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A fresh approach to communication and creative spaces helps sales teams overcome coronavirus limitations


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I sit down on a tree stump next to the dusty forest trail and take a few deep breaths. I am three miles into a ten-mile run when I brush the sweat from my eyes to take a call from someone on my sales team. One of our customers is facing some new challenges, we need to talk it out. I am thinking clearly in my open-air office. This is my new normal — for now, and maybe even for longer. 

The power of a positive attitude runs in my blood. It’s something I leverage as part of my hobby — ultra running. In the midst of a 15-hour race, the struggle is 50% physical and 50% mental. Nothing around ultra races comes easy and every race brings unique challenges. You have to work through the pain, and know there is a rewarding end in sight. One step at a time, I tell myself, keep moving forward. It’s the only way to reach that finish line. 

As the head of a sales team, surrounded by a great group of leaders, we want that same sort of drive to resonate across our whole organization. The coronavirus crisis, and the unique conditions that have followed, demands that leaders and managers adjust how they interact with their own people. 

I had so many distractions traveling four to five days per week in Ubers, trains, and planes. Most of our team lived in a similar way. Today, I have traded the bustling airport concourse for the quiet dirt trails in my neighborhood. In the past, I would get a maximum of two runs per week, but now I am running every single day and encouraging others to get some form of fresh air no matter the time of day. I know it makes me more productive. I can feel the boost in creativity, and it has made me reconsider some things.  

Amid this travel lull, there is a chance to change how we relate and to deepen relationships with individual team members. For me, not only does a lull allow the freedom to get outside more often, but it also offers the opportunity to make more direct calls to our salespeople. These days those talks end up being about a lot more than business, and it is leading to a much richer personal and professional experiences. Keeping the lines of communication open, creating space for new ideas, and changing the ways we think about sales success are making the best of a tricky situation.  

Talking to your team 

From day one of this crisis, my goal was to keep as close as possible to business as usual. Our team had regular weekly meetings, segment meetings, and the usual one-on-ones. We use team messaging, video conferencing, and phone calls to keep in touch frequently. It quickly became clear that we were doing all these things more often. We were speaking to each other much more and I realized this was an opportunity to engage more closely. 

Nobody asked for this coronavirus lockdown, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make the best of it. We turn on our video cameras for all meetings. Whether the discussion is internal or external, sharing, and seeing a person’s facial expression helps to build trust, credibility, and partnership. Internally, the visual connection helps to replicate some of the softer communication we more typically experience in an office environment. As long as it is not a direct meeting with a customer or prospect, people dress casually. We are all more than used to the occasional background noise from family or dogs. That’s par for the course in this temporary lifestyle.

Increased communication within our team has undoubtedly led to a flowering of new ideas. One item I changed post-lockdown was to boost the sharing of best practices by account executives and managers. In an unusual sales environment, we are all forced to innovate on the fly. Closer communication means we are better able to share ideas and adjust. This has stimulated new ways of thinking when it comes to prospecting and doing business. It’s been fun to watch how people have come up with creative ideas.

One practical example is that we have reoriented our sales approach around touchpoints with prospects and customers. It’s not so much the sale we are emphasizing for now, but rather developing and keeping contact. The more high-quality interactions the better. Another approach is encouraging salespeople to focus on research and building out target lists so when the travel ban does lift — and it will — they are poised to move forward. This amounts to a renewed focus on pipeline cleanliness to clear the way for future sales. There are ways for salespeople to gauge success without standard sales metrics as the primary measuring stick.  

New targets, new metrics

We always plan ahead, but these days we are looking just a bit further out. Rather than focusing on the current quarter, we cast our gaze a quarter or two to the future. It reminds me of a dream I have to run the Western States 100-mile race in California. In order to do so, I have to qualify by completing a 100-kilometer race under a specific time. We need to orient teams around a consistent message and what we are doing now is the equivalent of running the first qualifier to submit an entry into the Western States.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by an incredible leadership and sales organization and I have given them the leeway to use their creative ideas to align their own teams or reorient their approach to prospects and customers. Online social hours, creative messaging via voice- or e-mail and fun gifts with a personal note go a long way to building and maintaining connections.

Some of these changes are things we implement across our whole organization, others we might apply to particular cases. But this renewed emphasis on connection and communication — not to mention my midday runs — are learnings I want to take with me when life returns to some semblance of normality.    

When I prepare for an ultra race, I plan. I practice, push myself every day, and execute. Likewise, in business, we cannot sit back and expect great results while doing nothing. By now we should all be past the planning phase and focused on practice and execution. It is critical for managers to spend time with their teams in one-on-ones, spot-checking pipeline for risk and opportunity. While these uncertain times demand that we act in a conservative way, this kind of interaction has helped me and my management team with forecasting.

Aligning with our salespeople and managers more frequently, spending time investing in each member of the organization, sharing best practices, calling salespeople directly to check in on their well being, confirming plans and maintaining that “keep-moving” attitude has led to a stronger, more cohesive organization. All told, it’s a prime example of the power of positive thinking. Sales leaders need to orient their teams around a consistent message. Keep active, don’t stop running, stay positive. The race is long, but trust me: there is a reward at the end. 

See you out on the trail.

Originally published Apr 27, 2020, updated Dec 30, 2022

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