Sales and the COVID crisis

22nd May 2020 |   Nick de Cent

We asked leading academics, professional bodies and consultants for their views on how sales leaders can best respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

Sales and the COVID crisis

Overview – Mark Davies

“Regardless of how things started, we are in a recession. This means that economies all over the world will experience lower growth, higher unemployment, lack of stability and incredibly tough trading conditions. It is impossible to predict how long we will be in this position, and because of this, many organisations need to plan with an incredible amount of uncertainty and risk. With this backdrop, certain things will emerge (based on the trends that occurred during the 2008-2011 Great Recession):

  • Certain sectors and organisations will be hit hard, while others will be unaffected (or could even prosper): airlines, high-street retailers and leisure industries will be hit hard; healthcare, online retailers and technology companies could prosper. The world is changing and there will be winners and losers.
  • The biggest concern will be the banks and large financial institutes. If they start to fail, we will all have a problem (so far with stimulus from the Fed things seem to be under control – but it is early days).
  • There will be a shift of power in organisations towards the buyer/procurement function. As customers have strategic instructions from board-level to “cut costs” and “survive” there will be a shift in power. As suppliers (sales functions) try to get a higher price by selling on value, the force to drop prices by aggressive (and empowered) buyers will become severe. If suppliers have not placed enough emphasis on operating a value-based business, they will simply get crushed by procurement to drop prices.

As Seth Godin says: “The reason it seems that all your customers care about is price is that you haven’t given them anything else to care about.”

  • Trends that were in place anyway will accelerate because of the recession. High-street retailing has been on the decline (due to online advances). The recession will see the end to several retailers with weak value propositions and business models. If they were just surviving in the good times, why should they prosper in the bad times? This compounds when lines of credit (due to a stressed banking system) start to dig in.
  • Technology will almost certainly start to take centre stage as the way to advance and enable businesses and society to prosper. As we are forced to “social distance” this will play into the hands of new technologies – think AI, robotics, 5G, online communications, cyber security, apps that connect customers to buyers. There will also be an acceleration towards electric cars and self-driving technology plus car ownership. We are all enjoying a cleaner environment: this will accelerate the death of fossil fuel cars and completely redefine transport/car technology and ownership.

All of the above are trends that are happening anyway. A recession just sticks a rocket in its backside and makes 10 years of change occur in 6-12 months. As always, the secret is to spot these “new normals” and adapt to be on the right side.”

Overview – Tim Riesterer

“Fundamentally, the psychology of humans hasn’t changed. So, the psychology of selling and buying hasn’t changed. Some issues like status quo bias are exacerbated… but the underlying psychology of decision-making doesn’t change.

I believe this is a modality moment. And, that changes everything about the motion of the sales activity and the environment it is delivered in. I believe that more companies are going to keep their salespeople home, period. We had a client tell us they don’t expect their salespeople to travel to meet clients face-to-face until March 2021 at the earliest – and it will be about web/webinar-based selling. And, this is high-end database software stuff.

In another instance I was talking with the global head of pre-sales for a huge, German-based company. He told me this will permanently change the way people sell. The scale you can get when people don’t travel is incredible, in addition to the cost savings. Also, the ability to improve tracking of activity, recording and coaching calls, and monitoring a regular cadence can significantly increase productivity.

Also, think of the ability to scale and leverage SMEs: typically product marketing and pre-sales resources are at a premium as they fly around trying to help a salesperson. Sometimes a single sales call would eat up two days of travel, where you helped one rep on maybe one or two deals. Now these SMEs can be helping a different salesperson, on a different deal every hour of the day via webinars. That might be an 8-16 times improvement in the use of your smartest, strategic resources.”

Unprecedented is a word we hear being bandied about a lot since the emergence of the COVID-19 virus. Nevertheless, the situation we all face is indeed unprecedented, and the world will never be exactly the same again, even once we emerge from this crisis.

As ever, crises of this magnitude inevitably result in lasting change as the future on the horizon is accelerated to the present. Examples in the sales world might be a permanent reduction in air travel to “essential trips only” as companies learn to live with the everyday reality of virtual teams, online presentations, and a drop in in-person face-to-face activity as organisations embrace the cost-savings and productivity gains that new ways of operating bring with them. At the same time, artificial intelligence and bots will continue their march into the world of transactional sales and procurement and the urgency of our current situation will fuel the speed at which we develop these technologies to work better.

As with all periods of great change, the current disruption brings with it both opportunities and threats. As Charles Dickens wrote in the opening lines of his great work about another era of revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Potential benefits of the COVID-19 crisis are many and varied: soaring revenue for some sectors of business; a potential general reduction in sales overheads; the emergence of new businesses and business models; the opportunity to revisit the resilience and length of our supply chains with potentially a shift away from globalism to regionalism, and even localism; an end to lengthy and time-wasting commutes for many office workers as operations adapt to local and at-home working; the bringing forward of mobility technologies like autonomous cars as well as new delivery mechanisms; a renewed conviction to reduce both pollution and our carbon footprint and to improve air quality; a reinvigorated learning imperative amongst business talent along with new channels for learning; and a revitalisation of the concept of people, planet, and profit (as per the 1987 Brundtland Report Our Common Future) as consumers and businesses demand greater sustainability and corporate responsibility from their suppliers – to name but a few.

On the downside, the threat is simple: survival – survival of our economies, survival of our businesses, and survival of our way of life.

Post-COVID-19 world

So what are businesses doing to survive, to plan for the future, and what will the post-COVID-19 world look like? There is a plethora of material available online to help answer our questions, but much of it is inevitably a best guess and frequently idle speculation. On the supply chain and logistics front we can see the vulnerability associated with overly lengthy supply chains, the exposure associated with our mass-transport systems, and the weaknesses inherent in crowded cities.

There is speculation that big downtown office blocks and headquarters buildings in capital cities and financial hubs may become a thing of the past with a knock-on effect on real-estate values, transport requirements and for face-to-face meetings too (speculation prompted largely by comments from Barclays Group Chief Executive Joe Staley); that COVID-19 will hasten the demise of cash; that the fashion industry will have to be re-imagined; that half of all workers worldwide are in danger of having their livelihoods destroyed because of the pandemic (according to the International Labour Organisation), putting the lives of 1.5 billion extremely vulnerable people in jeopardy; that tech will dominate our lives even more than it does now; and that air travel will take years to recover and will only be supported if it signs up to a greener operating model.

Much commentary is influenced by the perspective and viewpoint of the commentator (even from traditionally trustworthy sources such as universities), so we should beware of confirmation bias. In general, though, we can assume that organisations everywhere are working hard to protect their businesses, to build resilience, to eliminate cost, to defend revenue streams and, most importantly, to support customers. Attention will be focused on survival mode – both within the organisation and assisting customers to survive – buying time to develop new strategies and markets. Inevitably, zombie businesses will fail, while those with new models or the ability to pivot where necessary will thrive. Now is definitely the time to strategize and to plan, and to prepare for a time when the “life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands” as Winston Churchill said 80 years ago.

So, against this backdrop, what does the future look like for sales, and what can sales leaders be doing to adapt and survive the current crisis, and to thrive in a post-COVID-19 world? The Journal has brought together a selection of expert contributors – drawn from the business world, from academia and from organisations representing the sales community to answer a variety of questions that will be on the minds of sales leaders and their teams. We’d like to thank them all for their valuable contribution. The following Q&As were put together during April and early May 2020.

