The Right Kind of Help Is Not What You Think

Author: 
Maria Boulden

After a series of delays to critical upgrades, the world has blue-screened and is now in the process of painfully rebooting. We don’t know how long the process will take nor which point we are within it.

For some, the commercial impact of COVID-19 has meant a surge of demand: consumer products such as toilet paper and toothpaste, cloud services and any company selling products that support a home-based workforce. But for most, it has ravaged market ecosystems, devastated balance sheets and has left a trail of record unemployment, the purgatory of furloughed jobs and, most tragically, an open wound from the human losses. In many ways, this very humanity is bringing out the best in the often-misunderstood world of sales.

Companies like DuPont, FedEx and Ford have mobilized to expand and/or change their production wheel to get critical personal protective equipment to healthcare workers and other essential personnel on the front lines of the pandemic. Sales reps are at the leading edge of that charge to orchestrate supply where it is needed most. MVP Healthcare is partnering with their biggest competitors in the New York/Vermont area to expand virtual access to medical providers, diagnostic testing and follow up for their collective members. In the words of Kelly Smith, Commercial Sales Leader for MVP, “there’s never been a better time to do the right thing.”

Beyond the headlines, sales professionals all over the world are leading with humanity, humility and compassion as they work to lift customers out of turmoil and onto a recovery path, however long it may be.

This is occurring with intense internal financial pressures to stop the bleeding. A Gartner poll of chief sales officers (CSOs) across all regions and industry verticals in April shows that, on average, full-year revenue projections have dropped by an average of 15%. This same survey indicates that, on average, selling expense budgets are getting cut by 18% and, worse, as part of this, 35% of CSOs either have or will execute a reduction of force. The pressure is mounting on sales reps to deliver in the face of impossible conditions ranging from no demand to no supply and less resources to support them.

And yet, as we have seen in most downturns, a new population of super star sellers are born from the worst possible conditions. Ironically, the best sales professionals today are leading the way by avoiding one of the most common, most compassionate questions we hear in the COVID-19 crisis: “How can I help?” Not because we are opportunistic, myopic, selfish and/or conniving, but because of the relative uncertainty in customer ecosystems today. The only certainty in customer’s minds right now is expense management. With this in mind, it serves to reason that the easiest and most expected reply is a directive to give a lower price and longer payment terms with shorter lead times.

An April 2020 Gartner survey of chief financial officers (CFOs) confirms that 41% of companies were requesting longer payment terms. Easy and obvious but, in today’s circumstances not necessarily the responses that truly help in both the short and the long term.

If the ultimate open-ended question is the wrong one to ask, what’s the right discussion choreography in a health-turned-economic-crisis that makes the recession of 2008 – 10 look like a one-hour seminar on tough market conditions? How do we actually help customers not just survive this crisis but thrive as we emerge from it?

Lead With Insight

The best sales professionals don’t lead with a 40-page chart deck describing their company’s history, product portfolio, features or benefits – especially now. The best sales professionals lead with commercial insight focused on making their customer better. They understand their customer’s business deeply. They understand their ecosystem, their strategy, how they make money, how they beat their competitors, how they grow profitably and, of most importance, their mission and motivation to do it. With this understanding, the sales professional is able to help customers understand things about their business that they don’t fully grasp today and should – because it makes the customer better able to accomplish their own goals. So, ultimately they don’t lead with their own company at all. The best sales professionals lead to it.

Make Sense of the World Around Us

As if the world wasn’t already a ball of confusion before the pandemic, it just kicked things up to a whole new unprecedented level. A 2019 Gartner research study confirmed that B2B buyers continue to use digital channels throughout their entire purchase journey – including at the actual time of purchase—to feel confident in their ultimate decision.

Unfortunately, there really is such a thing as “too much of a good thing” and the time to get from inquisitive to overwhelmed by high-quality, trustworthy supplier information is exactly the amount of time it takes to enter text into a search engine and hit “return”.

Most buyers are overwhelmed despite the best of intentions by thought leaders everywhere, who have hit every production metric associated with pumping out new content. A 2019 Gartner study that revealed this, also showed that sellers were 80% more likely to drive decision confidence and low-regret deals by helping their customers make sense of this bombardment.

Develop Scenario Plans to Ensure Recovery Readiness

One progressive CSO explained how his team is using a hypothesis-led customer engagement framework to have a more productive discussion with customers. The process establishes common beliefs on how the customers business would likely be impacted by the current challenges. It also explores likely economic ramifications, and actions that can be taken to address the impacts. This is particularly helpful given that the black swan event that is the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered nearly all predictive models useless. Thus, this hypothesis-led discussion enables a seller to lead with insight, make sense of the information bombarding their customer and support a different type of scenario planning rooted in partnership now, through and beyond the crisis.

These three techniques, especially used in combination, are proving to be powerful both for sellers and the clients who rely on them for the right products or services at the right place and the right time. This is because it’s the ultimate way of helping customers not just survive this economic apocalypse, but thrive as we emerge from it. The world has hit the “reset button” and the new definition of world class is the seller who helps. And, specifically, the seller who leverages these three techniques to help by driving customer confidence and success—in a way uniquely linked to the company that sales professional represents.

Maria Boulden is executive partner in Gartner’s sales practice.