This our cat; his name is Reese. Reese is a big tough boy when he’s around people he knows. But, when somebody new comes into the room, he’s the first one under the couch. When he’s in an environment that he knows, Reese is confident and commanding. When he experiences a change in his world, he responds with fear or anger.
There have been mountains of research into how we react to stimuli in our environment. We understand how the autonomic nervous system works and how the adrenal glands influence our cognitive, emotional, and physical responses. We also know how to help people learn with behavioral conditioning and learning, where we associate stimuli with behaviors. No matter how you approach the problem, we know that changes in our environment influence our behavior.
That New Normal isn't here
Since March, our world has changed in ways that only screenwriters and doomsday preppers thought possible. It’s hard to remember what things were like before this crisis started. There’s a wonderful series by Julie Nolke on YouTube. It truly demonstrates the seismic shift we’ve experienced: from January to April, April to June, and June to October. She lived it; we lived it; our sellers lived it.
We have, along with so many others, talked about an emergent “new normal.” I think, however, that we shouldn’t keep waiting for that “new normal.” Rather, we should accept that, for the time being, there will be “no normal.”
For example, Health officials warn, and data from places like the COVID Tracking Project confirm that this winter will see a severe increase in cases as the weather cools and we head indoors. Many state and local governments are implementing new restrictions to help prevent the spread of the virus. So, we can’t plan on having many in-person meetings for the next several months.
Your sellers are acting like it, too
Your sellers are in a new environment, there’s new stimuli everywhere they look — you might notice them responding like Reese. You might notice that your sellers aren’t doing the things that they used to. They may not be making the calls, setting the appointments, or generating the new business that they used to. Certainly, the world has changed. There’s, in many industries, less business to get right now. Consumer spending is down, consumption is down, so production is subsequently down. Again, in most sectors. Obviously, it’s not just the available business. It goes without saying that we are all online-meeting experts compared to our 2019 selves.
Online isn’t the same as in-person, and we’ve known that from the start. Early on in this crisis, we wrote an article detailing the distinct differences between online and in-person meetings. The four key differentiators were:
Our sellers are left in a bind: we can’t talk to our customers the way we used to, and our customers are unlikely to buy if we do get their attention.
Here we find the rock and the hard place. Let’s move the rock.
Focus on fundamentals
Sellers identify new prospects, make contacts, build relationships, create a sense of trust and understanding, identify opportunities to gain business, and ultimately shepherd those opportunities to their conclusions. Sometimes there is a sale in an opportunity, sometimes not. More often than not, the thing that leads to the sale is the relationships we’ve built along the way. That mutual understanding and trust create psychological safety for our customers to give us an order.
Moving the rock means going upstream. How can we help them see the longer-term wins of relationship building? How can we help them create new conversation starters? What do they need to tweak in their elevator pitch? There’s no magic bullet, and these aren’t all the questions we need to ask. But it’s a start.
One more question you need to ask yourself has to do with their goals. How do your sellers’ goals align with building the business throughout the crisis? If we measure them only against sales numbers, they’re likely to fall short at some point. What used to be a challenge can easily become a roadblock. We need a more holistic approach.
Back to the cat
Reese scurries off or lashes out when he’s scared like cats do. But he’ll eventually come around. We can speed this along by enticing him with toys and treats — treats work better, to be honest. We can also just be calmer, which helps him feel calm, too.
You may be worried about the next six months or year, and you’re probably right to have those worries. Your salespeople have them, too. If we focus on “not hitting the goal,” we’re likely to reinforce those worries. That can lead to cementing a belief that the challenge is a roadblock. Shifting goals upstream will help your sellers exert control where they can, which will lead to more goal attainment in the future.
A reasonable challenge
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying sales results aren’t important. Your business needs them to survive. I’m asking you to widen your perspective, not look away from a potential crisis. As your salespeople make more contact and build more relationships, the sales will follow. You know that, and you always have. It’s just hard to remember when our world keeps shifting around us.
Get a plan together
So, here are some specific recommendations:
Lean into what sellers do well
Salespeople, like cats, are good at detecting changes in their environments. Their customers are part of your sellers’ environments. Let’s lean into this. Their clients need strategically-minded partners right now, maybe more than ever.
Strategic accounts grow because you are a strategic partner. Strategic is an oft-overused word in management circles. Let’s be clear about how sellers strategically partner with customers:
Salespeople like us to think that they “make sales.” In reality, they build relationships that result in sales. When they build strategic relationships, they enjoy long-term rewards — and so does the organization.
Right now, their outcome-oriented mindset may be getting in their way. The worries and doubts of a declining economy aren’t helping either. Let’s help them focus on the relationship-building aspect of selling, finding and building strategic accounts, and making connections between their clients. These things will lead to a burgeoning business in the future.
Acknowledge your partners' value to you
My good friend Barb Singer helped with this article. Her advice led to my launching Focus Ten Consulting. For that, I am eternally grateful. You should check out her business, Executive Core. She helps business leaders and executives grow. In fact, she’s the best in her field.