The Academics

Harvard Business School – Dr Frank Cespedes, Senior Lecturer (April 2020); Warwick Business School – Professor Nick Lee (April 2020); Cranfield School of Management – Dr Javier Marcos, Associate Professor of Strategic Sales Management and Negotiation, (May 2020)

Frank Cespedes
Dr Frank Cespedes
Professor Nick Lee
Professor Nick Lee
Dr Javier Marcos
Dr Javier Marcos

Q: Do you predict a rush to online sales as a result of the current crisis? Do you predict a rush to online sales will further broaden the divide between simple and complex sales in B2B?

FC: It’s a common current prediction that because social distancing forces people to do more buying online and communicating thru social media, this will accelerate a permanent big shift, after the crisis, to more ecommerce and virtual models. In March 2020 (the first month of social distancing in the US), online sales at Walmart and Target indeed surged by double digits compared with the year-earlier period – and so did in-store sales1 and sales of jigsaw puzzles and WWII-era walkie-talkies.2 It’s not clear what we learn from panic buying, so let’s look at what was happening online before the virus of 2020.

Ecommerce has been part of the internet for 30 years. was selling online while Jeff Bezos was still working on Wall Street. After decades free from sales taxes, ecommerce was 11.4% of US retail sales in 2019, according to the Department of Commerce.3 Meanwhile, social media usage on the major platforms had been essentially flat over the previous four years. In fact, social media usage had declined among Americans less than 35 years old, and the only age group using Facebook more were people 55 or older.4 As a marketing medium, online channels were cluttered and increasingly viewed with suspicion. The average online ad was clicked by only 0.06% of viewers and an estimated 60% of those clicks were accidental.5 Media attention to foreign hackers, and the experience of “Zoombombing” during the crisis, have increased awareness of cyber-security issues. Combined with the ability to block ads, the growing costs of acquiring customers online,6 and controls on consumer data by EU regulators and others, it’s unclear how much buying and selling will be done online in the future. It’s also unclear whether social distancing has made people more eager to transact online, or whether it simply demonstrates the limitations of communicating and managing virtually. I am not convinced that weeks- or months-long confinement will in fact make a longer-term difference after the crisis.

NL: I’m not sure I see it that way. Presuming there is a “rush” to online, I can only see that narrowing the divide. If you see that online has traditionally been seen as a channel for simpler sales processes, and now more complex processes are necessarily moving online, I would say that in that sense, divides may narrow. I wonder whether it will make companies re-evaluate the possibilities for what can feasibly be done online in this sense.

JM: The gap will continue to exist. What we will see is that some sales interactions in complex B2B sales that traditionally would be conducted face to face will now be arranged online.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

Q: Will companies need higher-quality salespeople working on more complex sales?

FC: Yes. This is a medical crisis that caused an economic crisis. Due to a decade of low-interest rates, corporations were already at near-record debt levels before the crisis. Now, cascading bankruptcies and even higher debt loads probably mean a tightening of consumer spending and capital expenditures in B2B markets. In that sense, salespeople will indeed be working on more complex sales opportunities. Sales efforts will need to be more focused and productive after the crisis. Similarly, the quality and skills of salespeople will need to be upgraded.

NL: I don’t see that this necessarily requires “higher-quality salespeople” per se. But, it would require people who are comfortable and experienced using the technologies, so they can deliver the right experiences. We’ve seen already in other contexts that people who are more knowledgeable about what is possible, and how to deliver it, online, can deliver a better experience than those who have little experience or confidence. In itself, this is not necessarily a “sales skills” issue.

JM: Not necessarily. It will require salespeople with ability to work with online tools and to learn how to “read” the customer in a virtual environment.

Q: Need for closer alignment between sales and marketing?

FC: This was true before the crisis, and the shutdown has probably accelerated the need. New technologies have increased interactions between marketing and sales in many firms. Traditionally, marketing was responsible for top-of-funnel activities like building awareness and lead generation, with a handoff to sales for subsequent activities. But both technology and customers’ abilities to contact companies easily have blurred these lines in most firms. Customers can now get info online or via other personnel at vendors, and their touchpoints with sellers have become more cross-functional. Meanwhile, content marketing, email lists, and the software supporting these activities have, in many firms, made sales rather than marketing the prime mover and manager of these top-of-funnel activities in more firms. The issue is whether many sales leaders know how to perform these activities effectively.

Companies dealing in commodity offerings or accounts being serviced with legacy high-cost, inefficient methods and using approaches of a bygone era are roadkill now.

NL: This makes some sense. Specifically, it is likely that marketing departments are more experienced and knowledgeable about digital assets, and suchlike. They can be real enablers of salespeople. This could look like training, development, but also creating assets and systems to help salespeople who are less experienced and confident in the technology.

JM: Yes. Marketing, particularly the functions looking after multiple channels, will have to align tighter to sales operations. This, to start with, will look like a cross functional, end-to-end organisation, where territories, individual quotas and targets will gradually lose relevance.

Q: Do you foresee a greater requirement for multidisciplinary teams (ABM, etc) at the complex end of the sales spectrum?

NL: Probably only to a limited extent, apart from the technological aspects as I’ve already mentioned. Complex selling is generally best done in a team environment anyway, and good teams are diverse. So, I don’t see this situation in itself necessitating massively more teamwork than already.

JM: Yes. This will still be required to be able to understand the customer, design the “right” solution and then deliver it.

Ten-point plan



1. Get strategic.

You need a customer management strategy that defines all of your sales and account management channels. The external environment that you are working in has changed dramatically, so your internal organisation construct must adapt.

2. Segment the sectors

Segment the sectors that you work in. Some markets have been hit hard; others may flourish in these new conditions. Think about entering new sectors, and reducing exposure in others.

3. Segment the customer portfolio.

You need to be honest about your trading position with each customer. Do long-term strategic or key customers still warrant the additional investment and effort? This is not a time to over-serve customers that do not warrant your attention (and do not under-serve those that do). In addition, try to identify and mitigate any potential loss you may incur if customers default on payments (involve finance and legal in your segmentation process).

4. The consumer.

The consumer will be affected massively by this recession. If your customer sells to consumers (individuals) you may want to work with them to re-evaluate consumer segments and how best to serve their needs. Focusing on the “customer’s customer” always pays dividends.

5. Maintain trust.

Your customers may be suffering. If they have a value-based mindset, they will be looking for help from suppliers to assist them. Where you can, maintain trust with customers and open a dialogue to work together and navigate through these challenging times.

6. Shifting towards a strategic/key account management business model is critical.

Invest in the way that you work with larger-opportunity customers. It is tempting to cut customer management costs in a recession – this will be a big mistake with those 10-20 strategic customers. Be brave and invest. It will pay dividends now and in the future.

7.Be cost-focused.

At the same time, be honest! Some customers only need a low-cost solution. Provide this via low-cost channels (via web and via third-party distributors). A cost-focused customer value proposition is the right approach with some of your customer portfolio. Not all of your products are high value-adding (some may be commodities).

8. Develop new value propositions.

Develop new value propositions that consider a broad range of things that you could provide to the customer. Think about helping them grow sales, save costs, manage compliance and perform strategic management activities more effectively. This will potentially be unique for each key customer. Remember, KAM is strategy customer by customer.

9. Elevate customer management.

Elevate customer management to board level, and involve expertise from marketing, legal, finance, HR, supply chain and purchasing. This is a time to align your key resources around your strategic customers.

10. The buyer will gain more power.

Accept this, and work with them. Try to work with strategic procurement leaders… not just tactical buyers (who tend to focus on cost and drive your price down with unfavourable terms attached).

Mark Davies is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University, Director of the KAM BP Forum, and owner and principal consultant at Segment Pulse Ltd.

Q: Requirement for more strategic thinking from sales leaders?

