In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, middle-market companies are facing unique challenges and need to adjust their sales and customer outreach processes quickly to adapt to new economic and social realities. Beyond the most important initial concerns about health and safety, sales reps are also losing their sense of purpose at work as deals they were working on slow down, and their natural habitat of being in front of customers is taken away. However, with these new challenges come opportunities, as well. This week, ZS co-hosted a virtual roundtable for a private equity fund comprised of the commercial leaders at middle-market companies across B-to-B sectors and life sciences. Here are the early actions that these leaders are taking to address these issues, and how they’re finding new opportunities along the way.


1. Showing empathy: Everyone is overwhelmed by COVID content and news, and now’s not the time to come off as opportunistic. Advise your sales force to focus on personal connections first, asking clients about their family and health. Real empathy cuts through the noise.


2. Narrowing the focus and repurposing time: One company leader found that when moving her sales team inside, narrowing the focus of their customer types (and specific customers) while increasing the frequency of customer interactions to those types led to a 25% productivity bump in March. Meanwhile, now that reps aren’t traveling, they’re free to tackle other tasks: training on internal tools; cross-training to learn about other functions in their company like operations, customer service or product development; joining or conducting customer care calls and strategic account planning and pipeline/CRM cleanup, etc. However, if reps are cross-training to fill time, be sure not to neglect pipeline development so they don’t lose sight of their core job: driving business.

3. Ramping up digital marketing efforts: Firms are succeeding by embracing a “just do it” digital marketing mentality, creating and posting relevant content on the fly and hosting webinars with experts that address specific (and now urgent) customer needs. Leaders are encouraging sales reps to use tools like email, Salesforce and LinkedIn more, but not at the expense of the phone. One company found that sending step-by-step guides to their teams on how to promote the company’s content on their personal social channels was helpful in getting them to post.


4. Embracing new decision makers and rules of engagement: For some companies, the stakeholder landscape is changing. For example, an educational products company’s new key decision makers are parents, rather than teachers, since kids are now at home and parents make sure they use the products. Gatekeepers were cited as critical, both now (as buyers’ attention is temporarily on fighting fires) and going forward in the account relationship post-COVID. Interestingly, we also heard that reaching out to higher-level buyers is also promising. For instance, CFOs are playing a bigger role in some purchasing decisions than before since they’re focused on forecasting and helping companies plan for the future. Sales leaders are holding one-on-one calls with stakeholders they’d normally have group meetings with, and generally advise going back to basics and working the phones, telling us that phone calls are working quite well.

5. Showing value and making it easier or safer to do business: Be the trusted resource in uncertain times by helping clients prepare for regulatory or legal challenges that might come up as a result of the pandemic. To make it easier for customers to buy, lower the decision-making burden and risk. For example, consider chunking out the buying decisions or offerings so they are smaller and easier to bite off in this uncertain environment, and may also require fewer decision makers to align (no one is looking to make big commitments now).


6. Managing team morale: Being empathetic toward your own team goes a long way, too. To boost morale, companies are holding more frequent full team calls or individual check-ins via video. Leaders are listening and asking how their teams are doing at home with their families and how they’re doing personally.

7. Building for the future: Leverage the learnings to elevate the skills of your team as well as the connections and relationships with customers. Think longer-term and how to maximize and evolve your new strategies. A more adaptive, “test and learn in-market” mentality and operating model will be needed to succeed.

While the current environment is challenging, by making adjustments to the new playing field—and above all, showing empathy—companies across industries are finding ways to adjust to the new normal.  Beyond merely surviving, the opportunity is there to thrive in many sectors, particularly for more nimble middle-market companies once they can ensure liquidity.