It’s been a series of tidal waves. First came the news of a virus coming out of Asia’s wet markets. Then came the cruise ships that were floating petri dishes. Then the growing number of cases in countries like Italy and China. Then our sheltering in place orders across most US cities. And now the growing number of domestic and global cases.
There’s no question it’s a terrifying time for all of us. A natural instinct may be to crawl up in a big ball and hibernate. Or even worse: panic. When this quarantine first hit us, my therapist told me, “The Chinese character for crisis is composed of danger plus opportunity.” We are undoubtedly faced with a dangerous situation. But our only choice lies in how we respond. Despite the chaos around us, we always have the option to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and establish a plan of action. We need to make the conscious choice of seeing opportunities where they lie, and pursuing them relentlessly. Here’s how I would think about sales in this Coronavirus reality.
It’s Prime Time for Building Pipeline
TV executives have known the concept of captive audience for the longest time. They have programmed their best bits for the boob tube on nights where folks are at home. Just look at television schedules today. The most successful shows are more than likely on nights where folks are at home: Monday, Thursday, and Sunday nights, for example. It’s no secret the NFL — who routinely has the majority of the top television shows by ratings any given year — has ended up on those nights. Radio executives have lived by this as well, putting their best programming during “drive time”, when folks commute to and from work in their cars. Commuters are captive in their cars, and in desperate need for entertainment. Radio is their best and perhaps only option.
More than any other time in recent history, you have a captive audience of folks confined at home, with unprecedented access to technology platforms we can broadcast to. Our shelter in place orders have forced us in quarantines and have severely limited our in-person social interactions, so we’re seeking connection online. As social animals, we are confined in tight spaces and are craving social interaction and mental stimuli more than ever. And it’s happening all over the world. That’s a clear and gigantic opportunity for you to come in and create conversations.
Barring having small children that need constant attention, most adults will want to chat and will be open to doing so. Their distractions and outside activities have been dwindled to next to nothing. If you nail tone in your outreach (more on that later), you’ll be able to build up a glut of pipeline in Q2, which you’ll be harvesting in Q3 and Q4.
Now, going through procurement or even closing complex sales is going to be tougher as folks are more disconnected than ever. Yes, we’re getting better at working remotely, but most organizations haven’t worked out the wrinkles of that yet. It’s also tougher right now to create urgency down your sales funnel and drive deals to a close. If I was a founder or a head of sales, I would put a lot of my energy into starting a lot of conversations and building pipeline. I would actually double down on it. I might even move some of my AEs to prospecting. This abundance of opportunities is something you’ll collect on in the latter portion of the year when things start getting back to normal. Companies that adopt this strategy will end up saving their year.
If you thought this was only theoretical, I’ll submit that we’re seeing early signs that top of the funnel activities are generating more results right now. Within my consultancy, we have seen a decrease in Cost-per-Lead on Facebook, and also an increase in open and reply rates on outbound email in the past few weeks.
Communication: Nail Your Tone
If you’re going to focus your efforts on generating opportunities, your only risk is not nailing tone in your communications. People are especially touchy these days, and reaching out with messaging that could be considered insensitive can turn people off very quickly. So you’re going to want to be extra careful. Lead with empathy.
Your stance is going to be that of a waiter at a restaurant with a general message of “How can I help?” rather than “This is why you should use our product!” You’ll score points being extra friendly and informal during this time. Remember, people are most likely starving for human communication and intellectual stimulation. Think hard about that as you’re putting together your messaging. Salesy emails are not likely to land well during this time. Don’t push the sale, but tell prospects it might be worth having a quick conversation to see if there’s a fit. Think about including a personalized video message to your prospects. Seeing other human faces matters to all of us; particularly right now. Think about honoring each person’s humanity. Build relationships. In our startup community, founders are well known for asking each other out to coffee to share best practices and exchange feedback on their respective products. That’s the type of feel your messaging must have. If you go about formulating your outbound emails this way, you are going to start booking a lot of introductory calls for yourself, during this time of crisis.
