As businesses all over the world start to reopen, many of them find themselves struggling to restart, especially those that require personal, or face-to-face, selling. Such businesses, like those in insurance or business-to-business (B2B) sales, face unresponsive prospects and customers, and difficulties in delivering a sales pitch using videoconferencing tools.
Many insurance agents, for example, reported prospective clients shutting them out and labeling them as “insensitive” for “pushing” their product during this crisis. On the other hand, many B2B salespeople, such as those in technology and equipment sales, work extra hard at sustaining the attention of and conversations with prospective clients during a videoconference or negotiating a deal online, or even getting an audience with decision-makers.
This is because customers and consumers have changed with the situation. Not only has the way they work and conduct their businesses changed, but so have their inherent needs and wants.
We all know that most people are working from home, forcing them to use collaboration and videoconferencing tools amid intermittent internet connections. Generally, the older the person is, the steeper the learning curve is for him or her to learn and use these online technologies. These make meetings via online tools difficult for most people.
But underlying these changes in behavior is the change in customer need, i.e. the need to cope. Psychologists define coping as a set of efforts to manage demands that could exceed one’s resources — financial, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Research on coping have identified five types of coping styles or behaviors: problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping, seeking-understanding coping, seeking-help coping and avoiding-the-problem coping.
Even business owners and executives are coping with the situation. They are looking for support or solutions to address employee and operations problems, or talking to experts who may shed light on the crisis. As a result, sales conversations with prospects and existing customers have changed. This has affected the sales process, which salespeople need to adapt to. Let’s look and evaluate the stages in this process.
Generating leads. Before the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic, sales organizations organized events that invite potential customers. These were often held in a posh hotel conference venue with some nice food and premium giveaways. Some salespeople would even invite clients to expensive lunches or dinners, or even entertain them to some concerts or movie premieres. Those days are gone.
Now, salespeople resort to sneaky and intrusive social media messages, sending lengthy sales pitches that promise the moon and stars. B2B companies now hold webinars and online conferences, which have resulted in webinar fatigue due to the unlimited choices available to people.
Lead generation need not be intrusive or tiring. At the core of each stage of the sales process is empathy, i.e. putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. What is my customer feeling and thinking? What is he or she worried about? How is he or she coping?
In our research, customers are now vacillating from understanding-seeking coping to problem-solving coping and support-seeking coping. So, in organizing webinars or sending an unsolicited message, use topics or messages that these need. For example, provide understanding for your audience for citing new research and insights about their industry.
Qualifying leads. Before Covid-19, salespeople would qualify leads by meeting a customer face-to-face or calling him or her and ask qualifying questions that follow “BANT” (budget, authority, need, timeline). Is there a budget for the requirement? Who is the authority figure who will decide? Would the product address a need? What is the timeline for the purchase? If these are answered affirmatively, then the lead is qualified and closable.
Now, these conversations are done via videoconferencing tools, where the customer may have connectivity issues, distractions at home and body languages you can’t detect.
Moreover, abruptly going straight to BANT reflects a lack of empathy, i.e. not fully understanding the personal and professional situation of the client during this time.
As a salesperson, you should adjust to the client’s choice of the videoconferencing tool. At the start of the videocall, you need to build rapport with the client with empathy in mind. You can share how you are coping with the situation and how you are solving the problems you face during this time. You can ask the same to your client, where you can uncover inherent needs — the “need” in BANT. Then you can share insights on the new reality everyone is facing by citing how other people or companies are addressing problems. When the client shares his or her affirmations, then you can ask other qualifying questions relating to the budget, authority and timeline.
In cases where the client needs to turn off his or her video due to connectivity issues, you as the salesperson need to listen carefully before speaking, and always wait for your cue to speak. You also need to confirm if the other party heard what you said, even if the connection is spotty.
Negotiating and closing. Before Covid-19, salespeople negotiate and close deals primarily face-to-face and with the traditional handshake. Depending on the size of the deal, the negotiating parties may be composed of a team, and negotiations could last for several hours. Detecting nonverbal cues and adjusting your stance is one of the values of face-to-face negotiations.
Now, negotiations are done online. Before the videocall, you as the salesperson need to send the agenda and even the proposal in advance to the other party for him or her to be mentally prepared and allocate the time needed. Unlike face-to-face negotiations, videocall negotiations may be draining for both parties and may require a few iterations before closure. This is where you set the second or third videocall in advance with the client. You should also decide with the client to have breaks within the videocall.
When the videocall starts, you should be upfront in managing the expectations of the client, that this type of online negotiations is unlike face-to-face ones, where positions from both sides may be not be clear and patience may run out. But both of you need to bring things back to the objective, which is reaching an agreement. After the video call, always send an email to summarize the points of agreement or disagreement, and point to settle other open issues in the next videocall.
These are how the sales process has transformed overnight. For those interested to learn more about our virtual consultative selling workshops, you may send the author an email.
The author is the founder and chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is a fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation and country representative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia. He also teaches strategic management in the MBA program of De La Salle University. The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.