Nothing is more pressing right now than COVID-19 and the impact the pandemic is having on the U.S. population and economy. Safety is the chief priority, but sales leaders are already grappling with how to keep their sales teams engaged and productive during this tumultuous time. With travel restrictions, community gathering bans, work-from-home guidance and limitation of non-essential personnel from offices, it’s becoming almost impossible for field-based salespeople to do what they do best: Get in front of customers.
So, what should sales leaders do? While we don’t have all the answers, we’ve taken the pulse of several sales leaders on issues they’re considering and how they’re approaching the situation. We hope this list is a helpful jumping off point as your organization creates its plan of action.
Finding ways to still reach clients: Clients are (rightly) restricting visits, and sales leaders want to keep their people safe and healthy, so sales teams engage with clients remotely. Some companies, like asset management firms, already use a mix of in-person and virtual selling capabilities and are positioned to at least maintain some remote connection with customers. One sales leader we spoke with is actually aspiring to increase activity with clients over the next few weeks through virtual selling. There is precedent for this—we’ve found that hybrid/virtual reps get roughly 25% more personal interactions compared to field-only counterparts due to less travel time and a variety of other factors. Companies with both internal and external reps are making sure the teams aren’t stepping on each other’s toes. Some have moved to a divide-and-conquer approach since many field sellers have become virtual sellers for at least a few weeks.
Virtual selling goes beyond phone and video, so this firm is also ramping up its non-personal promotion and marketing material generation to ensure there’s continued engagement with clients. It remains to be seen how customers react to a flood of remote meeting requests. As of now, this one firm is finding good receptivity as its messages are highly relevant and topical, but it worries that sales access will decline going forward.
Redeploying sales efforts internally: Of course, not every type of customer engagement is suited to virtual selling, and it may be too much to expect salespeople and customers to move to phone-based relationships overnight. Some clients are trying to direct their sales teams toward other productive efforts. In our observation, those have been the important but not urgent jobs that so often get left to the side. For example, we’ve heard examples of sales teams focusing on:
- Pulling forward territory planning and tackling the customer research, book-of-business clean-up and the like that might typically occur at mid-year
- Engaging salespeople in product design and customer solution development; sales often functions as the initial voice of the customer in these internal efforts, which can now get more attention
- Developing tactical plans with internal partners—for example, how to go after key accounts—that can be deployed in the coming weeks and months
Goal and quota relief: Salespeople are already questioning quota relief. One insurer we spoke with, for example, has already fielded questions from early impacted areas like Seattle. We’ve seen similar cases before as it relates to natural disasters. An analysis ZS ran after a series of bad winter storms in 2014 looking at weekly sales data for a large insurer found geographies that were hard hit by winter weather suffered significant declines in sales. And those sales didn’t just bounce back in following weeks. They were permanently lost.
If that pattern holds, then leaders should expect some long-term negative sales impact—as pipelines slow and new opportunities decrease—and develop their contingency plans. While leaders may not yet want to commit to action, some people we spoke with have already referenced past actions, as in the winter weather example, to establish expectations among salespeople and company leadership. The sales leaders we spoke with are acknowledging the virus is likely to impact sales quotas and activity expectations but they also expect this to vary geographically, and will work to quantify it.
Sales forecast changes: This is an especially hard one, as companies are affected so differently by disruptions in supply chains, customer engagement and product demand. If you are a sales leader for Clorox, for example, it seems the forecast is looking rosy! But many others, of course, should expect some delay or downturn, at least in the short term. Where possible we’ve looked to past experiences—major storms, supply chain disruptions, and the like—as analogs to inform forecasts. But, at least among the firms we spoke with, no one seems ready to give precise guidance.
Hiring decisions: We’ve heard a few rumblings from sales leaders on the hiring front. A few broker-dealers, for example, have restricted all visitors to their offices. In that scenario, how do advisor recruiting visits need to change? A few others have asked if they should slow hiring and recruiting altogether considering economic uncertainty. On this latter point, our generic advice was to stick with the plan—there was not long-term expected impact on this organization’s sales forecast, so why make a short-term focused decision? Especially in selling environments with long recruiting cycles and slow time to ramp to full productivity, it seems wise to maintain momentum on the sales hiring front.
There is a lot of uncertainty, and the best way you can guide your teams through this is with strong, calm leadership and a thoughtful plan of action. And above all else, be smart—safety is more important than sales.