FC: In many companies, sales was a kind of segregated “black box,” responsible for top-line quarterly revenues and not really part of strategy discussions. That is changing. The data revolution has made more sales processes more transparent to C-suite executives, especially Finance executives. They now ask questions, and sales leaders must have answers that go beyond pipeline updates and link to the strategic priorities of their firms. However, I’ve described this situation as “the dialogue that rarely happens”: finance executives often lack real knowledge of sales processes at their firms, while many sales leaders lack financial acumen beyond the top line of an income statement. Meanwhile, both hiring and other sales-capacity levers will be constrained for some time, while time-to-cash and increased productivity from current resources have become survival issues for so many firms as a result of the crisis. So, I do expect the requirement for more strategic thinking from sales leaders to increase.

NL: Well, not just “strategic” in the sense of commercial/corporate strategy, but also in terms of ability to lead strategically in a human sense. For example, the best leaders need to understand the wider context their staff are operating within and be sympathetic to broader issues: not just the more obvious ones like whether or not family members are ill etc, but also things like mental health and anxiety, and also issues concerning child care, home schooling demands, and so on. Further, the best leaders will know their staff, and know whether they need to be “protected from themselves” almost – I’m specifically thinking here of those people who are always taking on extra to help out. Situations like this can be challenging for them, and the best leaders need to recognise and manage these tendencies in their staff, to make sure demands are shared equally, rather than taking the path of least resistance.

JM: Yes. Speed of implantation, flexibility, ambidexterity (both transactional and complex sales) and resilience are the ingredients for effective post-COVID sales organisations.

Anecdotally, more sales outreach is being responded to (phone calls or emails) currently than in recent times. If you have a genuine value proposition, you’re more likely to connect and get heard now than you have been in recent times.

Q: What issues will sales leaders be considering at the moment?

FC: Cash and selling cycles: The crisis demonstrates, painfully, the importance of cash. The selling cycle is usually the biggest driver of cash out and cash in: accounts payable accrue during selling, and accounts receivable are mainly determined in most firms by what’s sold at what price and how fast. In surviving and recovering from a crisis, increasing close rates, the efficiency of a sales model, and its segment focus are strategic issues, not only sales management tasks.

Customer selection: In a crisis, companies must set priorities. Big accounts drive a disproportionate amount of a company’s revenue, and reliance on large customers has grown. Publicly traded US companies must disclose any customers that account for more than 10% of their revenues. A study of this data found that, in many industries, these buyers represented 20 – 25% of sales by the second decade of the 21st century, up from less than 10% two decades earlier.7 In other words, even before the pandemic, there was a big change in the customer portfolio of many companies.

Salespeople must send consistent messages, not ad hoc responses. In an extended disruption, it may even be in your long-term interest to find supply alternatives for a customer. Few quota-carrying salespeople will or can do that.

Data: Important data is account profitability, your cost-to-serve customer A versus customer B, who at accounts are the people with whom your firm must stay connected. Despite much talk about “big data,” this type of customer information is often lacking. One reason is that in many firms the relevant information is effectively the “property” of the individual rep, not the company. That makes it difficult to set account and segment priorities. Companies should use the current crisis to get this data and establish a process for keeping that front-line information flowing and timely.

NL: I think my comments above should be things the best leaders are considering right now. But, they should also be looking long-term. How can this situation be managed most effectively, how can they ease back to activity without feeling like people are being put at risk? For example, how should targets and incentives be managed in the return to increased activity?

JM: Three things: how to resist and survive the current crises; how to reinvent the offering; and how to anticipate demand in the coming months to adapt the organisation to it.

References (Frank Cespedes)
1 Sarah Nassauer, “Stockpile Surge Boosts Sales at Walmart,” Wall Street Journal (April 4-5, 2020): B3.
2 Sarah Krouse, “Copy That: Walkie-Talkies Are No Longer Over and Out,” Wall Street Journal (April 13, 2020): A1.
4 Edison Research, 2019 Social Habit Report:
5 See
6 See “Unit Economics Aren’t What They Used To Be” at
7 Nathan Wilmers, “Wage Stagnation and Buyer Power: How Buyer-Supplier Relations Affect US Workers’ Wages, 1978 to 2014,” American Sociological Review 83, no.2) (2018): 213-242.

We would like to see companies encourage their salespeople to have different conversations, to engage with their customers in a different way, rather than pushing in-and-out, financial proposals.

Q: Will sales leaders be firefighting or will they be planning ahead?

FC: As a sales manager once said to me, “In this job, if you don’t survive the short term, you don’t need to worry about the long term.” But eventually the pandemic will abate, and you must live with the resource decisions you make now. Sales managers’ responsibilities extend beyond keeping the lights on. Their leadership makes a difference across the business because, for better or worse, selling activities always affect core drivers of enterprise value. Because customer acquisition and retention is the lifeblood of a company, sales managers establish foundational conditions for a business. As always, some in sales will be planning ahead and some won’t.

NL: Mostly, leaders are likely to have spent the last month fire-fighting, and this will have led to a backlog of regular activities that now needs to be managed. This will make strategic thinking even more difficult, but it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

JM: Both.

Q: Is there a current opportunity to refresh salespeople’s skills in anticipation of the next normal? What are the key skills going forward?

NL: The key skills are in my view what they have always been: the ability to adapt, and to learn. These core meta-competencies can then allow salespeople to develop skills that are necessary for the situation at the time. If we focus simply on reacting to individual events, we run the risk of not be able to adapt to changes.

JM: Absolutely. Like a high-performing military organisation that is designed for combat operations, in peace time they train and hone their defence capability. Sales organisations now need to train and develop people to be more (like their own organisations) ambidextrous, agile and resilient.

The Professional Bodies

Australian Institute of Sales, New Zealand Institute of Sales – Stuart Edmunds, Director (April 2020); Association of Professional Sales – Andrew Hough, CEO (May 2020)

Stuart Edmunds
Andrew Hough

Q: Do you predict the rush to online sales will further broaden the divide between simple and complex sales in B2B?

SE: I think it is very likely we’ll see an acceleration in this direction. It is a trend that was already happening and this situation will be a giant accelerator in the change. A hollowing out of the middle ground will likely occur as enterprises look to ways to lower the cost of sales for simpler offerings and bolster resources and skillset required to address complex sales.

AH: No, I don’t think so. In the early days of the digital-selling revolution, most simple, buy-sell transactions migrated online to the click-of-a-mouse, while big-budget deals which were complex remained the domain of the salesperson. Mid-value business, which fell between the two, was largely ignored by professional sellers who felt it was only a matter of time before technology would make them redundant in that space, too.

Since then it has become evident that, in business terms, this was a mistake. Analysis of B2B interactions which resulted in no-deals, suggests that 52% involved customer confusion. Initially, the customer felt they had all the information they needed to make a purchase decision, only to change their mind.

We need to get back into this middle market. That will be a priority after the COVID-19 crisis. 

In the long term, value creation will be a seller’s most important asset. This will be required in complex and mid-value transactions, and hence more skilled people will be required.

On the point about getting good with the technology, we know of cases where organisations have potentially damaged their brand by holding webinars, because the technology did not work and/or was not managed well.

Q: Will this potentially require higher-quality salespeople working on more complex sales?

SE: Broad narratives around the “death of the salesman/person” have never resonated with me and is not what we’re seeing. Companies dealing in commodity offerings or accounts being serviced with legacy high cost, inefficient methods and using approaches of a bygone era are roadkill now. These will be pushed online, and some companies may struggle to make this transition to service their customers under this model. For the more complex sales, the need – indeed the desperation – from companies to find (or develop) higher-quality salespeople becomes even more critical going forward. The competition will be fiercer, scrutiny on value paramount, trust and authenticity critical, and suppliers (in complex sales) as partners are all dimensions buyers will be looking for. It is very much a buyer’s market. There is very much still money in the market; there is business to be done, but it’s now orders of magnitude harder to close those deals.

