There are numerous possible responses by the sales function to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales executives must formulate a functional strategy as their corporate counterparts do the same. The quick creation of a revised sales strategy not only helps the sales force respond to current realities, but it also lays the foundation for generating critical, frontline data about customers and how they are responding.
At this time, the safest assumption to make about COVID-19 is it will be the single most potent force impacting the global economy since World War II. While strategic scenarios are appropriate that include a rapid “return to normal” thanks to treatments and vaccinations, it is also possible that such ameliorating developments will appear after the world economy is thoroughly disrupted and in the process of reconfiguring.
The singular difference between the COVID-19 economic crisis and prior worldwide economic upheavals is this: COVID-19 is a biological disruption. The Great Depression and Great Recession were fueled by prolonged, rampant leveraged financial speculation. COVID-19, on the other hand, is non-economic. At its root, it is a natural disaster, not a financial one.
COVID-19 is also unique in another sense. While most natural disasters such as hurricanes are location-specific, a pandemic quickly becomes worldwide. Natural disasters, by definition, are more powerful than any economic or financial tool created by man.
It is now apparent that COVID-19 cannot be stopped in weeks or months. Bodies such as the Federal Reserve or the EU are humbled by it. No amount of discount rate reduction, quantitative easing, or even massive financial investments in scientific and medical pursuits can make COVID-19 disappear. These and other actions can only help the world cope with the aftermath and help find cures and vaccines.
So, the first conclusion bearing down upon sales executives is this: a new sales strategy is mandatory. Second, you must over-communicate with your salespeople. Repetition is needed to offset the innate yearning for “business as usual.” Third, you must give the field the tools and tactics they need to survive. Fourth, you must listen when they report on what is and is not working.
Never before have the differences in sales strategies been so dramatically different for different groups of customers. You need to support an unprecedented strategy for one segment and opposite strategies for others.
The Boom Segment
Suppose you are selling toilet paper to Amazon. The sales team must become part of the customer execution team. Sales executives must mobilize the company to execute unprecedented strategies of production and distribution. Information flows back from the sales team on an hourly basis demanding adjustment.
The “We’ll Bounce Back” Segment
Continental Bank owned the commodities future financing business at the Chicago Board of Trade. The reason is that they financed traders through the tough times. They made loans no bank would consider good business. But Continental knew the market would eventually bounce back and they would enjoy market power.
The “bounce back” sales strategy begins with patience, empathy, and getting on the customer’s survival team. These are almost opposite our traditional sales strategies. We consciously lose money in the short run to win big in the long run.
The “Everything Has Changed” Segment
Will in-person training bounce back? Or might corporations adopt more on-line training, having been forced to try it during the crisis? How about river cruises down the Yangtze river? How about Pacific Ocean cruises?
The sales team must become part of the customer’s strategic change team. Or, consider the role of helping our client contacts find new jobs in other industries. When they land on their feet, they will remember who helped them. On a personal level, they are our friends, and it’s the right thing to do.
In all cases, the foundation of sales strategy development is listening. Yet the short-term disruptor stemming from COVID-19 is social distancing to stay safe. So the first questions for salespeople are: “Are you healthy and safe? Is there anything I can do to help?” Most importantly, the offer of assistance must be genuine and backed up by the company.
Then salespeople can continue with: “What is happening in your industry? Your company? Your job?” More than ever before, we need to engage in a real two-way conversation.
The basis of sales is trust. So, a pressing question for sales executives is: How do we build trust with customers when face-to-face contact is severely restricted or not an option?
One set of responses involves telephone, video conference, and digital communications. These are well-established alternatives to face-to-face selling. But the final stage of most big business deals has relied on face-to-face contact. The pressing question then becomes: Can we close new deals without face-to-face communications?
It could be that customers are willing to close relatively small deals without face-to-face closing meetings. Video conferences might work instead. Or, it could be that current accounts are even willing to close major deals without face-to-face closing meetings. Or, maybe closing meetings are attended by fewer participants.
Indeed, expanding our two-way conversations, demonstrating patience, empathy, and losing money in the short run are trust-building actions, even if not face-to-face.
Right now, executives need more than speculation or anecdotes. Details surrounding specific customers are required. Since CRM systems are designed for traditional sales cycles, some adaptations or workarounds are probably needed to gather specific sales interaction information from salespeople. The CRM system is an essential tool for segmentation and strategy development.
Purchase and Deal Delays
In times of uncertainty, buyers tend to postpone. COVID-19 has made the phrase “an abundance of caution” commonplace. Conventional wisdom says it is wise to pull back and reserve cash when the economy enters a down cycle. Some customers, however, might be inclined to invest when others are hunkering down. And some customers might be experiencing increased demand due to the pandemic and thus have a whole different set of business challenges.
The more difficult challenge is to carefully push for business without alienating customers who are negatively impacted by COVID-19. Unfortunately, this group represents the majority of customers in many industries. While salespeople are well-versed in driving for business in normal times, refined approaches are needed in the face of COVID-19. The current level of uncertainty being faced by corporations and buyers is unprecedented. The use of tried-and-true sales methods can now undermine buyer trust and sales results.
So, another important question for sales executives to address is: How must we refine our sales tactics to show full awareness of the business complexities surrounding the current COVID-19 crisis?
Salespeople cannot go about business as usual or pay lip-service to the pandemic and then move on with their typical sales tactics. Such behavior will be regarded as disingenuous. Salespeople must demonstrate a heightened level of compassion and willingness to adapt to the customer’s unique situation. For example, how can salespeople gain wisdom on how companies are dealing with COVID-19? Can they apply this knowledge to their customers and help them formulate effective responses?
Sales executives can help their salespeople quickly move up the COVID-19 learning curve. Salespeople need to track how customers are responding to COVID-19 and transmit this intelligence back to the executive team. Finding ways to do this well is a challenge to be solved on a case-by-case basis.
The Path Back
The economy is likely to change as a result of COVID-19. The question dominating the C-suite is: how significant will the change be? For example:
- Economic Engine: It is often said that consumers are the engine of the US economy. This accounts for much of the downturn in US and global stock markets. But will consumers be rehired as quickly as they were dismissed? Not likely, but a rapid recovery is possible if the US takes measures similar to other European countries which kept people employed despite COVID-19. So far, the US response seems likely to stop short of European measures, resulting in a slower US economic recovery.
- Labor Markets: This is the first time since the Great Depression that so many workers are laid off and not being paid. The potential impact on the US worker-employer contract may be profound. We already see worker protests in New York, and these may multiply as COVID-19 spreads. Will new employer-employee contracts ultimately emerge, as was the case after the Great Depression, to entice workers back to work and heal the massive wound of massive layoffs?
- New Buyer Preferences: Will buyers change their sense of what is important in life? COVID-19 is having a dramatic impact on our priorities. This could result in a tremendous shift in future buying behavior. Sensing how these changes are likely to unfold is now a very high priority for companies.
Salespeople can help companies detect how customers are responding to COVID-19. The challenge for the sales team is to move from interesting anecdotes to analytic data. For example, it is essential to know a key account has canceled a pending order. But it is far more useful for a salesperson to create a customer relationship map and specify how the decision to cancel unfolded over time across the various players.
The immediate challenge for sales executives is to craft new strategies that align with today’s realities. To do this well, they must generate customer data that can be analyzed to detect patterns and draw meaningful conclusions about how customers are responding to COVID-19.