This article argues that, because of all the upheaval in the sales landscape right now and the pressures that COVID 19 is causing, now is the time for salespeople and sales leaders to reinvent their company’s approach to the activity of selling. Whether you are in work or, through no fault of your own, find yourself furloughed or made redundant, to be successful in this ‘new normal’ environment, you will need to change your approach and develop new skills.
Those individuals and companies that had already reinvented their approach to selling will continue to thrive despite the game-changing impact of COVID 19, as that reinvention will allow them to adapt. Meanwhile, those that had already started the reinvention will have to make the change a much higher and more urgent priority. And those that are yet to change need to act fast, or surely become a casualty of the economic shake-out that COVD 19 will bring.
The Game Changer
The selling landscape is now on a tilted axis. Huge changes in B2B (and B2G) buying behaviour have resulted from the huge social and economic impact of COVID-19. Many organisations that salespeople would have been selling to before the crisis are now either closed for business (some temporarily, others permanently) or scaling back to a point where they are only buying on an ‘absolute necessity’ basis. Meanwhile, others are working flat out to service critical societal needs and are typically seeking multiple suppliers for their inputs to mitigate operational risk.
What all prospective buying organisations that are not closed for business have in common is that they are having to prioritise finding ways to improve the way they operate in what is being described as the ‘new normal’. They do not want to be sold ‘stuff’. They want (and need) help in developing rapid and efficient ways of making their organisations more competitive and more agile in this new ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. In a nutshell, buyers are looking for existing and /or potential suppliers to offer them tangible help in the form of solutions that will enable them to transform the way they operate. And for the foreseeable future this is highly likely to remain the case, as the prospect of a rapid economic recovery or ‘bounce back’ becomes increasingly improbable.
The prospective buying organisations that are not closed for business are all having to prioritise changing the way they operate in what is being described as the ‘new normal’. They do not want to be sold ‘stuff’. They want, and need, help in developing rapid and efficient ways of making their organisations more competitive and more agile in this new ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.
Buyers are looking for existing and /or potential suppliers to offer them strategic advantage in the form of solutions and services that will enable them to transform the way they operate. This is highly likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future, as the prospect of a rapid economic recovery or ‘bounce back’ is clearly improbable.
If we accept that the selling landscape has profoundly changed for most salespeople (and therefore also for sales leaders) for the foreseeable future, then why are we still seeing so many companies carrying on with the same old sales and marketing messaging, as if the world has not changed? It’s as if they think (or hope) the world will quickly go back to (the old) normal. But hope for a return to the old normal is not a strategy and it will not bring success. Now is the time, like no other time before, for salespeople, sale leaders and marketing functions to reinvent the way they approach their markets, just as their existing and prospective customers are having to do with their own go-to-market strategies right now.
Greater Polarisation of Buying Decisions
At one level, the events of the past few months have simply accelerated and accentuated changes in the selling landscape that were already occurring. The polarisation of buyer decision-making between commodity-based purchases (based on lowest price and the ability to supply and service in a quality way) and value-based purchases (based on the value i.e. the competitive advantage that the ‘solution’ will give the buyer) was already well underway before the emergence of COVID-19. However, the (VUCA) economic pressures resulting from the crisis have accelerated and amplified this polarisation and will continue to do so for years to come, with all purchases (in either category) being made on an ‘absolute necessity only’ basis for the foreseeable future.
Commodity selling has always been a race to the bottom with ever decreasing margins, and this will accelerate in the new world. Unless of course, the seller happens to offer a commodity that is vital in the current environment, such as supplying ‘Personal Protection Equipment’ items to the health and care sectors. If the commodity being sold is both critical and in short supply, then the seller can (by the laws of supply and demand) charge a premium. However, that seller should not expect that premium to last, and will have to live with the consequences of a damaged reputation when their customers eventually get a greater choice of supply. Furthermore, once the supply of that vital commodity has been secured, senior decision makers in those buying organisations that do have a future will shift the focus of their investments. They will shift that focus to value-based purchases of solutions that will directly enable them to achieve a strategic advantage in terms of better customer reach, greater operational agility, higher productivity, reduced risk and, critically, improved cashflow.
The New Normal
In the ‘new normal’ of VUCA, if you want to sustainably to sell your products and services at a healthy and sustainable margin, your approach and your offer now needs to be much more dynamic.
