About 30 percent of Americans are suffering from some degree of anxiety or depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent survey by the National Center of Health Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau.
Salespeople are not immune to those mental conditions, says Keith Strauss, president of Sales Concepts Inc., a Westlake sales and sales management training firm. Their customers and prospects are likely under the same stress. Add street protests and riots to the mix and nearly everyone is overwhelmed with emotions.
“It’s almost like we want to curl into the fetal position and wait until it’s over,” Strauss says. “Sometimes, clients use COVID-19 as an excuse not to buy anything. If a salesperson doesn’t have a good attitude — and they’re working at home and struggling — it can feel defeating.
“At times, salespeople, like anyone else, just need to vent, or maybe they need mental health treatment,” Strauss says. “You have to have your head in the right place if you want to be successful.”
Strauss says there are ways around COVID-19-related challenges, many of which existed before the pandemic and are now intensified. He speaks from his 27 years of experience as a trainer and consultant at Sales Concepts, a franchise of Sandler Training, a Baltimore-based professional development firm that has served more than 1 million clients throughout the world.
One challenge involves skittish customers wary of spending money. Closing a sale in normal times can take one or two years of traveling, wining and dining. In the COVID-19 era, prospects are even more reluctant to sign contracts, saying they’d rather wait until the pandemic and the economic upheaval it has caused are over.
A salesperson might instinctively advise the prospect that it’s a bad idea to wait and push the matter. That approach might drive the prospective customer further away and cause them to become entrenched in their position.
Strauss says a better way is to acknowledge and accept the prospect’s concerns — instead of arguing — and let them know their position is legitimate. But then ask how long they believe the COVID-19 crisis will last. That will get the prospective customer to think and talk about the situation.
“Maybe they have a legitimate reason to wait,” Strauss says. “If not, maybe you can help them realize it’s not necessary to wait that long. Then they realize they can’t wait if they want to survive. But it’s important to let them figure that out on their own.”
A related challenge salespeople have faced, especially during the pandemic, is pressure to lower prices so low that they wipe out any profits. A salesperson might even give away company secrets to win a sale. Unfortunately, the prospect might then take that proprietary information back to their existing vendor, or a new one, and ask them if they can provide the same product or service for even less money.
Strauss says the salesperson should not give in so quickly. If a prospect calls, for example, and immediately requests a price, the salesperson should first ask what is the company’s budget, why it needs the product or service, why they are considering a change and who in the company is the decision-maker.
“You can have a better outcome if you have a structured sales process,” Strauss says.
Dealing with Technology
Salespeople, like other professionals, have generally avoided in-person meetings due to COVID-19. Instead, they are meeting and handling shared projects on Zoom, WebEx and Microsoft Teams. Rather than making cold calls, they are asking someone to connect them to a prospect on LinkedIn.
Such technology saves travel time, fuel expenses and hotel costs, and will likely remain part of business long after COVID-19, Strauss says. Companies might meet in-person with customers once, instead of several times, a year.
For younger people who grew up with technology, that’s not a problem. But for experienced salespeople — whose path to success involved constantly traveling sales routes and meeting with clients over dinner — it’s just another challenge. They’re used to reading body language from close range.
“Fifty-five percent of the comfort level between people is physiology — whether someone smiles or nods their head,” Strauss says. “So there’s always an advantage to meeting with someone in person and shaking their hand. But a video call is a close second.”
The trick is teaching more experienced salespeople to adapt. Companies like Sales Concepts provide technology training, allowing salespeople to practice with their peers and managers before diving into the tech water.
“It’s understandable for someone who has never used technology to feel nervous,” Strauss says. “We have to get them comfortable.”
Bringing the entire sales team up to speed technologically is vital today more than ever because companies can’t afford weak links. Sales staffs typically include one or two top performers, a handful who are breaking even and a few who are losing money, Strauss says. That arrangement is becoming less sustainable.
“COVID-19 has really exposed salespeople who didn’t have great relations with existing customers to begin with, and now they have this additional barrier,” Strauss says.
Companies must bring their sales team together, using technology so they can share success stories, learn from each other and become comfortable with virtual platforms. Everyone must carry their weight.
“It’s always tough to be a salesperson, but right now it’s tougher than ever,” Strauss says.
Nevertheless, Strauss is optimistic. When the pandemic arrived, the stock market tanked, but then rebounded. The federal government acted relatively quickly, trying to keep people working or sending them stimulus checks.
“There is pent up demand and a fair amount of money out there in play,” Strauss says.
In the meantime, salespeople need to hang in there mentally.
“That’s more important now than ever,” Strauss says. “If you’re isolated at home and can’t get anyone on the phone, that could be a tough spot. We are social creatures and need