AH: The answer to that is definitely, yes. Over the next few months as we pull ourselves out of this crisis, it will be vital to recruit more skilled people, and develop the knowledge and skills of existing sellers. In tough times, more so than ever, customers will only spend if they see that the deal will add value to their business.

Mid-ranking deals, in terms of their value and complexity, will be very important. I believe you will need more high-quality salespeople in that part of the market. Overall, we will need salespeople who can form meaningful partnerships with their customers to create value, and to explain how working together will make a positive difference to both their businesses.

Q: Might there be a need for closer alignment between sales and marketing, as companies focus on marketing channels and buyer experiences tailored to these times? What might this look like?

AH: Yes, there will be a need for closer alignment between sales and marketing. Amazon has shown the power of using a customer’s browsing history to sell related products. This is all about marketing and sales. Advancements in artificial intelligence have shown that this increases customer engagement in a host of different transactions. Marketing can be very useful in business-to-customer engagements, while in business-to-business it can be used to burnish a company’s credentials, and to post case studies on social media to encourage potential buyers to have a conversation about the product or service on offer. 

Some US research I saw indicates that folks are working about three hours longer each day.

Q. Do you foresee a greater requirement for multidisciplinary teams (ABM, etc) at the complex end of the sales spectrum?

AH: Yes, I do. GE is doing this, and it seems to be working very well in many technology companies. Customers are likely to remain loyal if they have a hand-picked team which focuses on the needs of their organisation. As mentioned, in many tech companies, pre-sales, sales, engineers, marketing, consulting, and software designers work in teams to drive engagement with clients to a new level.

Q: Do you anticipate a requirement for more strategic thinking from sales leaders, plus agility to lead through these times of increasing uncertainty towards the “next normal”?

SE: Assuming this is happening in the first place (a flawed assumption to hold in many cases, I know), there will be an even greater need for strategic thinking from sales leaders going forward. You mention also agility, which will be paramount to navigating the near-medium future. The landscape is changing so rapidly that agility in confronting the everchanging fluid environment, whilst balancing with some degree of stability, will be critical for survival. This will be to avoid whiplash from continual rapid and monumental changes in strategy and underlying tactics that will quickly exhaust everyone involved. Not an easy balance, no perfect answer, and true leadership will shine through here.

AH: Yes, we need sales leaders who understand that the next normal is going to be very different from the world before the Coronavirus crisis. This requires a different type of leadership which is open to new ideas and is sincere in its dealings with employees and customers. For businesses to succeed in the next few months, it’s important they aren’t simply driven by profit. There has to be a higher purpose as well.

Virtually perfect

Seven tips for upping your online presentation game with neuroscience.

COVID-19 has meant many more people working at home are swelling the numbers of seasoned professionals who have successfully operated remotely for years. What would we do without technology?

But what about sales presentations, where the preference would of course be face-to-face? Technology presents unique challenges here, but with a few adjustments, online presentations can be productive and successful. And it helps to take a peek inside our brains to understand why these adjustments work.

Research from InterCall, the world’s largest conference call company, showed that 65% of the 523 participants used online meetings to do other work; 44% admitted to texting, 43% to scrolling social media, and 27% said they had fallen asleep on occasion! Although we are becoming increasingly savvy with how we interact with technology, the message is clear: when you are conducting a sales presentation, it’s all about engagement. Here are some top tips.

1: Plan and test

Pretty obvious, but when you worry about the tech letting you down, the prefrontal thinking part of your brain fills up; it is easy to become overloaded and you don’t have the cognitive capacity to focus on what matters – your message!

Test your kit, the lighting, your background against your clothing, sharing your screen, the different views you can manage for the audience – large view for you when speaking, large screen for the slide deck. Practice your transitions for navigating screen shares. Then you can focus your energy on delivering a stand-out presentation and interacting with your audience.

2: Introductions

In all presentations the first few minutes count. It’s about the professional impression you make but also how you involve participants. They are your prospects or customers so treat them as such. When people feel respected and heard the brain becomes productive and open to listening. Powerful neurotransmitters such as serotonin and oxytocin are released, helping boost mood and feelings of collaboration.

If there is a waiting room function in the platform you use, hangout and chat to participants there. Do your research on attendees by welcoming everyone by name and, if appropriate, include on your agenda an initial five-minute question session which you facilitate (and practice ahead of time) with language such as “So Nick, where are you calling in from today?” Doing so means that everyone hears their voice “in the room”, which is more likely to result in them joining the discussion later.

3: Visual, simple slides

65% of humans are visual learners, so use graphs, charts and pictures on your slides, but keep them simple and crisp. A mix of pictures and words works best. Visually reinforce key points to help the brain solidify connections, assimilating new information and recall associated memories.

4: Show passion in your voice

The brain interprets messages through all five senses. In online meetings, we lose eye contact, gestures, movements and many non-verbal cues. Keep your voice modulated, energised, use pauses, emphasis and repeat important points. 30% of humans are auditory learners, so how you use your voice matters.

5: Engage all the senses

Storytelling and use of language can help to engage the group. Stories help tap into feelings in the limbic, emotional part of the brain and can evoke strong memories and associations. People create a picture in their minds eye which you can make stronger with language such as “picture this”, “imagine if”. You can tease out other sensory experiences such as “what resonates with you?”, “the sweet smell of success”, “I feel this is the best solution”.

6: Work with attention spans

Research shows that trying to focus attention on too many things at once can lower brain energy to the same as if you had stayed up all night and reduces IQ to the same as that of an eight-year-old. It is imperative to help your audience focus on the presentation itself by creating interest through mixing up the way you deliver different elements.

Work on a five-to-ten-minute loop, where you interrupt the pattern of the presentation by doing something different – a poll, a show of hands, a Q&A, a question, a short video clip, use of the whiteboard function. Signpost these sections for your audience with a summary slide so they know there is a participation segment coming up.

As well as engaging through stories, asking a challenging question, giving a surprising statistic or being slightly provocative can make your audience sit up and take notice.

7: Learn from the comedians

Here’s a tried-and-tested trick, demonstrated beautifully by master storytellers and comedy wizards Eddie Izzard and Billy Connelly. Start a story but don’t quite finish it off; allude to it during the presentation and then end it in the close. The brain doesn’t like loose ends; it wants closure and your audience are more likely to keep attention focused during the meaty part of the presentation so they can learn the punchline.

Engaging a virtual audience is no small task. But with practice, focus and a few adjustments you can deliver a killer presentation. Good luck!

Gil McKay

About the author

For more than 20 years, Gill McKay has worked with coaches, trainers, HR and business professionals to amplify their results through using neuroscience in their work. Her teaching helps them to increase their clients’ self-awareness, their emotional engagement and awaken their brains to help them achieve deep transformation and change. As co-founder of MyBrain International and the neurometric profiling instrument MiND, she provides International Coach Federation-accredited tools and resources for the appliance of neuroscience. She is also author of the best-selling book STUCK: Brain Smart Insights for Coaches, which shares her coaching stories and how clients can create change by understanding the neuroscience behind their challenges.

Q: What issues will sales leaders be considering at the moment?

SE: Entirely dependent on the strength of their organisation. If they have sufficient buffer, they will be and have their staff operating in nurture-and-support mode, genuinely and empathetically reaching out to their client base to offer whatever assistance and support is possible. This is not to say that empathetic prospecting and filling the pipeline for the near-medium future shouldn’t be taking place. Customers in certain industries do need sales fulfilled and will have future sales also; it’s obvious but organisations must treat these customers like gold. Care must be taken in “selling” during the pandemic, however. This can very quickly be interpreted as insensitive and tone-deaf to a prospective customer.

