Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve probably come to expect the unexpected. But how are you supposed to adapt to it in your job as a sales rep?
“As a salesperson, when you pick up the phone, you really don't know what you’re going to hear on the other end,” said Salesforce executive Alison Gooch, who leads company sales development efforts.
Your prospects might be at wit's end reminding their first-grader to sit still for virtual school. Or they might be worried about an aging relative in another state. Or their partner keeps grinding coffee beans right next to their workstation at the kitchen table.
Whatever the case, reps need a mix of hard and soft sales skills to meet this moment. You need to see things from your customers’ point of view, and find a way to make virtual communication feel personal and human. You must also know how to act on hard data and strategize in an environment that is always changing.
The following are the five top sales skills sales reps need to succeed right now:
Empathy is by far the top sales skill that can help you meet customer and prospect needs.
Showing empathy means seeing things from the customer’s perspective, and being sensitive to their situation. That situation may be working at home alongside kids who need attention, or it could mean seeing their business through a round of layoffs.
Flexibility with customers and personalized outreach were two of the top five tactics sales leaders considered crucial for success over the next year, according to Salesforce’s latest State of Sales report. The research surveyed nearly 6,000 sales professionals globally, including sales operations, sales representatives, and sales leadership.
Early on in the pandemic, Salesforce advised sales teams to lead with empathy, "really try to not have an ask at the end of the call," Gooch said. That guidance changed over time, as we learned that showing empathy and making sales are not mutually exclusive. Your products or services meet a need. So find the people who need them.
When you contact a prospect or customer, start the conversation with open-ended questions. Your goal should be to make them feel comfortable. You might ask:
How is your business adjusting?
How has it been working from home, for your teams?
How have your priorities changed based on the current climate?
How have your customers responded?
How has your role changed?
Sharing how conditions have impacted you can also help to build a connection. For example, are you struggling with homeschooling kids on top of work? Is there something you’ve witnessed during the pandemic that makes you hopeful? Maybe you’ve seen your neighbors step up to support someone who was struggling due to illness or job loss.
When you open up with the person on the other end of the line, you encourage them to let down their guard and feel more comfortable.
“You don’t need to be an expert in data manipulation, but you do need to be able to analyze your business,” said Willard Monroe, senior director of Sales Strategy at Salesforce. That means understanding territory and industry trends, and knowing what that data means as it relates to your customers.
Data also informs overall team focus. Most prospects who took meetings with Gooch's teams in March and April were in manufacturing, professional services, real estate and engineering, and high-tech.
Sales teams responded by leaning into these industries. In April, 60% of meetings with Gooch’s teams happened in those fields; in May, 73%. That shift led to a higher return on invested time, Gooch said. In addition, sales reps converted 10% more qualified opportunities than they did even prior to COVID-19.
“Stated otherwise, we called people who were ready to be helped, as opposed to calling everyone equally,” Gooch said.
Another critical sales skill is the ability to build knowledge about your sales prospects. Spend time learning about their industry, and get familiar with other data about them. How many employees does their company have? How long has their company been around? Are they growing?
Reps in high performing sales organizations are more than twice as likely to monitor customer purchase history and customer staffing changes than their underperforming counterparts, according to the recent State of Sales research.
Before reaching out to prospects, look at available information to gain insights about them. Have they announced plans for employees to work from home? For how long? How is their industry or region impacted by the pandemic? If they have a call center, call it. How long is the wait time? What could that say about how busy they are or their staffing levels?
There might be impacts unique to their company that the data doesn’t capture, or they could be experiencing personal hardship.
Being observant also helps. Are there kids, partners, or animals in the background who could be causing a distraction? If you’re on a video call, does their body language seem closed and protective, or open and relaxed?
“If someone is making eye contact and showing signs of active listening, they might be in a place to receive.”
Gooch said matching tone is a key sales skill. If you reach a prospect and they tell you not to call, because they just laid off employees, respect their wish and give them space. You can still call them back a few weeks later to see if you have a solution that can enable them to do more with less, helping them get through the crisis so they can hopefully hire those workers back.
You’ve already scrambled to throw together some form of a home office. But developing your virtual presence is about more than just logging into work from your couch or dining room table. It’s also about how you present yourself to people on the other end of the video call.
It should come as no surprise that sales professionals surveyed by Salesforce named video conferencing as the top tool that has become more valuable since 2019.
If your computer meets the minimum technical requirements to run your video call tool of choice, that’s great, but it may not be enough. Make sure people can see and hear you clearly. Your colleagues may be able to provide feedback. If your audio is cutting out or your picture is blurry, you may want to invest in an external mic or webcam.
Make sure you have a light source in front of your face, and that your camera is positioned at eye level. “If someone is making eye contact and showing signs of active listening, they might be in a place to receive,” said Monroe. It’s not always possible to avoid distracting noises, but try to if you can. And even if you’re not heading into the office or out on the road, you should dress like you’re ready to do business.
Be mindful of “Zoom fatigue.” Your customers or prospects may be exhausted from too much screen time. Offer them a choice between video call and phone call to ensure highest comfort.
Think about all the in-person interactions you used to have during the sales process. You took prospects to lunch. You met customers at their office. Maybe you invited sales leads to events like baseball games.
These rapport-building interactions are hard to replace, but there are some ways to adapt. Being able to build relationships under changing circumstances is a more critical sales skill than ever.
A webinar is one of the easiest virtual experiences to set up. Anyone can do it, and it doesn’t have to cost you anything. From a technical standpoint, hosting a webinar is no different than sharing your screen with colleagues during a video call. To get set up, you need: a video call tool like Google Hangouts or Zoom, a slide presentation on your selected topic, and a plan for how to present it.
You can also get creative with other virtual event options. Salesforce has offered customers free livestreamed classes, such as yoga and cooking with prominent chefs. The key is to design activities so it’s easy for prospects to participate. For example, a cooking class for making pasta would only require customers to have flour and eggs on hand.
Or try free activities offered by third parties. For example, the Salesforce B-Well series hosts regular livestreamed conversations with celebrities and wellbeing experts. Working with a customer whose kids play soccer? Invite them and their children to sit in on the B-Well episode with Megan Rapinoe.
While much has changed since the coronavirus outbreak became a global pandemic, many parts of the sales process remain the same. Remembering that can help restore a sense of normalcy to your work.
Sales reps initially build rapport over email and through phone calls post-COVID-19, just as they did pre-COVID-19 said Gooch. So to eventually close deals, you still take the same first steps.
Alex Colbert, Salesforce regional vice president for enterprise sales in the Americas, said sales reps should remember the power of demos, which they can still offer live over the internet through webinars or one-on-one interactions.
Most important, though, is being mindful of how current events impact you and those around you. “Work and home is now blending for everyone, and it's hard to step away so it's easy to burn out,” Gooch said.
Look for ways to maintain a positive mindset, and ask your team for support when you need it.
To learn more about trends happening in sales, read our full State of Sales report.