Soft Skills for Sales Professionals During a Global Pandemic
Sales professionals, we need to talk.
There’s a global pandemic. People are dying. Businesses are hurting. Every single person in the world will be affected in some way – physically, emotionally, mentally, psychologically, physiologically, relationally, financially, or otherwise.
There’s no shortage of social media posts telling you to hustle during this crisis. Many of my fellow sales experts are advising you to seize this opportunity to connect with people who are usually too busy to talk with you… to keep your appointments while others are socially distancing or self-quarantining… to upgrade your technology for remote, video meetings… and to just keep selling.
Before you kick your hustling into high gear, please ask yourself this question: Are you being responsive to customers’ needs or are you being opportunistic?
Being opportunistic means “conducting affairs or making decisions in response to an opportunity regardless of the sacrifice of ethical principles.”
I’m genuinely concerned. Based on the slew of unwelcome and offensive sales efforts I’ve seen over the past two weeks, I think a lot of sellers are completely out of touch with the reality of this situation. Ultimately, the behaviors I’ve observed suggest an extreme lack of soft skills in selling.
Better Ways to Sell When Business Is Disrupted
You can do better.
Sadly, there are many more I could have selected. Here are just five examples of seller efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic that appear to be opportunistic. I don’t, of course, know the true intentions of the sellers. My guess is that they simply didn’t consider the optics. Nonetheless, these emails and posts cast the sellers and the companies they represent in a negative light. I won’t consider doing business with them now or in the future.
Example 1: From my spam folder, sent by a well-known CX/CRM company
This email invited me to a free, virtual event. It appears to be a replacement for a conference that was cancelled. The email describes five topics and speakers. There’s not a single benefit listed in the email. But every topic sounds like the perfect set up for a sales pitch about their product.
On the landing page, it says “sorry we couldn’t meet you at (event name), but the sun will keep rising.”
Do that not know that people are dying? “The sun will keep rising” sounds glib and dismissive of people’s genuine concerns. They might as well say “Yeah, so some people are dying and that spoiled our event… But we’re not affected so you shouldn’t be either…”
Incidentally, one of the topics is “The Empathy Lab: Cultivating humanity across your team.” It’s going to be presented by the VP of Public Policy and Social Impact. There’s a serious mismatch here – a serious lack of empathy in the tone of the event promotion but a presentation about empathy?!? How did this make it through the marketing approval process? If you can’t demonstrate it, you can’t teach it. Opportunism and haste will cause you to make mistakes like this.
Example 2: Also from my spam folder, sent by an expo company that frequently spams me
The content of this email is no different from their usual ones except for the headline “Business Must Continue! You still need leads & marketing for your Business. We can help!”
Seriously? They’re advertising expo events that are scheduled August 10 and later. How does this generate marketing and leads during this crisis time? Oh… I see… when you scroll down it says you can now purchase registration lists with emails and phone numbers from people who attended their shows in 2017-2019 as “an excellent source of leads for your sales team.”
Here’s what that tells me: they don’t mind selling outdated leads, they don’t mind spamming the people who attend their expos, and they don’t mind giving non-exhibitors the same access that paying exhibitors got. I’m flummoxed in trying to see any value here.
Example 3: A LinkedIn message from a colleague at a sales enablement company
The message is disappointingly generic since it’s from someone I just spoke to a week ago. It includes a link to the landing page for an upcoming roundtable discussion about how Covid-19 impacts sales organizations.
Coincidentally, the topics on the agenda are all related to services that this company provides – sales compensation, pipeline planning, and territory/account assignments. I’m pretty sure that these are NOT the topics on the minds of most sales organizations right now. There are more urgent, pressing matters to deal with. While these are all important, they are not appropriate fixes for immediate adjustment to a real crisis. That makes the offer misleading and opportunistic.
Example 4: Also a LinkedIn message, this one from a new connection (who is no longer a connection)
Very generic and irrelevant. It’s a 5-day online challenge for “bringing in cashflow to your business quickly and effectively without having to go out and network in person (which is tough to do these days!).”
The landing page for this one promises to find gaps in my business and “stop the hemorrhaging of cash flow” (irrelevant). It also says I’ll learn “all the secrets, swipe copy, and template layouts to make it work for you” – an interesting claim since it’s completely unclear what “it” is. Then I’ll learn how to create “drool-worthy” offers, that “bring in the moolah fast.”
