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Coronavirus can’t stop business, but it might force sales people to take a different route.

I am an ultra runner and am used to running extremely long distances. I just finished a 32-mile race recently. I was scheduled to run a 50 and 62-mile race in April and May, but everything is canceled. I love the challenge, and it’s all about endurance. When I am on the road, traveling for business, I can feel the similarities — like you’re the warrior that endures rain and sleet and snow striving for that finish line where you successfully partner up with the customer.

I am used to collaborating in-person, now I can’t do that. For a longtime salesman, used to doing things a certain way, it’s time to try a new path.

Nobody could have predicted this coronavirus crisis. The world keeps turning. Business can’t stop, but it requires a different approach. As a leader, it is my responsibility to make sure my sales team continues moving forward, that they are doing the right things and representing themselves and the company with the utmost professionalism. And yet this is a really scary time for people. If the emphasis used to be on meeting some quota, now it’s about emphasizing empathy, support, and collaborative problem-solving.

The unknown is scary. The world has changed overnight, and today, sales work demands that we develop an understanding of the shifting challenges facing current and future customers. We need to take a slightly more comprehensive view. This might be a difficult adjustment for some sales professionals, as it demands that we take a step back from traditional sales techniques. 

These unique conditions demand that we look beyond the standard bottom-line calculations. Coronavirus is impacting all our families and friends. It is hard to work from home when you are not used to it. Locked down in your house with your family can mean a lot of distractions. There is also no denying that this is a virus that is killing people. It is going to get stressful.

In these tumultuous times, salespeople need to think of ourselves more like compassionate consultants. Our job isn’t to meet some projection, but to help our business partners close their pain gap. This is a potentially powerful concept that emphasizes reaching a common endpoint with an individual or their business.

Course correction

And yet I believe the best organizations and sales teams are going to thrive in this type of environment. Sales teams are meant to be about connecting with your customers and prospects. Good salespeople always look, listen, and adjust to their partner’s needs. Whether it leads to an immediate sale or not, staying close to customers helps build trust. In an uncertain environment, relationships like that endure.  

Our team is sending emails. We are leaving voicemails. We are video chatting and using an array of tools to stay connected. Most important, though, we are sending the message that we are there to help you maintain business continuity. We approach customers with caution and empathy, with an understanding of what people are going through. Not only is that just part of being human, but it sends a message about who we are as a business. You have to know that you might not get a phone call back right away. Maybe you won’t get a response to that email promptly because other things are taking priority, but this doesn’t mean you have to stop reaching out. 

As hard as it is to see what will happen in the next few days, never mind the coming quarter, the coronavirus will not end all work. Sure, it might damper things for a while, but we’re going to learn from it and adapt. The coronavirus crisis is a transformative event. While business is bound to recover, the landscape will look very different. We need new ways to keep in touch with, and deliver for, customers. 

We are in the technology business. We don’t pitch solutions; we offer customers help in solving their problems. There is a difference. For leaders, that means making sure sales reps let their customers know that they’re there to support them. We can get through this tough period together. When things turn around, we will work together to realign. 

For us, it’s crucial to let prospects and customers know that we’re thinking of them. Maybe there’s a book that inspired a top client, and we send that as a gift. Perhaps it’s scheduling a video chat, so you can say, “Hey, I’m thinking of your business. I want you to know that we’re here to support you.” Better yet, we might help them with some examples of how our products can be used to adapt in this changing environment.

Compassionate consulting

I firmly believe that executives want to understand what other executives are doing to cope in these challenging times. This is new for everybody, so hearing what works and what doesn’t from somebody in a similar situation can add value. It’s often better to hear from other companies with similar experiences than it is to have a message like that reinterpreted through a sales rep. If we can help people connect to share information like this, everybody benefits.

As a practical example, we have customers that have been using our technology for years, and, more often than not, they have things to share that might be useful for a company forced to adapt to remote working on the fly. We have already grabbed a number of top customers that use our technology and asked them to host webinars describing how they work. If we can help facilitate that kind exchange, then our partners are becoming better businesses, and we are delivering value to our customers and prospects. 

How you interact with your customers and prospects over the next four to eight weeks will go a long way to determining how your next two quarters, two years and two decades as a business will look – not to mention your professional reputation. Sales should never be the business of ambulance chasing. We are in the business of helping customers solve their problems. Already outdated, the hard-charging, bully-boy sales tactics of the past are now all but extinct. We need to reorient ourselves to compassionate consulting. Not only is it our responsibility, but even in the best of times, 21st-century commerce will rely on flexibility and a willingness to change.

I love my family, and I love being home right now, but there are parts of my work life I love too. I love helping customers solve their business challenges. I love the variety that comes from working with companies in different fields. I love being that executive sponsor, and I love to travel and meet customers face to face.

Some of those things are on hold — for now — but that doesn’t mean that everything has to stop. There are ways to stay active and in touch, but the content of your communication is at least as necessary as the channel.  Traditional tactics are poorly suited to these unprecedented times, and we need to use this lull to rethink our approach. Salespeople need to think more about how we approach customers. We need to show empathy, support our partners, listen, and help them overcome the new challenges that seem to emerge by the day. The coronavirus will pass, and when it does, we will be well-positioned to move forward together. I have no doubt I’ll be ready to hit the ground running and get back on the road.

Originally published Apr 10, 2020, updated Dec 30, 2022

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