. They gauge the full impact of the problem and what solving it might mean for the buyer. Basically, they move into a patient and curious state, while they build a business case for change. Then, when they and the buyer are in lockstep about the need the rep has fully developed, they shift into a problem-solving mode, with the buyer, to co-create a solution that the buyer feels they own. This behavior is always helpful in professional, complex B2B selling, but never more so than during challenging times.
A friend of mine, Mim Abbey, who is an extraordinary leadership and transformation consultant, is fond of saying, “Leaders communicate intent clearly and often.” So should professional salespeople. Mahan Khalsa and Randy Illig, authors of “Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play,” say, “Intent matters more than technique.” Let these quotes be your guide. If you clearly express (your sincere) concern for your buyers, and if it comes across in your tone of voice, your words – or if using video, your body language – your buyers and customers will usually “pick up” on your good intentions. But don’t just hope for mind-reading to kick in… remember to communicate your intentions clearly and often, to help your buyers and customers know that you have their best interest at heart.
By doing the above, you are already demonstrating empathy. You can be more explicit, though, by acknowledging the situation and your exploring your contact’s feelings or emotions about it – as much as they are willing to share, and without being creepy. We also recommend this in our model for resolving buyer concerns.
Sometimes a simple, “How have current events affected you or your business, Mike?” can work. Consider their feelings, thought processes, and perspectives, and let them know you acknowledge and understand them, as much as possible. In this sense, “acknowledge” means to recognize their concern and demonstrate that they’ve been heard and understood. (Acknowledging doesn’t always mean you agree with them, although sometimes you will.) When expressing empathy, remember it’s about them, not you. Avoid “I” statements (such as “I understand”) and use “You” statements instead (such as “It sounds like you’re feeling… or you believe… or you think… and summarize their perspective).
Is R-Value-PIE flawless? No. (Is anything?) Especially not in a crisis, when emotions run high and fear may be present. But done with care, it should help you communicate your good intentions and desire to help during a difficult time.
Lastly, I’d hope this goes without saying, but don’t reach out now if your products or services don’t really address one of the Values or offer support for what your buyers or customers may be going through. And always remember that nurturing may be the better choice than selling, if your customer is not in the right place – from a mindset or financial perspective – to buy.
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