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How to lead your sales team through uncertain times

It almost goes without saying: These are times of unprecedented disruption, demanding patience, resilience and reimagination from all of us. The boundaries between work and home lives have blurred, with many team leaders trying to balance the business and human imperatives at play in this crisis.

Leaders in my world—sales transformation—are no exception. They tell me they’re worried about taking care of their people and responding wisely. Sales teams are adjusting to new ways of working and disrupted revenue streams; consumers are, understandably, spending less; and some businesses are pausing or canceling contracts. More worrying to these leaders: These pressures may bring sales organizations under scrutiny as a place to trim costs or reduce headcount.

But that kind of approach is short-sighted. Making reactionary cuts to investments in your sales force could mean missing out on sales opportunities now, while exposing the business to high costs of rebuilding the sales force later.

Consider whether a better approach is to reassure your talent, retain your customers and reset your business plan to put you in an even stronger position for the coming years. Here’s a way to think through this approach:

First, take a long-term view

Start with an immediate focus on the health and wellness of your teams, with special attention to the human experience of your sales organization and channel partners. What do they need to get through this? Some companies are implementing increased safety precautions to protect those working in the field or issuing supportive messaging from leadership. Some are offering higher wages to help compensate for added risk, while other companies are guaranteeing salaries for a period of time. Providing a sense of security and well-being within your sales team can help them deliver satisfying experiences to your customers—and, in turn, instill trust and loyalty in your company that will be remembered long after the crisis subsides.

Once you’ve addressed human concerns, consider how to preserve revenues, gain market share and position your team for success during recovery. What if you could follow a course of action that would empower your organization to respond, recover and thrive? Leaders should carefully consider the economic and societal impacts of the crisis, its impact on your organization and industry, and imagine what it will take to do business in a world remade.

Next, assess the newly emerging marketplace

By now, many organizations have responded to the crisis in creative and caring ways. Some have donated products or meals to help essential workers, while others have sought new markets or repurposed raw materials to meet a specific need.

But as federal and state governments begin to ease shelter-in-place restrictions, organizations are turning to the challenges of recovery in a marketplace that looks much different than it did only months ago. And those changes haven’t been uniform: One beverage supplier announced its earnings were down significantly for the quarter as stadiums and entertainment centers remain closed, while packaged food company sales are booming as users stock up on essentials and snacks during quarantine. What other trends are emerging? Which ones will continue as social distancing becomes a way of life? What will your response be?

Then assemble a new playbook

As the shape of things to come moves into focus, sales leaders should prepare their organizations to respond appropriately. Involve your company’s finance, marketing and engineering teams to:

  • Map your customers’ new landscapes. Talk to your key customers; ask about their concerns and how their needs have changed. Find out if their organization’s strategic focus has shifted. Amazon, for instance, retooled its website to encourage consumers to buy fewer nonessential items so the company could better serve immediate needs. How will operational and marketing decisions impact sales?
  • Reassess revenue opportunities. The changes in demand are real. If you’re able to finance differently or engage digitally, what can you offer that your competitors can’t? Are new distribution channels available? Some food wholesalers and clothing manufacturers are already investigating direct-to-consumer options. Consumers are increasingly comfortable with digital transactions and virtual engagement. How can you take advantage of this shift?
  • Create proactive plays. Customers may be in search of product substitutions or looking to refresh their own offerings. Be prepared to suggest a lower-priced line or a more efficient assembly to meet their needs and retain a valuable relationship.

Finally, equip your team for success

Once you’ve revamped your go-to-market strategy, prep your team to succeed on the new playing field:

  • Shape the narrative. What does your sales organization need to serve its markets effectively? Is your messaging still appropriate? Does your value proposition fit? Be ready to tell your story in a way that feels authentic and genuine.
  • Foster collaboration. Having a supportive cross-functional team to rely on will be a big plus. Establishing common goals can help encourage your service, marketing and analytics teams to work with your sales reps to achieve the best possible results.
  • Strengthen and rationalize digital selling tools. Social distancing makes it challenging for sales representatives to engage with customers face-to-face. If you’re overdue for IT upgrades, now is a good time to invest and equip your sales representatives. Make sure they have smartphones, computers and training—and access to email, videoconferencing and messaging—to be their best on the front lines.
  • Reconfigure your teams. Sales managers may need to realign critical roles and responsibilities to address opportunities. Staying nimble enough to act quickly helps you capture the best opportunities.

Navigating a changing market and responding to customer needs can be both a challenge and an opportunity for sales teams. Stay the course and prepare to emerge stronger than ever, positioned to thrive in the post-COVID-19 world. In times like these, a strategy built around patience, resilience and reimagination can be a win-win for your customers, your organization, your channel partners and especially your sales team.