For those companies that produce cloth face coverings and hand sanitizer, congratulations. By no fault of your own, you have found yourselves suddenly thrust into “hand-over-fist” proportioned sales success, and to you, we say, keep up the good work.
For the rest of us in sales leadership, the times, they are a-changing.
Our new “abnormal” has caused us to tear up our 2020 go-to-market playbook; to consider furloughs and realigned territories; and to contemplate strategies to reinvigorate products and services that suddenly aren’t as relevant in a contactless world.
This is why I read with interest a recent Harvard Business Review article, titled “4 Questions Sales Leaders Should be Asking Right Now,” written by Andris A. Zoltners, P.K. Sinha and Sally E. Lorimer. Here at The Brooks Group, we have been in the trenches with our sales consulting clients since the onset of the pandemic, trying to make sense of an often unpredictable sales landscape.
Through our work with more than 800 sales leaders, we’ve developed a “Next Normal Playbook” cobbled from our myriad experiences in helping clients sell out their way out of the current malaise. We’ve learned that flexibility and creativity, in both sales processes and sales roles, will be the most important items in the sales leader’s toolkit.
On the heels of our recent research on the topic, we wanted to share some of our own insights, as they relate to the four questions posed by the Harvard Business Review.
How Should Salespeople Spend their Time?
Though the HBR authors advocate for a two-part approach – a focus on a service mindset, and a willingness to revisit and reset prices and fees – we believe that the price discussion should not be among the first points raised in a client conversation. Here’s an example why we believe this is so: In a recent conversation with a client, we discovered that for one of their largest customers, delivery assurance was the most important vendor selection issue. In fact, the customer said, “we’d pay more for certainty of delivery.”
So, though their salespeople certainly needed to change the conversation, discounting and price adjustments were not gimmicks needed to drive adoption and sales.
Today, we are finding that the most successful sales professionals focus their buyer discussions on their core mission – how their product or service is relevant to the buyer’s business right now – set in a context of empathy and problem solving. This reminds me of a Zig Ziglar quote I once heard – “Tell me a story about someone like me, who solved a problem like mine, and I’ll trust you.” Certainly, in these uncertain times, that quote holds new relevance.
Will a Structured Sales Process Work?
Though the HBR authors seem to indicate that a structured sales process tends to be much less effective given the current unusual business landscape, I think there’s more to the story. Though opening a conversation with a structured, scripted pitch may not be advisable, we believe that the sales journey must still be a guided tour – following a set of waypoints throughout the conversation. In much the same way you wouldn’t jump in your car and depart without a destination in mind, so, too, should your selling discussion be motivated by an end goal.
This is easier said than done when sales are scarce, and commissions and KPIs are not being realized. As a result, we see a lot of bad habits emerging – discussions that tend to be too transactionally focused, at the expense of the trusted advisor relationship that should exist. The takeaway here: Be empathetic, creative and flexible, but not so much so that your results become difficult to measure. Buying decisions are still not arrived at haphazardly or randomly.
What is the Value of Specialized Sales Roles?
Clearly there are some industries that have been completely been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, so eliminating some market-specific specialists on your team may be unavoidable. However, this is not a decision that should be taken lightly, given the amount of detail and expertise involved in cultivating those specialized insights. This is particularly true with industries that may only be suffering temporary downturns.
Instead of potentially losing that knowledge due to furloughs or more permanent layoffs, we recommend redeploying those specialists – for example, perhaps move them to a customer management/client management role, so your generalists can more readily focus on new business development activities. Also, we find that subject matter experts excel in situations where collaboration and brainstorming is required. So your specialists may offer value to your company in terms of working with customers via virtual whiteboard sessions - thinking strategically about the current demands faced by the customer in a changed marketplace and how your products or services may fit within it.
What is the Role of Incentives?
The HBR article seems to indicate that now might be the time to eschew individual incentives in favor of a bonus plan based upon company-wide performance. Though we agree that sales incentive plans must be tweaked to adapt to the volatile environment, and a more supportive and collegial approach might be useful, we think individual incentives still play a critical role, even today.
If a salesperson’s cash flow or reduced revenues are an issue, it may make sense to lengthen the time required to earn incentives – for example, companies can deploy an 18-month payout that stretches to the end of 2021, when most experts expect the economy to be further along in its recovery. If the impact is expected to be shorter-term, certainly deploying a paced payout program a fiscal quarter at a time might be worth a try.
The key consideration here is that many sales organizations are built on, and motivated by, financial incentives – “coin operated,” I call it. So, building a plan to feed this desire is likely necessary to maintain your sales pros’ motivation – since we are counting on them to sell our way out of this pandemic.