Anecdotally, more sales outreach is being responded to (phone calls or emails) currently than in recent times. If you have a genuine value proposition, you’re more likely to connect and get heard now than you have been in recent times.
This is an era where relationships for the next phase of business will be formed. If you’ve not been selling on value or don’t understand selling on value, you’re toast.

AH: Right now, while the crisis continues, sales leaders are focusing on speedy restructuring and contingency planning in order to remain resilient. Our customers are under considerable stress, and the best we can do is to be as supportive towards them as we can in order to establish and maintain trust. Once this first phase of the crisis is over, sales leaders will be looking to adapt to the new environment, developing ways to collaborate and co-create value with customers. I’ve set out my ideas on the four phases of moving to the next normal in a white paper that the APS is publishing soon.

I have seen the extremes of responses to the latest crisis. One client in pharma has had to increase their production capability to cope with a massive surge in demand and, at the other extreme, a small engineering company has furloughed all of its staff. 

Q: Will sales leaders simply be firefighting or will they be planning ahead?

SE: If they don’t have sufficient buffer and are not selling into an essential services type industry they’ll be in fire-fighting survival mode.

AH: Unfortunately, at the moment the vast majority of sales leaders are not planning ahead. They are firefighting, based on addictive thinking and leadership. “Let’s keep doing what we have always done.” “Batten down the hatches and run faster.” “Make people busy by focusing them on ‘deal now’ conversations with customers.” Unfortunately, that is the wrong thing to be doing. Putting your foot on the accelerator in an attempt to generate revenue will dissipate trust and could be very damaging in the long term. We would like to see companies encourage their salespeople to have different conversations, to engage with their customers in a different way, rather than pushing in-and-out, financial proposals.

Q: Is there a current opportunity to refresh salespeople’s skills in anticipation of the next normal? What are the key skills going forward?

SE: Of course. The stronger organisations will be able to take this opportunity and time to double down on salespeople’s skills development, platforms and tools. This will be invaluable as a launching pad for these organisations to be best placed and primed for capturing a disproportionate share of the rebound growth when it starts to happen. I don’t believe there are any additional skills above what is already needed but, in many cases, these have been severely lacking in the recent era. The absence of many of these skills has been shielded from view in a strong market as these salespeople are carried or tolerated during more prosperous times. The falling tide shows who was swimming naked. Salespeople in this category will be cut adrift and desperation will increase to find those elusive true sales professionals. I think the underlying skills requirements broadly remain the same. Developing, let alone finding sales professionals with these skills, now that’s the challenge, even more than before.

AH: Absolutely, yes! This is an opportunity to step away from product and process, and to focus more on behaviour and capability. Our priority at the APS is to help salespeople develop the skills and behaviours to create customer relationships which are based on trust and will deliver long-term customer value. We think this message – of humanity and purpose over process and short-term revenue – has never been so important as it is now.

Our members have access to their own online CPD platform where they can drive their own development through evidence-based learning. To help sellers through the crisis, the APS is offering a series of online masterclasses, covering digital selling, social selling, remote working, personal branding and more – in other words, the skills and behaviours needed to keep safe and keep selling through these extraordinary times.

These webinars are open to anyone working in sales because our profession is stronger if we stand together, particularly at a time like this.

The Consultants

Mark Davies – Segment Pulse Limited, Managing Director, Cranfield University, Visiting Fellow, KAM Best Practice Forum, Director (April 2020); SHAKE Marketing – Dr Simon Kelly, President & Chief Cohesion Officer (April 2020); he also talked to Tim Chapman (Senior Lecturer in Sales and Behavioural Economics, University of York, Owner Sales EQ, ex-VP Sales, Vodafone), Stacey Danheiser (CEO, Shake Marketing Group) and Garry Mansfield (CEO, Outside In Sales and Marketing Ltd), as well as to Dr Paul Johnston, a lecturer and tutor at Nottingham Trent University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Sheffield, and the IÉSEG School of Management in France; Adrian Logan Limited – Consultant (April 2020); Corporate Visions – Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy Officer (April 2020); Consalia – Dr Philip Squire, CEO (May 2020)

Mark Davies
Mark Davies
Dr Simon Kelly
Dr Simon Kelly
Stacey Danheiser
Stacey Danheiser
Dr Paul Johnston
Dr Paul Johnston
Adrian Logan
Adrian Logan
Tim Riesterer
Tim Riesterer
Dr Philip Squire
Dr Philip Squire

Q: Do you predict the rush to online sales will further broaden the divide between simple and complex sales in B2B?

MD: There was quite an aggressive shift occurring anyway in this area. Many customers can specify, select and price compare with on-line price comparison systems and their own purchasing platforms. As a supplier, you need to recognise this and shift the way you serve customers such that commodity products are provided via low-cost channels (online and via third-party suppliers). The high-value products and solutions that you provide will be direct. This means suppliers need to have very clear segmentation constructs around the customers they serve and the product portfolio they have.

This “wedge” effect means that the direct sales effort organisations will shift to more of a Key/Strategic Account Management approach. Lower-opportunity customers will be served with a lower-cost-to-serve model. TIP: You must review your segmentation model and be careful about how you build your customer management business. This is not a time to under-serve customers that warrant a stronger value-based approach and over-serve those that do not!

SK > TC: It depends. Some companies may take the opportunity to make some of their offers more simple and easier to buy. If by complex we mean high £ value solutions that are likely to be complex to buy then the customer is highly likely to want human interaction which in the COVID-19 situation is by video, not face to face. So, it’s really mastering this different type of communication channel.

SK > SD: Yes. The lines between consumer and business purchases continue to blur, which means B2B buyers have an expectation on the type of information they can find about a company/their solutions. Yet B2B websites are lacking: 44% of B2B buyers in this survey1 said the number one feature they want is pricing, followed by self-service functionality (41%) and an easy way to schedule a sales appointment (37%). This will be even more important for complex purchases, as nobody wants to waste time going back and forth in meetings/proposals.

SK > GM: At the complex high-value end of selling there will always be a need to be able to uncover customer value to convince a customer to make a change and move towards your value proposition, as differentiated from the customer. The pressure will be on transactional salespeople as more and more low-value sales get put online.

AL: Yes, I do. Customers and suppliers will be questioning the value of salespeople making face-to-face calls and then doing very little other than to pick up orders. This will be done far more efficiently and effectively by online/inside sales. As a consequence, suppliers will hopefully be able to reduce their costs and customers may well expect to see lower prices.

TR: I think we will see more and more complex sales executed by inside salespeople formerly known as outside salespeople. In large complex sales, you often have influencers and decision-makers all over the globe. Remotely you can gather them all at once. When the customer gets used to this environment, they aren’t going to actually want salespeople physically around I’m beginning to think. I think this is a modality moment.

PS: Yes, I do. AI will be better deployed to steer online conversation. I also think a growing number of organisations will look to develop their inside sales teams to handle more complex sales cycles working with channel partners where onsite presence is required.

1 B2B buyers press B2B sellers to up their ecommerce game, 8 November 2019,

It may require far more sophisticated websites that use the latest technology to enable customers to design their own solution.

Q: Will this potentially require higher-quality salespeople working on more complex sales?

MD: Yes. Again, the profile will be for key account managers. They have more of a general manager profile. Your customer has highly capable procurement “professionals”. If you do not upskill it will be lions playing with sheep.

SK: Not really. It will require developing proficiency in communicating using mixed media and becoming more tech savvy: eg being aware of your background and surroundings if at home, using slides and other visual aids well over video, cutting to the chase a bit more. While folks are locked down it may be easier to get on the calendars of senior contacts than it is in normal times.

