Put Your Thinking Caps On: How To Sell During The Coronavirus Pandemic


Originally published in Forbes

By Randy Illig

As businesses shift to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic, the sales profession needs to adjust the way we do business but not the why we do business.

Sales is best defined as helping clients succeed. When we help our clients succeed, we succeed as well. In times like these, it’s easy to start thinking about and acting on what is important to us, our quota, our commission, our needs. Clients can sense this immediately and will back away.

How can salespeople survive or even come out stronger during this disruption? I asked several executives for their insights and advice. Each of these executives has focused their teams on their clients’ needs, and the most important thing sales leaders can do right now is maintain that focus.

A leader I spoke with observed: “We faced a similar story during the oil embargo in 1987 and 9-11. And while this is different in terms of its severity and swiftness, the order of the day is the same. Practice ‘sales yoga’: take some deep breaths and stay calm.”

How is the pandemic currently impacting B2B sales pipelines?

  • One leader observed that customers are focused on their employees’ safety, as they should be. But it is causing some softness in the pipeline, which he thinks will continue. His sense was that the comeback will be faster and stronger than ever, although it will expose weaknesses, and those who are weak won’t make it.
  •  Another sales leader reports no direct impact to the business yet. They expect to make and actually exceed their quarter ending in March. But they are beginning to see a softness in their pipeline, deal slippage, meetings canceled, and site visits eliminated. But he didn’t see the impact being severe, due to their large client base in the government, where business is surging. He believes the government business will counterbalance what is lost or postponed commercially.
  •  Another reports that clients are fortunately maintaining—not cancelling—meetings by moving to video. As clients work from home, some are granting more access (virtually) to the sales force and even accelerating projects. One leader said about a large client: “They have problems to solve that they can’t solve with existing resources, so they’re moving on it.”
  •   As one leader cautioned, “This is not an excuse to do nothing. Our employers will continue to expect us to produce results.”
  •    The situation is obviously different for some B2B organizations and in the B2C sector, which are experiencing immediate challenges, including a decline or stoppage in cash flow.
  •  A leader in a mature industry where clients expect a lot of face time noted that prior to the pandemic, his organization had been trying to reposition this expectation due to the cost. “This is a huge opportunity for us,” he said. “The silver lining is the opportunity to try new things with our clients without the risk. We don’t have to be the bad guy. What new things have we always wanted to try? We are very well intentioned; it’s just that our clients have resisted some things we have wanted to do to serve them differently, and now they’re open to new ways. Sending a team to a client costs us $10,000 to $12,000 in travel. For $400, we can send the participants an iPad to their home. We have a unique window here.”
  •  One observer noted this could lead to an explosion of innovationPrior to 9-11, banks followed the federal banking regulations to process paper checks, putting them on cargo jets each night and flying them all over the United States. The terror attacks of September 11 shut that down and forced the Check 21 system into place. Today, none of that paper moves; it’s all done electronically. He predicted lasting innovations will come out of this period of time as well.

What can sales leaders and professional do to survive this disruption?

  •    A number of executives suggested we must learn how to excel at the remote sale. Think about how to turn everything virtual. For example, so many companies do corporate tours where they show their facilities and capabilities. Move that entirely online, so someone could be sitting at home and have that same experience. We should quickly be building those assets. Turn everything virtual, with an emphasis on video.
  •     One sales leader has directed his sales force to divert all attention to existing accounts and stop pursuit of new logos. He acknowledges the strategy may be right or wrong, but he’s betting that one of the key elements that causes companies to choose one company over another is trust. And it’s going to be hard to establish trust during this time with somebody you don’t know. They’re putting their energy where they have existing high-trust relationships.
  •     There’s one skill we always need to work on, and it’s become even more critical: listening. Converse with customers rather than relying on a slide deck. One leader said, “I’m always against PowerPoints because it just says you’re lecturing, but you really don’t know if the client is focused on a PowerPoint over the phone. If you’re situationally conversing, you’re at least understanding if they’re distracted or you’re having a solid interaction and engagement.”
  •     Another suggested that we be more efficient with meeting timeVirtual meetings often start late and have a hard stop, so be prepared. Plan out your calls as structured conversations, with thoughtful research and prepared questions. Use a conversation planner. Don’t wing it. To avoid disengagement, state upfront that you’ll be asking questions and listening for much of the discussion.
  •     Take advantage of the new platform skillsCheck the background of your physical space. Have you assessed the image you’re projecting onscreen? Do you have the correct technology for streaming clear video and sound? How are you dressing for your video calls? When and how do you use screen sharing or other tools?

Generally, sales people are used to being independent, working from home, and conducting business over the phone or video. But many of our customers aren’t as used to this mode, and they’re being disrupted, too.

Some leaders are perceiving this challenge as a leap forward into a new operating rhythm, a different way of interacting with clients. Others expect a swift return to face time once the danger has passed.

We can’t know who will be correct, but it’s interesting to look at this problem not from a “How do we cope with this lesser way of interacting?” to “How can we maximize this new way of interacting?”

Randy Illig is global leader of FranklinCovey’s Sales Performance Practice.