And remember, when you do chat with folks, make it about them, and their pain points. Nobody wants to have a product shoved down their throats. Nobody wants you to tell them about your product’s benefits, unless it applies to them. Especially now. You’re going to want to lead with pain points more than ever. As a close friend of mine told me a few nights ago over FaceTime, “This is a good time to get back to fundamentals.” This climate will be less forgiving to faux pas’, or clumsy communication. If you’re buttoned up, you’ll do just fine.
Closing Deals: Focus on ROI
Now what if you did want to close deals during this time? What things do you need to consider to actually get deals moving down the funnel, and across the goal line?
Three letters: R-O-I.
With the contraction happening in the economy, your prospects are getting very cost-conscious. There’s no room for fluff. Selling with charisma or personality will not suffice. The rubber has met the road. And we need to make sure that products generate a positive ROI. And it’s important to articulate that in very simple, digestible terms.
Let’s take a quick detour to illustrate my point….Hiring freezes and layoffs have already commenced. And more are coming. If you sell a tool that is supposed to enhance or empower a group of people within a business, this is your time to act. Folks will be looking to increase the productivity of their existing teams, without the need to add headcount. If you can prove to them that you can add a team member’s productivity, then you need to make that case right away. That will ensure that you close deals, even in this climate. Several years ago at Whitetruffle, where I ran sales, we used to sell an Agent package, which leveraged our talent sourcing platform and layered on a human component. We would have a person internally that would have a quick conversation with sourced candidates, in order to prequalify them, before we sent them to our employer clients. Our pitch to employers was that we could delay their hiring of a sourcer. Instead of paying a $80K – $90K salary per year in a city like San Francisco, or New York, you could hire us on a month-to-month basis for $3K/month. The ROI case was easy to make: it was $36K on demand versus $80K for a full-time hire, not counting benefits. And you could delay any real hiring. If you can make a similar case in this climate, you will have a good chance of closing.
If you’re formulating your sales strategy (like a few of my clients are currently doing), it’s time to think hard about the newer constraints that have been thrown into the mix. Folks are going to be more skittish about spending a large amount of cash in the immediate future, unless you are able to convince them there is positive ROI. You might have to extend trials or offer flexible payment terms to prove even more value upfront. If you can find a way to land and expand right now, I’d highly recommend it. The idea is this: if you can get people on the sauce at a lower price tag — without going through procurement — you’ve got a shot to land and expand later on. Think about pricing per seat and allowing people to pay for your product with their own credit card, before recruiting more members to join once you have delivered a ton of value. Lower the bar for entry, and let your product do the selling. That type of strategy is more than likely going to succeed in these difficult times.
Spring Cleaning: What can we do better?
You hear of people doing “spring cleaning” activities during this hiatus. It’s your chance to do the same thing within your sales organization. Look at your tool stack. Do you really need that Nth tool? Is it delivering value? Is there a different tool you’ve been meaning to try, that could provide a productivity boost or eliminate operational inefficiencies? Now might be the time to get on a demo with the vendor and/or sign up for a trial.
Examine your sales funnel. What conversion rate can you take a stab at improving? What things can you install to make it better? Review your staff. Who needs extra training right now? Who can I help level up? What can I do to make them better salespeople? These are questions you should be asking yourself at this time.
We’re usually so busy running around and chasing deals, that we don’t take enough time to take stock and regroup. This is just the time to engage in that type of thinking and strategizing. Tidy things up within sales. This little bit of slow down allows you to take stock in your sales model and work out some of the wrinkles you might have been ignoring for quite a while. Take the space to see what’s working and what’s not, and start putting in place initiatives that can fix your issues.
Overall, it’s most important to be flexible with your approach. Many rules have been thrown out the window in a matter of weeks, and adaptability will be a major factor for companies that emerge from this period. Resistance to change, or clinging to old strategies will be an impediment to survival.
Paul is a Personas partner helping early stage startups scale their sales! If you are a founder please reach out to him, he's super friendly... we promise.
If you need help during this trying time, email Paul for a free consultation about how to set your startup up for a successful 2020. Feel free to drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a time. Be well and stay safe!
Paul's website: https://paulgassee.com/
Paul's Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/paulgassee/