Selling Through Crisis

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.


If you need help during this trying time, email us for a free consultation about how to set your startup up for a successful 2020. Feel free to drop me a line at paul@gassee.com to schedule a time. Be well and stay safe!

Always Be Listening

We’ve all been seduced by a good sales pitch in movies or in TV series. By the strong close or the moving speech. Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko convincing Teldar Paper (and us) that Greed is good. Or Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross instilling fear to motivate his real estate sales team. Or Jon Hamm as Don Draper delivering another convincing advertising pitch to his clients in Mad Men.

These expressions are about persuading the other side. About winning them over. About getting them to buy you or buy your product or just buy in. You get another human being or a group of them to do what you would want them to do. In the above examples, it’s the force of pure charisma that does the convincing. And we often think of salespeople as charismatic powerhouses that will others into seeing the world the way they do. Because that’s how they’re usually portrayed on film.

However, some of the best salespeople on the planet don’t rely on their capability to overpower. What they’ve cultivated is the ability to listen. And listen well.

Because, without listening, you never earn the opportunity to deliver the pitch.

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Corey Myers, a close friend, and one of the best salesmen I know, once told me over lunch, “Sales reps are basically just waiters.”

In social settings, Corey is charming and animated. Some might even say he has an energetic mouth. A short time into our friendship, we scheduled a call to discuss my startup’s tech hiring. Corey was to sell me on his agency filling one or two of our open job reqs. I can remember what I was thinking when I fielded his phone call. I was bracing myself for a lecture from a caffeinated pitchman arguing his way into a new contract. What I got was drastically different.

After exchanging pleasantries, Corey began asking succinct, pointed questions about my young start-up. After each inquiry, he would just shut up. I couldn’t believe Corey wasn’t chewing my ear off. I could barely hear him. I even wondered if he had pressed the “mute” button, on the other end of the phone line. Gradually, I became more engaged in the conversation, as I answered each of his questions. Instead of getting yet another pitch, I had someone on the other end that sounded interested and concerned about my needs.

Imagine yourself selling as a waiter. You approach your prospect with a short inquiry, “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “How can I best help you?” The conversational dynamic shifts. Instead of being the predatory sales guy yelling into the phone, telling the customer what they need, your disposition is quite different. You’re not here to convince. To persuade. To push your agenda. You’re here to help. Who doesn’t want help?

The ability to listen well helps in other realms. In dating, listening gives you an upper hand. Your date is thrilled to be talking. You’re offering your full attention. Your date feels you empathizing, bit by bit. You both start to open up gradually. You’re vulnerable with one another. Closeness and intimacy emerge from this dance. And trust ends up being woven into the relationship.

The same goes with sales.

Asking questions and listening allows you to get to know your customer better. You’re the other party who is paying attention to them, and trying to solve their problems. Your prospect feels understood, and even take care of. All of a sudden, you’ve become very likable.

Now that you’re a likable caretaker to the prospect, and that you have changed the conversational dynamic, you are gradually earning your prospect’s ear. They have gone from protecting themselves from an upcoming pitch to opening up to you about their problems and concerns. Little by little, through attentive listening and natural curiosity about your prospect, you become a trusted confidant.

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As you start getting closer to your prospect, they will start spilling the beans about their challenges and concerns. It’s time to dig in. What are their pain points? What keeps them up at night? What preoccupies them as they drive into the office every morning? What potentially threatens their job, and their ability to pay the mortgage? What will earn them their next promotion or year-end bonus? And finally — as a maitre d’ might ask — where and how can you help? And how can you help most effectively?

By understanding your customer’s aches and pains intimately, you will be able to develop a more tailored pitch, when the time comes. It will fit them like a glove and feel less like a pitch and more like a solution or in this case, a panacea to their problems.

We’ve covered how listening will both get you to empathize with your prospect and inform your pitch. Are there any other benefits to keeping your ears open and mind engaged?

There are plenty.

First, you maintain total control of the conversation by asking questions and listening intently. If, at any point, you manage to think that your solution won’t be a fit for a particular prospect, you can politely bow out instead of pushing things any further. It might avoid an expensive trial, or deployment. You can disqualify the prospect fast and avoid deploying further resources into a customer that might make your life difficult over the long haul.

Second: in many instances, your job as a salesperson is to be the eyes and ears of your company in the market. You’re usually one of the first people on the ground. The knowledge you bring back to internal company meetings might end up informing product strategy, marketing, or even recruiting.

By listening carefully, you might get crucial industry information from a prospect. They might tell you about a competitor’s product roadmap, and their plans to develop a new feature which could threaten your business. Or they might alert you to a competitor losing a key executive. Salespeople are relied upon to bring back these important bits of information back to headquarters. That data can shape company strategy at the board level.

Third, you can listen inward. Although I’m a big fan and practitioner of mindfulness, I am talking about listening to what is happening internally at your company. A colleague needs help on a complicated deal. The #1 sales rep on your team is offering tips on dealing with enterprise customers and their last-minute objections. Or a managerial opportunity opens up to lead a sales team of 4 reps. Tuning in to what happens inside the walls of your office building is sure to pay dividends.

We can all become enamored of the strong pitch on the silver screen. There’s something truly alluring about it. It’s okay to be drawn to it. But, what really makes the difference is cultivating the empathy and relationship between the prospect and the sales rep. You don’t hop on the phone for the first time with the right to pitch your prospect. You earn that right over the course of one call (or several calls) by listening to cultivate empathy and to build trust.

The best salesperson is not the one that can best explain the product or service to others. Or the one that gives the best demos. The best salesperson is the one that listens to the prospect, the market, and her surroundings; processes the information, and produces a tailored pitch. On the receiving end, the prospect feels understood, opens up the purse strings, and happily buys the product.

The tone of the relationship is now set: both parties are upbeat and pleased to be in business with one another. That’s an invaluable leg up when onboarding a new customer. It’ll ensure you get the benefit of the doubt from your new client if speed bumps arise as the relationship develops. As a salesperson, there’s no better way to ride into the sunset, as you hand the account off to Customer Success.