How to Sell When the World is Upside Down

This article was originally published in the Ivey Business Journal.

Coffee today isn’t for closers-it’s for sellers who add the most value, given our new context.

To say that selling in today’s environment is challenging is an obvious understatement after the global spread of COVID-19 has forced businesses big and small to toss even their best-laid plans out the window. As Ottawa-based Shopify highlighted when officially suspending financial expectations for the rest of the year, plans, forecasts, and budgets need a serious recalibration.

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Conducting business as usual is obviously out, and simply trying to ride things out is no longer an option. This pandemic will eventually subside, and many businesses will recover, but in order to rebound, they must survive-which is why adjusting sales tactics to get through the outbreak is mission-critical.

If you are in sales, here are some tips to help you grow revenue:

Be helpful

Businesses and service providers that genuinely lead with their hearts in this time of extreme need will have a better chance of surviving and thriving in the future. That means thinking about ways that you can help others survive the pandemic, and that may require you to “give” more than usual.

Free consulting is typically touted as a bad thing. After all, spending too much time with unqualified prospects burns precious resources (time and money). But with budgets being what they are today, offering discounted products or free resources that can help others maintain operations might just be the best “selling” one can do right now.

A good example of this kind of leadership can be found in the Canadian startup sector.

Not long ago, the tech community was looking at a record-breaking year. But instead of facing a severe talent shortage, it now has a growing unemployment issue. Enter Adam Bercovici, co-founder of Luminari, Marianne Bulger, founder and CEO of Prospect, and Adam Gellert, founder and CEO of HiredHippo.

This trio of entrepreneurs deserves credit for creating a growing database of displaced tech-sector workers-called the Canadian Startup #COVID19 Talent Help List -to help them find work as fast as possible. In a note to community employers, they write:

As members of the startup community, we all know that employment can be tenuous at the best of times. We started this database to help those employees who are in between jobs, got let go, or their company recently went under. These are things that happen in any normal period in time in the startup community, but the recent crisis around COVID19 has made employment opportunities essentially non-existent. If you’re looking to bring someone on in a contract capacity during this crisis, please source from this list of the people who need our help the most. If you’re unable to bring someone onto your team right now, then let’s all make an effort to reach out to these people once the crisis is over. If someone has gone through this crisis without having a steady paycheque, we owe it to them to view their candidacy first whenever we make it to the other side of this crisis.
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What began as a modest Google Sheet of around 60 people on day one, quickly turned into a database of over 1000 in less than a week, with numbers still climbing to date.

Another example of a thoughtful community support initiative can be found at Ceridian, a global human capital management software company based in Toronto and Minneapolis.

In partnership with Toronto-based learning platform provider Docebo, Ceridian (which employs my wife) recently launched an educational portal to help organizations improve the safety and well-being of employees during the COVID-19 outbreak. Servicing existing customers and the general public, the new complimentary resource offers courses on employee wellness, work-from-home strategies, remote management, and coronavirus preparedness and prevention.

As Ceridian CEO David Ossip noted, “Today, more than ever, it’s critical that employers prioritize employee wellness by engaging and caring for their people. Ceridian’s Learning Portal makes it possible for anyone to access quality learning resources, without any cost.”
For more business-building insights from Eric Janssen, listen to the Ivey Entrepreneur Podcast produced by the Ivey Business School’s Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship

Re-Evaluate Your Context

Coffee today isn’t for closers-it’s for sellers who add the most value, given our new context. If you are in sales, think through who needs your help right now, and align your value proposition directly with our new shared reality.

As a business school instructor, I normally teach students in a physical classroom, and so I’d be all ears if I got a call today from someone reaching out to discuss ways that I can maintain student engagement while teaching remotely.

Simply put, some products and services can genuinely help customers during the pandemic. For example, with 25 percent of small business owners recently surveyed by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business reporting an inability to pay their rent or mortgage in April, it is a safe bet that more than a few of them would love to hear from companies like Toronto’s Clearbanc, which provides online ventures with an alternative source of growth financing. (Instead of buying an equity stake, Clearbanc examines performance metrics and then decides in a matter of days whether or not to issue capital advances ranging from $10,000 to $10,000,000 that are flexibly repaid, bit by bit, via a percentage of future revenue.)

So, if you sell something that can help your prospects as they face these challenging times, you should be doing everything you can to reach them in their time of need.

Modify Products and Target New Markets

Another way to survive the days ahead is to develop new products or services that clients didn’t need yesterday-but desperately need today.

Before the pandemic, CrowdBlink focused on delivering digital solutions for live events. But it now offers a solution aimed at addressing COVID-19 Health and Safety Compliance. Designed to help organizations protect staff, customers, and visitors, the new offering-CrowdBlink Protect-allows organizations to enforce social distancing, screen for COVID-19 symptoms, and maintain an auditable log and history of each individual assessed (disclosure: I am a shareholder of Intellitix, which acquired CrowdBlink earlier this year).

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Organizations use CrowdBlink Protect to protect their staff, their customers, and visitors.

Another company, Rogue Fitness, supplies fitness equipment online. This company grew exponentially by selling its products primarily to CrossFit gym owners, but with fitness facilities across the country now closed, gym buffs are struggling to find their fix. Recently however, Rogue has been struggling to meet demand as its consumer-direct sales have been surging.

Add Value in New Ways

Value propositions may change even if there are no substantial changes to your actual product. For example, it might make sense to shift the focus of your outreach away from what you do, and more toward how you deliver that value. You might consider helping your customers free up cash by offering more generous payment terms, or more flexible purchase options.

Another way to add value is to consider improving the buyer journey-the way that customers make their purchases in order to make gaining access to what you already offer less complex or time-consuming.

A trio of Shopify sales representatives, for example, took it upon themselves to launch a sign-up page where business owners can get help starting an online store, then taking advantage of a special 90-day Shopify free trial. This initiative helps business owners today while potentially driving Shopify growth in the post-pandemic world.

Tweak Your Pitch

Consider adjusting a revenue-focused pitch to a cost-savings pitch. A digital marketing agency, 44 North, has experience generating leads and driving new revenue for window and door companies through online channels.

Given recent restrictions on service businesses, in-person quotes were no longer possible and so it quickly developed an automated lead-generation and quoting tool that enabled sales personnel to complete quotes remotely by leveraging Zoom.

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Not only does this allow its clients to continue business operations safely during this critical time, but it also cuts down on overhead by eliminating the cost of travel and in-person quoting-a new best practice that may remain in operation after COVID-19 allows other business practices to return to “as usual” mode.

Caring Over Content

If you’re selling something that isn’t immediately useful in this challenging time, there is no question that your outreach runs the risk of being greeted as unwelcome-and rightfully so. However, there will be a return to some semblance of normal in the not-so-distant future. Don’t hesitate to reach out, if what you offer can genuinely help with a recovery down the road, with a message like:

“I know that the current environment makes it difficult to consider new purchases today, and I’m not expecting you to, but I wanted to reach out to see if you’d be open to having a discussion about a future solution when this calms down?”

The Bottom Line

If you are in sales, now is a time to be overly generous and make a real effort to understand how to be part of the solution others are seeking, especially the people and businesses that need it most.

This won’t just help your company survive, it will position you for future success in our inevitable recovery.

Originally published at on April 15, 2020.

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