SK > PJ: The need to undertake consultative selling will probably be done using remote technologies and with more sophisticated competencies that mean they have to adapt to context, think systemically, balance different types of value.

SK > SD: Yes, it will become evident that there is a “sophistication gap” that exists between sellers. Those sellers that can understand business changes/impacts happening at the customer’s organization and be able to “connect the dots” to offer additional value (in the form of education, insights, and new solutions or products).

SK > TC: Highly complex sales have always required highly competent salespeople; this is not driven by COVID-19. The issue is that companies are not able to differentiate and impress on the customer the need to change, and change with you. From a competency standpoint, great salespeople are great in the old and new normal. However, I’m picking up from some clients that some of their better salespeople are struggling with the remote-working piece and lack of social contact. The “new normal” may need a higher level of resilience and a different type of mental strength.

AL: Without doubt, but it does now.

TR: It’s going to require salespeople who are adept at remote meeting management – whether that is great online presentations, facilitating product discussion; online whiteboarding to discuss more complex solutions and situations; great electronic follow-up… the list goes on. We already have higher-quality salespeople working more complex and larger sales; those are the SAMs, GAMs, KAMs of the world. This has been going on for years at companies. So much about the “how” you execute is changing. 

PS: Yes it will. Only the most skilled should be working with those key customers.

It’s in these pivotal moments that you can see the true values of both selling and buying organisations, and marketing needs to be sensitive to the human dimension – how to sell and market when people are at different stages of the SARA curve.

Q: Might there be a need for closer alignment between sales and marketing as companies focus on marketing channels and buyer experiences tailored to these times? What might this look like?

MD: Account-based marketing is a trend that we see growing in popularity as we advance KAM with the Cranfield KAM Best Practice Forum. This is really a response as organisations try to become customer-centric. Supplier organisations need to leverage as much effort as possible to try to understand customer insights, create new innovative value propositions for each customer and then deliver the value that they promise. I can see organisations aligning more than just marketing around the bigger, higher-value customers. I can see a trend where supply chain, R&D and other support functions are focused on certain customers where a value co-creation approach is warranted.

SK: More a case of those who have not been working in an aligned way need to get with the programme. If the first 60% of a typical sales cycle (pre-COVID research) was spent interacting with company marketing channels then it can only be more now. So for sales: take an interest in what’s being put on your website and through social media; make sure you have developed integrated marketing and sales programmes/campaigns, eg mailshot, thought-leadership, online demo, sales appointment, etc; and make sure you feed back what’s going on in the customer’s world or marketing might just make it up!

SK > SD: We advocate that marketing and sales alignment only works when they are both centred around the customer. Yet, these past few weeks, organizations have been heavily focused on internal operations. There needs to be a renewed focus on gathering intelligence from customers (formal research, “big data”, and informal conversations), and presenting this to the entire organization so that decisions are made from this viewpoint.

It has long been said that 2020 is the year that companies will primarily compete on the basis of customer experience (Walker Study), and this will accelerate during/after the storm. For example, companies that are radio silent during this time in favour of “letting things play out”, are already missing an opportunity to provide insights, thought-leadership and education when their customers need it most. They can’t expect to maintain customer loyalty when they are absent during a critical time.

SK > TC: Before COVID-19, it was always good practice for marketing and sales to be well-aligned, though from experience they are often not. Marketing has always been needed to do the top-of-the-funnel stuff for sales to then action. Companies that were not doing this pre-COVID need to really start to act on building a strategic alliance between marketing and sales.

AL: Not necessarily, it depends (sorry) on the technical expertise of the buying organisation and how highly they value the “experience”. It may require far more sophisticated websites that use the latest technology to enable customers to design their own solution. I have seen a quite unique website that enables buyers of springs to design their own, and the website enables up to almost 1,000,000 variations.

TR: Marketing, sales and customer success. I recently keynoted for a very large global company which said that AEs and CS will be teaming as early as stage 2 of an opportunity. But, yes, marketing will be driving more people down the funnel as companies become more expert in distance “research” and they will be more present in important online meetings, especially product marketing. The ability to leverage SMEs more readily will be amazing.

PS: My sense is, yes, marketing and sales need to work much more closely together. The current data (see Guy Lloyd research) on conversion from lead generation to close suggests we need to get smarter in these times is interesting. There are some examples of really good practice and really poor practice relevant to this C-19 world in which we now live. It’s in these pivotal moments that you can see the true values of both selling and buying organisations, and marketing needs to be sensitive to the human dimension – how to sell and market when people are at different stages of the SARA curve.

Someone on the commercial team is going to have to step up and create a strategic roadmap for the way marketing, sales and customer success are going to work together. I’m just not sure that has been the sales leaders’ main skillset, or they ever saw it as something they cared about. This overarching vision and leadership has to come from somewhere.

Q: Do you foresee a greater requirement for multidisciplinary teams (ABM, etc) at the complex end of the sales spectrum?

MD: YES. See my answer above.

SK: There has always been a need for this, not sure if it becomes any greater. There is certainly scope for creativity in plugging various members of the multidisciplinary team into the customer at different points in the sales cycle: eg, thought-leadership video from marketing, executive-level video round table, technical call with systems engineer, and so on. Thinking about the marketing and sales cycle as a conversation flow with the customer is the way forward.

On the point about getting good with the technology we know of cases where organisations have potentially damaged their brand by holding webinars, etc, because the technology did not work and/or was not managed well.

SK > SD: ABM is a popular term, yet many companies are confused by what this means and how to do it correctly. It will become obvious which companies associate this with “advertising” only, versus a strategic approach to winning new business (targeting, tailored value props, creative insights/programmes, useful conversations, and so on).

SK > TC: Again, no more than there should before COVID-19. Good account management has always been about bringing the right people into the account, at the right time. Anyone who has roles that have a level of customer responsibility should be orchestrated so that they present a joined-up view of the power of what the company can do for the customer. Now there is greater acceptance of video meetings, some of the interactions can happen much faster (versus organising a face-to-face meeting) and in much shorter, focused meetings. Working in this “new normal” way could open up a whole new gene pool: eg, parents who can now work largely from home without the pressure of being in an office every day.

AL: Does that not happen now? For a complex production line that embraces Industry 4.0, for example, I would expect to see at least five people from the supplier and even a number of other people from within the supply chain involved.

TR: I don’t think this is new. Remote selling creates scale for these expert resources, but these types of teams at the strategic account level have always existed.

PS: Yes. They will possess a wider and greater range of multi-disciplinary skills, both sales and project management and leadership skills, but also understand the context of how business is done and emerging ways of creating economic value. For example, purpose and sustainability will become even more important.

Your customer has highly capable procurement ‘professionals’. If you do not upskill it will be lions playing with sheep.

Q: Do you anticipate a requirement for more strategic thinking from sales leaders, plus agility to lead through these times of increasing uncertainty towards the “next normal”?

MD: Yes. What I think we need to see is organisations recognising that sales are a critical part of the overall strategy. This varies between organisations/industries: some are already very strategic in the way that they manage customers; some less so. What I do think needs to happen is that, at the most strategic level, supplier organisations need to go back to the segmentation model and reconsider where every customer sits in the portfolio. Some customers may have been good in the past, but with the current crisis they become a high-risk/low-profit choice. It is difficult to have to make these adjustments, but do you want to be exposed with a lot of product sales to a customer that is financially stretched? Hard choices must be made. Who do you stick with, and who do you spend less investment supporting?

This level of strategic thinking and analysis should be fronted by the sales/customer management function (they do the heavy lifting and analysis). The final choices must be understood by the organisation leadership/board and sanctioned. This is strategic thinking (sales at board level).

