In sales, you can expect ups and downs – from groundbreaking goals to crippling crises.
And while no one has ever seen a crisis on the scale of COVID-19, one thing is not unprecedented: Sales professionals have and always will need to help their customers through many kinds of emergencies and difficult times.
How can you help customers in times of turmoil – whether it’s financial troubles, natural disasters, health or personal setbacks, market turbulence or worldwide issues?
There’s a “need for a behavior shift, so it’s even more critical … to get it right,” says Mike Kunkle, VP Sales Enablement Services, SPARXiQ. “If you’re not already thinking about sales in a buyer-centric way to create ‘human differentiation,’ this is the time to start.”
Here are nine factors and strategies to help customers in trying times:
Help them survive
In times of crises, your customers are trying to survive, too – whether they face financial, professional, personal or health troubles.
If you can help them survive by selling, servicing and/or adding value, you’re doing the right thing. But if the reason behind “helping” is actually an attempt to hit sales goals, you likely aren’t doing the right thing.
“Technique and approach are key … Don’t sell, offer. Share. Give,” says Matt Heinz, Founder and President at Heinz Marketing, and author of Successful Selling, in his blog. “This is good sales advice to build trust and credibility in all market conditions.”
This will pay off. When everyone comes through the crisis, you’re positioned to help them thrive because you ensured they survived.
Take this personal story as an example: In the early 1990s, my father – a CPA – and mother sat at bar in rural Pennsylvania (still a favorite pastime for this fun couple). A couple at the other end of a bar sent one drink, then another, to my parents – and eventually picked up the tab for their dinner.
My parents waved many thanks across the room, racking their minds to figure out who the benevolent strangers were.
Embarrassed, they approached the couple, thanked them for the generosity and admitted they couldn’t put a name to their kind faces.
“Mike,” the stranger said, “15 years ago, I just about lost my company, and every vendor, lender and service provider I did business with pulled the rug out from under me. Except you and your firm. You held off on billing me. Didn’t even shame me by sending past-due notices. When I rebounded and could pay little by little, you never pressured me. You helped me through a crisis, and I will never forget it and will always be grateful.”
Those benevolent strangers, Joe and Mona, turned into lifelong friends and even sent my family on a trip to Alaska!
Check your data
Even in an emergency, sales professionals want to be as prepared as possible when they contact customers (or are contacted by customers).
Keep customers’ information close at hand.
“During an unexpected disaster or pandemic, data within a relationship management platform is key for knowing the last touch-point, and having full visibility on where each relationship stands,” says Nigel Cullington, Vice President of Marketing at Upland Altify.
With that, sales professionals will know the history, the potential biggest current issue and the best way to add value based on it.
Focus on ‘the bleed’
When there’s a crises, organizations and their leaders first focus on stopping the bleed. They need to shore up what’s causing their trouble. It is the highest priority to stabilize before rebounding.
“If our solutions help the customers ‘stop the bleeding,’ we have a tremendous opportunity to create value and help our customers move forward,” says Dave Brock, CEO, Partners In EXCELLENCE, and author of Sales Manager Survival Guide, in his post. “We need to help them understand the risks, understand how to manage the implementation in these changed times, and how to accelerate time to results.”
Use your experience to help them identify the most critical issue and offer insight, information and resources.
Don’t wait for customers to ask questions about your crises or request help for their crises.
If the crises affects you and your organization greatly, let customers know immediately about changes that will impact them. Give them as much information as you have. That includes the bad news – most especially the bad news.
Also tell them how they can get more information when it’s available. Even if your organization has a communication plan and technical system for a crisis, prepare yourself to communicate more personally with customers. Remind them of your email address, social channels and direct lines.
If the crisis particularly affects customers, imagine their worst-case scenarios – how it will immediately impact their lives, businesses and emotions. Be ready to address what you can – even if that includes just listening to their woes.
Check in meaningfully
In times of crisis, we tend to worry about our loved ones – and we check in on them often. Same can be said and done for customers.
But when salespeople check in with customers, the contact needs to be genuine and valuable. Checking in to drum up business is not OK. Checking in because you’re truly concerned customers are struggling is more than OK; it’s essential.
You want to touch on personal and professional needs when you check in. Ask how customers are feeling about the crises and how it’s affecting their lives or work.
Then, “get a feel for their business right now and assure them that your services will offer (X), or be available for (Y), or that your products and services are currently unavailable until at least (Z),” suggests says Colleen Francis, author of Nonstop Sales Boom. “Whatever the case might be, it’s important that you keep your current clients in the loop.”
Make them feel safe
Sales professionals have seen lots of highs and lows. They often have the experience to recognize if clients, businesses and even themselves can weather the storm.
Making them feel safer is a balancing act: You want to be honest with customers, but you don’t to deliver gloom and doom. You can’t paint an unrealistic, rosy picture, but you can be a beacon of hope.
If you’ve become more of a partner with clients than a salesperson, you’re in the position to objectively assess their situation and offer suggestions on next steps. Avoid giving unsolicited advice. When asked or permitted, share stories of how other, similar organizations or individuals navigated difficult situations.
Offer multiple perspectives and ideas so your insight becomes valuable information during tough times and decisions.
Some salespeople have connected their clients facing similar crises and facilitated conversations and work sessions so they can help each other through it.
Do the most for the least of your customers
Not all customers will be affected the same by a widespread crisis. Some customers are better equipped to navigate through emergencies because they have more resources, deeper pockets or experienced leadership.
Look for, reach out to and dig deeper for the customers who will be most affected by turbulent times. Those might be the organizations or individuals who don’t have fallback plans or employees, families and friends to lean on heavily. And yes, they might not be your biggest clients, so the return on your investment of time and energy will likely be more goodwill (at first, at least) than anything else.
Pay attention to local needs
Even if your direct buyers aren’t greatly affected by a crisis, their customers, friends, families and/or communities might be. Look for ways to support or help them.
Your customers will likely share in social media that something close to them has been affected by a crisis. Take any steps you can to support: Show up to help. Share a donor portal. Donate products, services, time or money where you can. Spread the word within your organization if there are ways individuals or corporate can help.
Audit your messages
This is a tip in what not to do. Don’t send the wrong message at the absolute wrong time. That might mean you need to send no message.
Work with Marketing – or any professionals who create and deliver sales enablement content – to audit the content queue. Check the messages ready to be posted on social media, sent in email, promoted online or in the mail or sent SMS.
Pull almost everything that’s promotional. Those kinds of messages will almost always appear to be insensitive. Instead, build messages that speak to what’s happening to your customers, in your industry and in the community.