This article was first published on Jun. 03, 2020 on the Harvard Business Review website.
Whether a business faces a sales slump or sales bump in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s difficult for sales leaders to predict what comes next. Most have already taken urgent actions, such as moving to virtual selling, redeploying sales effort, and reducing sales force capacity if faced with a badly damaged business.
As circumstances continue to evolve, uncertainty persists. How should salespeople spend their time? Can a structured sales process still work? Are specialized sales roles still adding value? What is the role of incentives with so much in flux?
There is a new abnormal at work right now. Sales leaders are challenging conventional wisdom as they look for answers to these and other questions.
It’s common for salespeople who have built a successful book of businesses to get distracted from new customer acquisition if confronted with many service requests from current customers. Sales leaders, frequently aided by consultants (like us), develop strategies for keeping this “role pollution” from creeping into the sales job. Leaders and managers then push salespeople to spend more time on business development while deploying self-service websites or less-expensive customer service reps to perform non-sales tasks.
But now, customers are confronted with uncertainty and ambiguity. A sales-first mindset can damage customer relationships, especially with customers whose businesses are stressed. Consider salespeople who sell software as a service to airlines. Salespeople who focus on aggressively pushing deals will not only be unsuccessful; they will appear tone-deaf. A winning tactic could be to approach customers with a service mindset while reducing software license fees (perhaps even to zero) temporarily.
In a related vein, conventional wisdom tells salespeople to focus on customers who are the best source of profitability and growth, while de-emphasizing low-probability prospects. In the current environment, this logic can fail. With buyers facing uncertainty, many are interested in learning what other companies are doing. Thus, buyers seek insights from salespeople, who typically work across many buyer organizations. This boosts salespeople’s access to formerly unapproachable buyers, giving sales organizations new opportunities to build the top of the sales funnel.
As both current and prospective customers turn to salespeople for revised sources of value, salespeople are rebalancing their time between service and sales, customers and prospects.
A sales process is a series of steps defining a buyer’s and seller’s journey from identifying a need to shaping a solution to exchanging value. Sales organizations use the sales process to align tasks, responsibilities, and resource needs at each step. Salespeople are guided by sales process playbooks, which are often designed by studying the habits of successful salespeople. In addition, data-based insights can assist salespeople in identifying successful sales actions at each step.
Although process-driven sales execution is essential at scale and works well in relatively stable environments, it is much less effective in the current “business unusual” world. The pandemic has disrupted the linearity of sales process execution. What worked yesterday may not work today or tomorrow. Many prospects who were far along in their buying decision are going back to square one to redefine needs. Some orders are getting put on hold indefinitely. Customers who are still buying are thinking differently too, thus requiring changed sales actions and enablers. Old playbooks don’t fit.
A more organic, flexible, and creative approach to customer engagement is needed. Organizations can provide opportunities for salespeople and managers to learn and share experiences as they adapt sales processes to the new realities.
Companies that sell broad product lines to diverse markets use sales specialists to bring expertise and focus to customers, products, or sales activities. Although specialization is the friend of effectiveness, it is the enemy of flexibility. Take the case of a technology company that had sales teams organized into industry verticals such as government, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality, and transportation. Right now, sales teams serving the healthcare sector are overworked, while those serving the transportation sector face famine.
These dynamics have many sales organizations scrambling to rescale and redeploy sales resources. This can be challenging. A salesperson who knows transportation inside out can’t acquire a deep understanding of healthcare overnight. Still, companies are looking to broaden the focus of many sales roles by eliminating some specialists. Inside and digital sales roles are more easily redeployed than field roles.
Sales incentives are built into the DNA of sales organizations. “Pay for performance” has become a belief and a habit. Incentives create a win-win for companies and for salespeople, provided sales are somewhat predictable. For salespeople selling supplies to restaurants right now, this win-win is impossible. At the same time, salespeople selling to cloud-service tech companies are finding it easy to blow past sales goals. Sales incentive plans must adapt to the volatile environment in which factors beyond salespeople’s control play a huge role in determining results. In some cases, it’s best to eliminate traditional incentives for now, and instead link a portion of salespeople’s pay to company performance and individual MBO achievement.
Typically, incentives are complemented by performance management processes that cascade priorities down the sales ranks to keep sales activity on track to drive results. With salespeople anxious about job security and other personal challenges, supervisors who push and seek to control may only amplify the stress. Times call for sales managers to shift their focus from pressing for performance to supporting their people. (Note the parallel to what many customers want from salespeople right now: support and insight without pressure to buy.)
Forward-looking sales leaders and managers are emphasizing communication and appreciation, ahead of incentives and performance management, for motivating salespeople and providing a sense of direction in these difficult and uncertain times.