In 2020, I reached my 30th year in business-to-business technology sales. Then, everything I thought I knew about sales blew up.
COVID-19 swept me and our company’s 50 salespeople into uncharted waters. A growing market suddenly became an uncertain one. A profession that thrives on face-to-face communication with customers became shackled by travel restrictions. The hive-like atmosphere of our sales offices was replaced by Zoom calls.
I’ve been around long enough to have worked though the worst crises of the last few decades – the dot.com crash, 9/11, the Great Recession – but nothing prepared me as a sales leader for the topsy-turvy new normal we found ourselves in. The pandemic changed nearly everything about how salespeople do their jobs, interact with customers, and work with each other.
With the initial shock behind us, as economies tentatively start to reopen and we look to a brighter future, I’ve been reflecting on the changes and challenges brought on by COVID-19 and how we’ve tried to tackle them. While no operator’s manual exists to handle an emergency as unique as this one, I think I’ve come away with at least some rough guidelines that could be helpful to other sales organizations, whether for managing the current crisis or the next one.
The 5 Biggest Lessons I Learned
Customer relationships will become muddled. Life was good for sales organizations before COVID-19. The economy was strong, and many companies were in a buying mood. After COVID-19, the picture turned far hazier, with some companies slashing spending, some putting in new controls that delay deals closing, and still others staying the course. Other complicating factors include finding out that the person you were working with at a company was laid off or furloughed, or that a more senior executive – someone you don’t know and whom your customer contact doesn’t normally work with – is now responsible for signing all purchase orders.
How does a sales leader solve this puzzle? Help salespeople accept that this tricky environment is their new reality, one that requires patience, persistence, and grit. Enlist the CEO to reach out to a senior leader of at least two customer companies every day. Ask staff members and sales leaders to help you climb the approval chain. And expect that revenue will tilt for a while toward growth from existing customers rather than new logos because, in times of uncertainty, buyers tend to go to the vendors they know. This also means customer success is even more important than it already was.
The all-virtual sales model is a big change. Even in today’s digital world, enterprise technology sales remains a largely in-person business. Sometimes, you just can’t beat a face-to-face meeting in a customer’s office or over lunch or coffee to build rapport and get deals done. Now, everything has moved to videoconferencing, which is a major change in relationship dynamics.
There’s a positive side to this. Before COVID-19, few Fortune 500 customers would hold a videoconference with a vendor – everything was done in person or by teleconference. Zoom’s emergence as a common business platform has made it easier and more acceptable to connect by video, and that can lead to deeper relationships. In fact, according to a McKinsey survey of B2B salespeople, “While some skepticism remains, more than half believe this is equally or more effective than sales models used before COVID-19.” It will be interesting to see if and when we go back to the pre-pandemic frequency of face-to-face meetings in enterprise selling. I believe we will. However, we will also leverage video calls with customers far more frequently.
Remote teams are a big change too. Half of our company’s sales team works in offices. They’re used to a vibrant atmosphere where they can ask each other questions, learn from one another or share a joke. Now, everyone is working from home. And many are Millennials, who have never been through a global crisis before.
To stave off isolation and keep these employees focused and collaborative, we err on the side of overcommunication – Zoom huddles twice a day, many one-to-one conversations, our leaders proactively checking in with these folks. A lot is being asked of these people – to simultaneously reorient themselves to new work styles and a different approach to selling – and we can’t have them feeling lonely or unsure. We have a lot of teammates who can’t wait to get back to their team-oriented offices.
A positive sales approach works best. Companies that kept their pulse on changing customer attitudes and strove to deliver an outstanding experience during the Great Recession showed three times higher return than customer experience laggards, according to a McKinsey study. So we immediately simplified our sales strategy to show the importance of customer empathy and understanding changing customer needs, reactions and behavior (even during a downturn). Then, we demonstrated how our solution helps businesses manage risk while finding new or alternate revenue channels along with improving existing digital channels and experiences.
Offer value in a crisis. Almost immediately after the pandemic hit, every brand wrestled with the same questions about how to react. Do we look like we’re taking advantage if we trumpet coronavirus-related messages? Do we seem clueless if we simply ignore it? We decided to address the crisis head on by offering a new set of templates for marketers to test a company’s COVID-19 messaging and response, as well as a set of templates for product and research teams to better understand how the pandemic has affected consumer behavior and attitudes. Our customers have been extremely appreciative of these offerings, and with their input and feedback, we continue to deliver new innovative templates and approaches targeted to navigating these unsure times.
This pandemic has been tough and a hard test of sales organizations’ resilience. At the same time, a crisis acts like a forcing function, making people prioritize what matters most, and in business, that should come down to the people – our employees, customers, partners and our communities. The more we understand and can empathize with them and solve problems that meet their needs, we’ll come out of this stronger. After all, business is human.
David Satterwhite is chief revenue officer at UserTesting, a human insights platform.