SK: Yes. Some organisations quickly furloughed salespeople who were pointed towards sectors badly affected by COVID-19. Taking a view of where the opportunities are/are not and redeploying salespeople towards opportunities is the combination of strategic thinking and agility that’s heightened in these times.

SK > SD: Empathy is emerging as a top competence, as sellers are asking “should I keep selling in these challenging times?” To remain relevant to customers, being human is what first needs to be displayed. This builds trust. Companies that continue with “business as usual” and ignore this fact risk hurting the credibility of their brand and ultimately their bottom line. Interestingly, the sales profession has the opportunity to emerge in a new light, from the current negative perception of “sleazy” to a more positive perception of “serving”. The salesperson’s mindset of being a helpful guide is just as important as thinking more strategically, providing value, being agile, etc.

SK > TC: Again, not much should have changed because of COVID-19. If you are trying to sell a differentiated value proposition in a complex market then, if you weren’t acting strategically before, you should be now. It seems to me that this changes the method of execution, not the strategy. You still have to decide who you key customer target segments are and what your differentiated value proposition is to them. Sales leaders are often not good at this and do too much product push; they’ve always needed to change.

AL: I’d like to see SOME strategic thinking from sales leaders to start with. Many are far too operational to be called leaders. Nevertheless, there will be such a requirement, but my concern is that their way of adapting to the “next normal” will be to get even more tactical and call it agile.

TR: We’ve always needed more strategic thinking from sales leaders. What they really need is to continue to develop a broader commercial mindset on how marketing, sales and customer success needs to be integrated across the customer lifecycle.

PS: I think the skills required now are more in the moment than future looking. How do I survive right now? It’s reflecting in action. The new normal may be a more ambiguous world – dealing with ambiguity, this is a leadership skill advocated by David Wilkinson in his book The Ambiguity Advantage: What Great Leaders are Great At. Perhaps he was ahead of his time.

Q: What issues will sales leaders be considering at the moment?

MD: They should be considering:

  • Is my customer segmentation still correct?
  • Where I have strategic/key customers, do I have the right sales/account management teams looking after them?
  • Are we close to the leadership of these key customers? If not, how do we get close? How do we ensure that we can be valued and trusted to partner with them as we jointly sail through difficult unchartered economic conditions?
  • How do we look at ALL relationships to work together? I am a firm believer that value-based business relies on looking at several relationships (suppliers, customers, third-party channels, and competitors).
  • Working with competitors may be a way to advance! If you look at industries that are subjected to seismic change, there is an emerging trend for competitors to work together. This is happening in the automotive industry (OEM manufacturers working together to develop electric cell technologies). There may also be lessons from technology industries – for instance IBM and HP compete, but they also collaborate and buy/sell from each other.
  • Sales leaders need to be completely revisiting sales strategy. Look to the environment and respond. Think about your people, structure, leadership challenges, data and reporting, and planning systems. There needs to be a sales capability/account management response to the external changes.

SK: Working new opportunities, the usual blocking and tackling, trying to close deals that are in flight. How do they keep the furloughed staff interested and motivated: eg, through continuing to train and coach and wanting to come back to the company? How do they keep those still working interested and motivated? What are they going to do to reintroduce furloughed people when they come back? Then probably how do we better manage the sales process by video and make better use of multimedia?

SK > SD: Staying relevant, how to be helpful/useful… and demonstrating empathy.

SK > TC: Pipeline – where’s the risk? Asking the question what does COVID-19 mean for pipeline and forecast. Again, this is just a different manifestation of an old problem; B2B salespeople are notoriously bad at forecasting accuracy, which is often around 30%. This is often because there is no objective consideration applied to likely win chances. Again, COVID has amplified the issue. There will be some consideration of providing training and encouraging self-development for furloughed staff. The better ones will be thinking how does this COVID-19 affect our value proposition and how do we take it to market. I have seen some of this.

SK > PJ: Getting the attention of customers. How to engage and interact effectively with customers.

AL: How to respond to the current situation? What will the changes in the marketplace/competitive environment be? How will my people respond? Are they good enough to respond properly or will many of them breathe a sigh of relief and behave as if nothing had happened (like they are adept at doing when corporate initiatives come along)?

TR: A client told us they are getting an overwhelming level of requests from salespeople to support webinars. I honestly think sales leaders are going to have to become, along with their teams, way more self-sufficient with communication technologies that are not planes, trains and automobiles.

PS: Clearly sale leaders will be considering the targets and quotas of their team. In some cases, these have not changed and sales teams will be under huge and unrealistic pressure to close deals. So, taking a more positive approach, their first imperative is for the well- being of their team; their second imperative is to consider their customers, ie to review the customer portfolio matrix and decide what coverage of these is required in this new world right now; the third imperative is to consider covering these accounts – what resources are required. Those who are not required should be furloughed. No doubt there will some sorting of the dead wood. This is a chance to emerge stronger as a sales leader.

COVID-19 Insight

Q: Will sales leaders simply be firefighting, or will they be planning ahead?

MD: They should be planning. Of course, it is easy to say that, but if the sales leaders are not setting the sales strategy, who is? Organisations MUST set a new sales strategy and develop new capabilities. NOTE: It could be that the external environment provides opportunities, not just threats. Either way, most organisations need to respond, and this response needs strategic leadership.

SD: Probably about 70:30 firefighting versus planning, both in term of time allocation and split of people who do effectively plan versus firefight. We seem to be hearing a lot of accounts that indicate this “new normal” has been moving from lots of internal face-to-face meetings to back-to-back Zoom calls. Some US research I saw indicates that folks are working about three hours longer each day.

SK > SD: Bad ones will be fearful and reactive. Strategic sales teams are already looking for opportunities to grow new verticals and take current customer case studies/success stories into new clients (ie, telemedicine, telecommuting).

SK > TC: “The ‘greats’ never sacrifice the important for the urgent. They handle the immediate problem and still make sure to secure the future.” (Bobby “Axe” Axelrod) [Editor’s note: Ah yes, one of my favourite tv characters.] Some will be planning, others won’t. I suspect it will be the same people as pre-COVID.

I had a terrible call the other day over technology; that cannot happen. Salespeople will have to become proficient at presenting in a compelling way over video

Brady Rafuse, DEO of EU Networks

AL: If the fire is raging, firefighting. If not, many will not be planning but trying to find some clarity as to what the “next normal” will entail. If they are any good, they will be scenario planning so that they are prepared to respond to different situations. Some will look to fight fires so that they look heroic in the eyes of the company and it hides the fact that they can’t plan.

TR: It’s up to them. Someone on the commercial team is going to have to step up and create a strategic roadmap for the way marketing, sales and customer success are going to work together. I’m just not sure that has been the sales leaders’ main skill set, or they ever saw it as something they cared about. This overarching vision and leadership has to come from somewhere.

PS: I have developed a concept called SPACE. S is survival – cash management and cost reduction. P is to preserve the best of customers, partners and sales team. A is agility we need to be smart quickly and define the opportunities that will emerge from this crisis. C is co-creation – we are going to have to innovate fast with suppliers and customers to gain competitive advantage. E is to emerge stronger.

Q: Is there a current opportunity to refresh salespeople’s skills in anticipation of the next normal? What are the key skills going forward?

