April 1, 2020

Seeking Best Practices for Selling Through the Coronavirus Crisis

Erika Cruz

Suddenly, B2B salespeople accustomed to prizing the in-person meeting with a customer or potential customer above all else are stuck at home. Not only are they being encouraged to “shelter at home” as much as possible during a worldwide pandemic but few of the people they would like to meet with are in the office anyway. Even those places of business that are still open are likely discouraging if not prohibiting visits from non-essential guests.

What’s a salesperson to do? As students of sales productivity, we know software alone can’t solve every problem — although we’re working on additional ways we can help — and the sales strategy that is perfect for one organization may not be right for another. Still, there ought to be some common denominators. We went looking for the best practices being shared by salespeople and sales coaches, and here is what we found.

Don’t Be Too Pushy — But Don’t Be Too Shy, Either

Certainly, one of the mistakes you could make at this time is to come across as a hard-charging salesperson determined to close deals at a time when people and businesses are under stress — severe stress, in some cases. The contact you reach by phone or coax into a Zoom meeting could be worrying about a parent in the hospital, plunging sales for their own business, the possibility that they are about to be laid off, or all of the above.

On the other hand, if you have something to sell that could help them solve a significant problem, you want to let them know about it. And even if what you’re selling doesn’t rise to the level of something they will prioritize buying right now, you would like to lay the groundwork for what your business might be able to do for their business when the immediate crisis is past.

Making a human and humane connection is essential at times like this, so if a client is willing to even speak with you be prepared to spend time talking about how they and their families are doing before getting down to business. Then keep the business conversation focused on the most important problems they need to solve now, as well as the opportunities for later you might plan for together now.

As Brian Burns writes on the B2B Revenue Leadership blog, “With such trying times ahead, many on social media are suggesting people should stop selling for the time being. However, this notion suggests sales are a nefarious ploy to take advantage of others when this is simply not the case. The goal with B2B sales should be to help others and improve their businesses, which is something business owners need now more than ever.”

Creative Deal Making

On his Sales Evangelist podcast, Donald Kelly suggests thinking creatively about structuring deals people won’t be able to resist, even if that means offering steep discounts or deferring payment entirely until the customer can afford to pay, if buying now would otherwise be impossible.

For the right deal, customers who still have some money in the bank (or the budget) may agree to seal a deal now even if the product or service is something they won’t be able to use until later. Kelly recalls that in a past role selling software his team would use techniques like that, even in better times, when deals were hard to come by around the Christmas holidays. “We would look for deals that wouldn’t cost us more money,” he says, such as selling software that already existed on more liberal terms. “Give them a license or two as an add-on bonus,” he says. “Make it a deal like they can’t resist at the moment.”

He finds himself getting similarly tempting offers in his personal life such as killer deals from Frontier Airlines that make him think he should buy now, even if he can’t travel now, because he will be able to take a great vacation later.

Pick Up the Phone

You may not be able to visit a prospect in person, or not easily, but you can make calls — even if no one is working at their regular desk in some corporate office building.

“We live in 2020, the office is a relic, just like gas-powered cars are. The expectation is that people hunkered down at home are working and focused on deliver against existing corporate objectives. It is only going to take them a few days to settle into their new surroundings. Now I understand that many businesses are shuttered down and are neither buying nor selling,” sales strategy advisor Tibor Shanto writes in a blog post. “But many others going full thrust, having just shifted their base of operations. This is why when some people say there is no one to call, I have to call bullshit.”

You say you don’t have your prospect’s mobile phone number? So what? If they’re doing business at all, they’re probably doing at least some of it via their business phone number. If they haven’t forwarded it to their mobile, they are doubtless checking voicemail multiple times per day. And weren’t you getting their voicemail far more often than you got them answering the phone, even before this? Shanto thinks this is the perfect time to practice the art of asynchronous selling, leaving messages the recipients will actually listen to and that will make them motivated to return the call.

If you manage to connect, start the conversation slowly, with consideration and respect. “I want to talk to them, but I don’t just want to see me as a sales guy,” Shanto said when we connected with him over Zoom. “Let them know, ‘I’m lost like everybody else and need to talk to smart people.’” Present yourself as a problem solver who can help them get things figured out.

Test the Waters

The people you want to have sales conversations with may be interested in talking with you immediately, soon, or never. Even if they want what you’re selling, they may not be able to take action now. Their nerves may be so frayed that they will bite your head off for making even the most subtle sales overture. Or talking to you may be a welcome diversion from other, less pleasant matters, particularly if they already know and like you.

This is a minefield to be navigated carefully. Your goal should be establish and nurture relationships, understanding that the wrong move could ruin them.

“You cannot NOT be empathetic right now,” sales trainer John Barrows says in a video you can find on LinkedIn. “This is a time to stop the cadence, stop the pressing play based on templates … and be deeply, deeply personal.”

The customers you are targeting are probably in one of three situations:

  1. Full lockdown and unwilling to consider buying anything
  2. Evaluating what they can do to save money and keep doing business
  3. Eagerly awaiting your call because you have exactly what they need, either right now or based on their strategic planning for the future

You need to know where they are within that spectrum. If they’re in category #1, probably the only offer you should make is your sympathy and friendship. You want them to know you will be there when they are ready and able to come out of hiding. As Barrows puts it, your line is, “Good luck, and let me know if there is anything I can do to help.”

In category #2, seeking efficiencies, they may be willing to talk if you can connect your offering to how they can save or make money, despite the pandemic. Meanwhile, you can hope for #3, but be realistic about how few customers are going to be ready and raring to go.

This may be a time to resurrect the “1, 2, 3, stuck under a rock” email prospecting, Barrows says, referring to the technique of structuring an email as a multiple choice quiz the recipient can respond to quickly with an indication of where they fall on the spectrum from very interested, a little bit interested, never call me again, or “stuck under a rock” and unable to talk right now because of some unrelated crisis. In this case, you want to know whether they are completely shut down or still trying to do business.

Whatever the answer is, “it’s going to change next week, going to change tomorrow,” Barrows says.

Shanto agrees with the importance of figuring out the customer’s mindset but disagrees with the multiple choice email approach. “If you look at that email, basically it’s saying, where’s my order?“ Instead of pushing people to put themselves into a category, “you can get to the same question in a much more human way.”

Pay Attention to Opportunities

“Don’t panic, instead, look for opportunities,” one SmartCompany article on doing business during the crisis advises. “Clever investors, business leaders and salespeople look at downturns in markets as opportunities find new ways, new solutions, new markets. They look at the evidence at hand, the trends that are emerging and see opportunity, when many others see disaster.”

In addition to creating new products and services tailored to current conditions, your business probably has an opportunity to do things during a lull in sales that will pay off in the long run. At Tact.ai, we’re getting serious about a website redesign that’s been planned for months. Individual salespeople can read books and take (online) courses they have been meaning to read that will make them more effective in the future, even if business is slow now.

In his own consulting practice, Shanto created a detailed strategic playbook for one client last year but wondered if the business leader there would ever find time to pursue it. “Now, I’m calling him up and saying, Dude, you’ve got nothing else going now — let’s go!

Erika Cruz
Erika Cruz
Former Marketing and Sales Experience at Tact.ai

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