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Staying Agile in a Changing World

Post by Shawn Fowler, Vice President of Sales Enablement at SalesLoft, where he teaches salespeople to sell sales software to other salespeople. 

“What should I say?”

Two weeks ago, I got asked this question almost constantly. SalesLoft customers, colleagues on LinkedIn, and our sales reps reached out to me to try to get a handle on how to do their jobs as the reality of the global pandemic set in. Virtually all of them were in the same situation. They were trying to figure out how to keep sourcing and closing deals without being insensitive to the very real problems at hand. Honestly, I was trying to do the same, so I did the only things I knew to do. I listened to calls, I started exchanging ideas and approaches with people I trust, and I started to test. Below are some of the conclusions that I’ve arrived at:

The first conclusion is that selling just got harder, which means salespeople have to get better. Call connect rates, email reply rates, and conversation-to-meeting rates are all down compared to this time last year. You’re not going to dig yourself out of this situation by making more calls and sending more emails. It’s not more, it’s better. Whatever problems you solve, your prospects still have all of those problems, plus the new ones that have been brought on by Coronavirus and the recession. If your team isn’t clearly articulating the direct ways you can solve both sets of those problems for your prospects and customers, you’re wasting their time.  

In an internal cold call test, we found that the best approach is to acknowledge the elephant in the room (I know this is an awkward time for a cold call, but I was hoping you’d have a minute…”), and then roll into a value proposition about how you can solve their problems (“I was doing some research on your company and found that…”). In regard to email, our data science team found that explicitly referencing Coronavirus or COVID-19 in the subject line creates a 40% reduction in reply rates. The takeaway: Be human, don’t lead with Coronavirus, acknowledge the situation, and then get to the point.

The second conclusion is the market is changing rapidly and what worked last week might not work this week. As a result, you need to experiment with your approach. Always be testing, but don’t make big changes all at once. Keep your tests small and do them on a regular basis. This will allow you to keep your finger on the pulse of the market and adapt your approach as the market shifts. But first, you need to determine the baseline metrics for the things you want to test (e.g., Connect Rates, Reply Rates, Call Conversion Rates, Activities per Opportunity, No Show Rates, DQ Rates, Stage Conversion Rates, and Win Rates). It also means you need to prepare your team to execute those tests.

Third, you have to understand every deal in your pipeline. Every company I’ve talked to has experienced a lot of pushes over the past few weeks. Not necessarily lost deals (though there have been plenty of those too), but buyers pushing pause on the process until they can get their bearings. Forecasts are changing literally every day, and the best models in the world are useless in the face of a black swan event. The companies that are handling this dynamic well have clear insight into deals at every stage of their pipeline, understand the risks in each of those deals, and know what they have to do to address those risks. The companies that can’t instantly see that for every single deal are driving blind right now.   

The best way to assess risk is to look for gaps (Days Since Last Customer Contact, Days in Stage, Missing Mutual Plan, No Next Steps Defined, Missed Meetings, Only One Point of Contact, etc.)  Of course, that means the information on your deals needs to be both complete and accurate, and you’ll need the ability to surface that information quickly and efficiently. 

Fourth, coaching is more important than ever. Virtually all field sellers became inside sellers overnight. Everyone is working from home. Inside sales managers can’t walk the aisles to listen in on their reps’ calls anymore. Field sales managers can’t do ride-alongs.  Reps can’t tap the shoulder of the rep next to them or listen as the person in the next row figures out a new way to handle a tough objection. Combined with the fact that it’s getting harder to get people to even pick up the phone or sign a contract, you have a perfect storm for underperformance.  A lot of reps don’t know what to do and they don’t know how to do it. If you’re not using a Conversation Intelligence platform, you need to get one now.

Finally, your team has to be more deliberate and disciplined with messaging. While I’m a strong believer in the idea that salespeople should be given the latitude to try things out and figure out what works best for them, selling in the current climate requires more empathy and consistency than in normal times. Tone is important. Being specific and clear with your words is important. A lot of naturally talented reps are used to just showing up and winging it. This is not the time for that. It’s critical to identify what’s working in the field, create a playbook, and get your entire team executing that playbook.

This situation we’re in is going to change things forever, and your company has to adapt. It’s highly unlikely things will ever return to normal. Yes, we’ll eventually go back into the office. The economy will recover. But it won’t be the same. The current crisis is forcing a transformation in the way companies do business. The truth is, all the things I’ve talked about here are things sales teams should have already been doing. The companies that are thriving now are the ones that already had these processes and technologies in place. If you don’t already have them, now is the time to fix that. Now is the time to make the process adjustments and investments necessary to ensure you not only get through this rough patch, but you come out the other side as the kind of company that can compete and win in the post-COVID world.

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