There are so many assumptions, off-target messages, and over-reaching claims in this one that I don’t really know where to begin. Suffice it to say that what’s being offered here has nothing to do with the troubling times we’re facing. The pretense that it does is a lame attempt at news-jacking in a way that feels particularly opportunistic.
Example 5: A LinkedIn post from a first-degree connection
Verbatim “These are trying times for us all. I am hearing from business owners that their access to capital and cash is drying up. I may be able to help. Reach out to me if you would like to discuss. KNOW YOUR OPTIONS.”
It struck me as odd because it’s only been six days since the World Health Organization officially announced Covid-19 as a global pandemic. What’s more, I got two pieces of mail and three emails just offering small business capital or cash loans. And just a few hours ago, a stimulus package was announced to benefit small business owners.
So is this really an issue? Are there genuinely new options people need to know about? It feels more like an opportunistic fear tactic.
You get the point. You have to consider your tone and timing. To do a better job selling to customers who are experiencing business disruptions, angst, and turmoil:
- Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. How can you truly help them? Think less about the ways you can capitalize on a bad situation. Instead, look for the people who truly need your help. If the product you sell isn’t genuinely useful at this time, don’t pretend it is or try to package it that way. Instead, accept that you’ll be less relevant now than you usually are. Acknowledge this as you look for people who are receptive to meeting during the crisis.
- Empathize with your customers’ emotions. This is a scary situation, and people are being impacted (even if you’re not). It goes beyond inconveniences like not being able to buy toilet paper. That buyer who’s working from home may not have “extra time” to talk to you while setting up their remote work station, home-schooling young children, caring for an elderly parent who’s at risk, or any number of personal-life matters.
- Develop business acumen to understand what happens when a business experiences disruption in their supply chain, what happens when employees suddenly have to be set up to work from home, and what happens when it’s not business-as-usual in a myriad of ways that impact profitability, viability, and sustainability.
- Don’t make light of the situation. Your personal belief that the crisis is overblown are unhelpful (even if accurate). Your lack of symptoms, healthy immune system, network of well people, and disdain for making changes are not excuses for irresponsible behaviors that could adversely affect others. Show respect for customers by following their lead on when/how to meet.
- Be self-aware so you don’t seem callous. Consider how others might interpret the message you’re sending. Make sure it doesn’t sound over-reaching, opportunistic, desperate, or uncaring. We’re all in this together. So how about we think before speak and connect on a human-to-human level before trying to make a quick sale?
How a Lack of Self-Awareness and Empathy Derails Sales
In the examples I offered above (and countless others that are flooding my spam folder and LinkedIn inbox), there’s no apparent empathy for others. There’s a profound lack of self-awareness. There’s no thought given to how the recipient might interpret the message or think about the sender.
When people are scared and suffering, they don’t want to bombarded with tone-deaf, low-value, irrelevant sales pitches.
When people are scrambling to adjust to a difficult situation, they’re grappling with confusion, uncertainty, and apprehension. The last thing they want to deal with is a self-serving seller.
If you want to stand out from the crowd and differentiate yourself during this crisis, empathize and reach out one person to another. Ask about the impacts. Check to see how people are doing. Meet them where they are. Don’t try to sell something to people who are focused on much bigger issues. Instead, try to help them in any way you can. You’ll make more sales later by being a good person than you’ll make now by being a good hustler.
In Times of Crisis, Soft Skills for Sales Professionals Matter More than Ever
I had a call this morning from a company I’ve done business with for eight years. The seller asked me two questions:
- Since you travel so much for business, how are you holding up right now?
- What, if anything, can I be doing to help you right now?
I said “I wish the rate increase wasn’t going into effect on May 1. I planned to pre-purchase and get the current rate… But now I just can’t do that since I don’t know the quantity I’ll need this year.”
I got a call this afternoon from the same sales rep. He said “Deb, I told my boss what you said. We’re going to delay that price increase until August 1. You’ve been a good customer, and it’s the least we can do for you right now.”
It’s a little thing. But it’s everything to me in terms of how I feel about this seller.
Frankly, I didn’t even need the price concession. I didn’t expect it. I already felt good about the seller just because he listened to me, empathized with me, and even understood before I said anything that I was likely impacted by the travel constraints.
Soft skills matter now more than ever.