We are in the middle of some difficult times. Rather than belabor that point, I’d like to come to the heart of the problem: What do we do? We need to answer that question on an immediate, urgent basis: What do we do right now?
Let’s focus on the sales force and what company leaders can do to help them.
Before I offer some recommendations, let’s take a bit of a mile-high view. We have been here before. As a nation, as individuals, and every level of society in between, this level of confusion and anxiety is not new.
Now, it may be new for you. Depending on your age, this may be your first encounter with life that hasn’t gone according to your plan.
But it certainly isn’t unique for many of us.
We have lived through the oil embargo in the ’70s and the resulting malaise and inflation; the 9/11 attacks and the resulting tailspin in the economy; the dot-com crises; and the 2008 real estate crisis. I’ve seen my business so devastated that I had to tell my staff that I could no longer make payroll.
But I don’t just draw from my experience in my business. As a sales consultant, I have personally and contractually worked with over 500 companies. Their sizes ranged from under $1 million in annual sales to over $8 billion — all B2B sellers of some kind.
In all of this, I have learned some lessons and gained some wisdom that may be helpful to you.
I like to think of it as two issues: shoring up and gearing up.
Shore things up for immediate survival
It may be that you don’t need to worry, because of the happy coincidence of being in the right place at the right time. One of my clients sells meat to grocery stores, for example. The demand has spiked as people are not going to restaurants and are cooking at home. He’s had to put his customers on allocation.
However, most of you are likely to be dealing with customers who won’t or can’t see your salespeople, customers who may be teetering on the edge of insolvency, and a pervasive climate of uncertainty and anxiety.
Bring the troops inside: Your salespeople are probably frustrated with their inability to see their customers. Now is the time to direct them and enable them to work inside — probably from their home.
You’ll need to invest a little bit in equipment and software and provide them some minimal training. Once they become acclimated, they should be productive and much more positive. They, and you, will gain a competency that will separate you from the competition, and pay off long-term as well as short-term.
Install some new management routines: If you haven’t already, now is the time to install a weekly one-on-one conference between your salespeople and your sales management. The conference should focus on this week’s plans and last week’s progress. Your salespeople are doing something new and will need some high-touch encouragement.
Also, when there is a crisis in the environment, they are far more amenable to change than when things are going according to plan. This is a great time to install some of those management best practices they may have been resistant to before.
If and when they return to outside selling, you can push the weekly conferences to monthly. But for now, the weekly touch can be very effective.
As a side note, you may want to check on their activity from time to time. They should be making their calls via a phone system (not their cell phones) and/or a video platform like Zoom or Skype. You’ll want to have the capability to monitor their activity.
It may seem a little bit like “Big Brother,” but without exception, every time I have worked with a client who implemented some kind of activity monitoring, the results were always eye-opening.
Be a calm, rational model: They are all looking for leadership from someone. You are the most likely candidate. Your attitude, your demeanor and the words you share will go a long way to reassuring people who are anxious and fearful.
Gearing up for the inevitable opportunity
I am not a futurist, and I make no claim to having any special insight. But, I have been through this a number of times, and I am pretty certain that:
- This will end.
- Things will be different on the other side of it — but probably not transformationally so.
- When it ends, some companies in your industry will be worse for the experience.
- A few will be better.
- Demand will be pent up and ready to increase disproportionately.
This is the perfect time to make some long-overdue structural changes to the way sales are done in your organization. Remember, people are much more amenable to change when they are in the middle of a crisis than when things are going along smoothly. So, you’ll be able to implement some changes that may have met with resistance at a different time.
Tighten up your sales system
If you have not yet, then this is the perfect time to rearrange account responsibilities and priorities. It is likely that your sales force has been spending time with a number of accounts that just aren’t worth it. Now is the time to rank every account’s potential — A, B, C — and direct the salesforce to spend more time with A’s.
As a result of having to do business remotely, some of your customers are going to like that approach, and, on the other side, decide that is how they want to do business. You will identify some salespeople who excel at selling remotely. Put the two together and create an “inside” sales territory that is defined by phone numbers instead of geographical territories.
These changes will have a bigger impact than anything else you can do. And the slow time brought on by this crisis is the perfect time to make them.
Prune your sales force
No one likes to let someone go. It often is an emotionally draining, guilt-inducing event.
But you’re the manager. It comes with the territory. The health and well-being of the enterprise ensure financial and emotional security for all the employees, not just the few who are marginal.
It’s likely that some of your salespeople are marginal performers. For the health of the company, you need to prune the marginal performers so the entire organization can reach its potential.
It’s like a grapevine. New growth won’t happen until you prune the old. Your marginal performers drag the whole enterprise down. The crisis we are experiencing right now will make their lack of competency or performance even more visible and painful.
Now is the time to make those changes that you have been thinking about.
Improve the competency of your sales team
One of the things I have always liked about sales is this: You are never as good as you can be, and every one of your salespeople could be better.
At the same time, my personal experience indicates that only about 20% of B2B salespeople have ever been taught the best practices of their profession. A little bit of education can have a huge payback just down the road a bit. Bring them to a higher level of performance now, when there is time available, and they are amenable to learning and change.
If you make the changes I recommend, then it is entirely possible that your salespeople will be doing their jobs somewhat differently after the crisis. What you expect of them may change. It’s time to take a hard look at your sales compensation plan and consider revising it to meet the new conditions.
Again, from my personal experience, most sales compensation plans are vestiges of years gone by, designed to incent behavior that is no longer at the crosshairs of the bull’s eye.
If you restructure your account priorities, prune your salesforce, improve their competencies and revise your sales compensation plan, you will be prepared to increase market share and dramatically improve sales on the other side of this crisis.
Grand Rapids-based Dave Kahle is one of the world’s leading sales authorities. He’s written 12 books, presented in 47 states and 11 countries, and has helped enrich tens of thousands of salespeople and transform hundreds of sales organizations. His book, “How to Sell Anything to Anyone Anytime,” has been recognized by three international entities as “one of the five best English language business books.” Check out his latest book, “The Good Book on Business.” This article originally appeared at davekahle.com