The new and constantly changing challenges your customers face will need to be at the front and centre of everything you do. Your propositions and messaging will need to be constantly refreshed and reviewed to ensure that they remain relevant, clear, compelling, and different to what your competition is offering. You will of course need to make sure your messages reach the right people at the right time in a world where face-to-face (and telephone) engagement is even harder, if not impossible, to secure or conduct.
Now, more than ever before, your messages will have to be thought-provoking and communicated proactively via electronic (virtual) media so they can be consumed and considered in the prospective buyer’s spare moments. Your messaging content will need to reach and resonate with these people by bringing them new and up-to-date insights that will enable them to be better placed to neutralise new external threats, ease their specific organisational pain-points and seize strategic opportunities so that they can continue to compete effectively in their own new VUCA worlds.
Critically, your messages should not simply describe the benefits of what your company offers. They must use implicit questions and present perspectives on your prospects’ world that challenge their thinking and make them want to actively engage and potentially collaborate with you in finding ways to master their version of VUCA. Then, and only then, will your reinvented approach to selling be effective once again.
Survival of the Fittest – Time to ‘Reinvent’ Now
Our conclusion is that, from now on, it will be a case of ‘survival of the fittest’ in the new and more challenging selling world that COVID-19 presents us with. But the good news is that the prize for people and companies who can reinvent their approach to selling in this new virtual and VUCA landscape is not only ‘survival’.
If you (as a salesperson) or your sales function (as a sales leader) can offer relevant, up-to-date and differentiated solutions to your target market in a way that changes how prospective buyers operate and compete in their VUCA worlds, then your sales can be broader, deeper and more profitable than before the pandemic.
This crisis can be harnessed as a real opportunity to transform your own and your company’s sales productivity on a sustainable basis. To realise this opportunity, you will have to develop a more dynamic approach to the way you (or your teams) constantly update and adapt a blend of knowledge, skills, and behaviours. You will need to spend more time and resource developing new insights into the pressures and challenges that existing and prospective customers are facing via your networks of contacts and through newsfeeds relating to your customers’ industries.
If you are a salesperson, you will have to develop an even more enquiring mindset and be both structured and agile in how you make your enquiries. Your more friendly customers and your own marketing function can play a big role in helping you with this process. You will also need to hone your skills in getting the attention of (and engaging with) existing and prospective customers via virtual channels at this challenging time of ‘social distancing’. If you are a salesperson who has been furloughed or made redundant, you will need to develop and sharpen these skills if you want to achieve your previous levels of success when opportunities to be active are once again available to you.
For sales leaders, you will need to revisit your ‘go-to-market’ plans and make them more relevant for this VUCA world, more dynamic, and even more central to everything you and your people do over the coming year and beyond. You will need to make your plans simple, logical, clear, and ‘joined up’ so you can communicate them quickly in a way that is understood and can be acted on by your salespeople. You must keep communicating with your teams on a regular basis and make knowledge sharing between your people part of the culture of your salesforce, so that they can support each other and rapidly share what works and what doesn’t work. You need to keep your propositions customer focused, simple and flexible. You must be willing to take risks to innovate and to generate new revenue streams and make sure you monitor progress with your teams at every step of the way. Do not just assume that things will happen in the way you intended.
To make all of this work in this new environment, you will have to lead a rapid and permanent shift in your sales teams’ (and your own) skills, attitudes, and behaviours, and you will have to ensure your organisation is agile in the way it supports them with effective collateral, campaigns, and delivery capability. You will need your people to use their initiative and give regular feedback from the marketplace as customer needs change. You will also need to develop greater collaboration and smoother alignment between the sales and marketing functions if your sales prospecting ‘funnel’ is going to deliver your targets.
This is the time for sales leaders to take ownership and seize the opportunity that the ‘new normal’ offers, while your competitors are struggling because they are not reinventing their own approaches to selling. You must turn the crisis into an opportunity to make your company one of the winners in this time of inevitable major ‘shake-out’, as survival of fittest really does become more binary and more real for everyone.
In summary, whether you are a salesperson or a sales leader, in amongst all this volatility and uncertainty, now must be the time for you to make yourself, the way you operate, the way you communicate with your target markets, and the way you lead more relevant and more dynamic. If you are still in business, it is not too late, but now must be the time to make the changes needed and reinvent.
Sterling Chase can offer highly effective virtual coaching, mentoring and training for sales leaders and senior sales teams to enable them to transform the way work in this VUCA world. Contact us at [email protected] for a free consultation.