MD: At the beginning of this response I described that these new normals are emerging, but most of them were occurring anyway (COVID-19 is merely accelerating these trends). The changes that we (Cranfield KAM Best Practice Forum) see are:

  • A greater need to develop KAM/strategic account management (and reduce sales effort to online and via third parties). This requires a general upskilling – selection, development and coaching.
  • Aligning other critical functions to support key account customers. Account-based marketing is an example; other functions can also be considered (why not account-based logistics?)
  • Greater levels of innovation to create bespoke account value propositions. This will require a team-based approach by each customer. Developing an approach that thinks of sales as “strategy, customer by customer” should be developed.
  • If possible, run workshops with several organisations across the supply chain/value chain. Everybody will be feeling pain in these challenging times. It may be better to “collaborate and survive” than “compete and perish”.
  • Be prepared to develop bespoke solutions using new technologies. Your core products may no longer be enough, but you could enhance these with value-adding services and solutions. You can describe the value you could add in a future state by helping the customer grow their sales, save operational costs, be compliant and secure, and by offering strategic management support. You should also help them to understand and add value to the consumer (the customer’s customer). Think broader, think deeper.
  • Look outside your industry and try to understand what other great companies are doing. Forums like the Cranfield KAM Best Practice Forum, or the APS are constantly organising and hosting these events. You could look at these sessions as a luxury while you try to survive. Alternatively, just one good idea that you gain could help you to prosper when your competitors are failing.

SK: Yes, but have companies just filled their time being busy on video versus in-person (see my earlier point). And it depends on what the next normal is. Most of the core skills and competencies remain the same; some have been dialled up: eg, presenting effectively using video technology. A good salesperson will still need to be able to keep abreast of what’s happening out there that could impact the customer, develop new insights and provocations based on this, develop compelling value props, and so on.

Definitely there’s an opportunity to consider a sales process for a new normal: eg, if you’re a smaller company, why not aim to make the first discovery call by video and use this to more effectively qualify? Why not make courtesy calls by video, and so on? We know of companies that already do the whole sales process remotely… and have negotiated significant deals via WhatsApp. If the potential customer will bear it, why not?

SK > SD: Skills will be the same, with a strong emphasis on understanding what customers value and how to deliver it.

SK > TC: The skills will remain basically the same as were always needed for effective value-based selling and doing it in a way that helps your organisation stand out, to provide the customer with a compelling reason to change to you. It’s just that more of this will have to be done remotely. This will need people to become more tech savvy, and place and move the emphasis for sales leaders from training to coaching: ie, getting away from the “old normal” of getting people in a room to “train” them and letting it die on the forgetting curve. Organisations that move to this on-line coaching are much more likely to be successful.

AL: Absolutely. Even those who are not furloughed have more time on their hands through not having to travel. Key skills: the ability to work remotely – statistics from Objective Management Group show just 41% of the two million or so people they have assessed are suited to working remotely. Thereafter, many of the existing skills will need to be honed: eg, uncovering and quantifying value, challenging the customer, use of technology including CRM, especially if it is a sales enablement tool.

TR: All of the traditional skills still matter. They need to be re-imagined for an online, asynchronous selling world. But, to start, salespeople need to become self-sufficient in running amazing online experiences via web meetings. Companies can’t scale the support needed, so they must become masters of remote selling. 

PS: Absolutely. I am pleased to say that none of the apprentice programmes we are running have been delayed or cancelled and this is an ideal time (furloughed or not) for people to learn. Never has there a been a bigger call to action for transformation-type change. Salespeople more in tune with these concepts will be better prepared. So, yes, now is a good time. There are a huge number of virtual learning opportunities opening up so, yes, no excuse to stop learning and skill up.

Q: What kind of risk-mitigation measures might organisations be putting in place/need to put in place around sales at this time?

MD: There are several things suppliers can do to start mitigating risk with the customers they serve. These tasks should be conducted during “normal” trading conditions, but during a recessionary/volatile market they should be given greater attention:

  1. Build into the segmentation process something that looks at solvency of the customer. This should have a higher weighting than usual, and should be carefully considered when you apply the metric to each customer. It may be worthwhile getting an external viewpoint (you can buy company analysis from rating agencies). Ultimately, it is a leadership decision regarding how far you go to support a customer. Over-exposure with organisations that are struggling, however, may prove costly. Losing money is seldom strategic.
  2. Get more people involved in making the decisions about extending debtor days.
  3. Start a dialogue with your customers. You can try to get contracts and terms updated, but the best approach is get some conversations going, be open and rely on trust.

Q: Can salespeople resist these (payment terms) effectively during negotiations or is that best left to the commercial/contract management professionals?

MD: Salespeople may not be able to have those discussions, alone. I think they should always be leading the discussion, and not to be seen to “wheel in the heavy commercial team”. Getting finance, legal and bid teams involved is always good for advice, but the focus on maintaining trust and an open dialogue is important. If you have customers that are really difficult and potentially will run into commercial difficulty then a more formal approach can be taken, but it is always advisable to start with the essence of good commercial relationship: trust, openness and desire to co-create value. Getting overly formal too quickly could strain your relationship and damage future business dynamics when things get better. It is always difficult to manage this tension. Ultimately the decision about “how to act” should be carefully considered and approved by leadership – especially with those few larger more strategic customers.

Q: How do you keep salespeople motivated when they wish to pursue a deal only to have it rejected as being too risky to fulfil?

MD: This is a difficult question! It is also a challenge that is probably an issue for organisations in normal trading conditions. The dilemma is that rewarding professional salespeople in a complex sales/key account environment cannot be linked to quarterly sales targets (or other short-term periods). You want an account manager to be building a strategy for the long term. This could take several years. Performance should be measured with a mix of input as well as output/results.

Obviously, a recession will compound the problem you have rewarding salespeople (if they are rewarded by volume/sales). Changing reward schemes is difficult and involves a lot of dialogue but is necessary. During a recession it could be that other aspects of performance need to be measured, such as achieving strategic dialogue with other functions, developing a new value proposition or managing supply-chain communications. Maintaining sales is important, but the business model with each customer will probably need to change and it is that new approach that should be rewarded.

Q: What will happen to face-to-face sales kick-offs/motivational conferences/incentive trips?

MD: Hard to say! Again, I think that organisations should dig deep and really consider if it is just the salespeople that are maintaining a profitable stream of revenue. As organisations become more customer-centric, and shift towards KAM teams, there will be executives from many other functions that will be doing hard work. Value-based businesses have teams from marketing, supply chain and logistics, finance, legal, R&D and HR supporting individual customers. The advice from this article is that supplier organisations should shift towards a KAM/SAM business model. A favourite description for this is: effective key account management is more than just the key account manager. This recession may be the time that for a call to action for many organisations to make this shift from a “sales-based” to “value-based business”. They may not be able to take any other approach.

What the business leaders are saying

“This is chance to cut the deadwood out of the sales team.”
UK-based sales and marketing director, large print reseller, turnover £200m.

“We have become more innovative in helping send packs of stationery to people’s homes as part of the home working environment. We are seeing some buyers asking for ludicrously low prices right now.”
Head of European Sales, Large Stationery supplier, turnover £2.1bn.

“We had a huge task to relocate staff to work in home environment; net sales have dropped 25% in last month (March) but costs have been trimmed and operating margin has therefore been very strong. We are doing our utmost to support our clients in this difficult time. We shall not be sending out a guideline for next-quarter figures.”
UK sales director, large international manufacturer.

“Growth has been strong, sitting on strong cash balance and no debt. We are considering the value the sales team are providing. We paid out a large bonus this last quarter and, as 50% of our business comes online, we are debating the role of our area sales managers. We are re-establishing our go-to-market strategy. We are in strong position to seek 20% growth this year.”
CEO, pharmaceutical business, turnover £320m.

Founder of the International Journal of Sales Transformation | + posts

Nick de Cent is the founder and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Sales Transformation. A business journalist for over 35 years, he has been covering sales since the mid-1980s and has been a strong advocate of enhancing its professional status. He has freelanced for the Financial Times and edited the Sales Performance supplement in The Times. He also writes and edits extensively on behalf of corporate clients, including a Big 3 management consultancy and a top four global executive search firm.