At the best of times, business-to-business sales or customer support is challenging. At the worst of times, sales and support are exponentially more difficult. For example, times like now when we are working out of our homes, six feet apart from the rest of the world.
The fundamentals haven’t changed though. The job of sales (or support) is to translate. On one hand, you have to understand your customer well enough, her business challenges well enough, her company, and the environment she operates in well enough, to be relevant. She will have needs, some spoken, some not. Your job is to listen for the wish.¹
That takes time and work. The other hand — the other part of the translation job — seems easier but it’s not. You have to understand your company, your portfolio of products and services, well enough to match that wish. You need a deep understanding of what your company can do for your customers; Well enough that you can translate that into a story. It’s the same story, but one with small changes and edits to make it uniquely fit each customer.
What customers want hasn’t changed either. Customers look for an outcome - a benefit from what you do. They have expectations built around that and place a value on it. And they are willing to exchange a limited amount of effort to get it. To do all that, to sell, support, and provide great customer experience, you have to discover their unmet needs.
People love to buy things. We all do. We’re proud of the new car, or gadget, suit, or gift we bought. We’re all human. But we hate being sold to. No one wants to be pressured. No one wants a pushy salesperson, or a know-it-all on a help desk.
Right now, we simply don’t believe salespeople can help with our business problems. Here’s what the data say:²
According to a recent survey — the vast majority of business-to-business buyers (77%) do not see salespeople as a resource for solving their business problems.
At the same time, sales organizations reported that both customer retention and depth of customer relationships declined over the past two years.
We also know that decisions are being put off, while businesses react and reassess where they are. The same research says that 69% of the time, salespeople fail to connect with decision makers.
Those same sales organizations aren’t giving clients the new perspectives, or insights that could help reframe their thinking. Those insights have never been more important than they are now.
And maybe the worst sin of all — in both a sales role, and in a support role, we are failing to get to a client's unmet needs.
Every sales cycle, every support cycle, is being reset during this crisis. Customers have hit either the pause button, the reset button, or the panic button. Despite this however, they still all have needs.
If customers still have unmet needs, at all stages of the sales or support cycle, what are they? How do we first discover, and then meet them?
Customers need help to react to the crisis, and then reimagine a path for the future. We can use Touch and Task to help guide them through this process and help meet those unmet needs.
Touch is the social glue that creates collaboration, shared purpose, and productive relationships. In a time like this, Touch becomes the key to demonstrating care, compassion, and commitment. How can we amplify it when working with customers?
People are attracted to purpose. Hans Verstberg, CEO of Verizon, has said, in a crisis, “what you believe will directly drive your ability to help.”³
For example, Verizon’s purpose is to “build the networks that move the world forward.” We need to connect with our purpose, every day, to help customers keep moving forward. Moving the world forward is what everyone needs right now. Whether it’s small things, like getting to a virtual meeting on time, or responding to a call quickly, or the big things, like helping a customer through a major business or technology migration.
Purpose is also about being intentional. Have a reason to be on the call. A purpose to connect, a purpose to help. A word of caution however — it’s not a self-serving reason — because you need to hit your quota or your target (that may be true, but it can’t be the only reason). It’s a purpose that serves your customers.
The twisted silver lining in this crisis is that it’s a shared experience like no other. It’s personal, it’s tragic, but it’s also common ground for us all.
Everyone has hopes, everyone has fears. We all hope for this to end. We all want to get back to ‘normal’ — whatever that means. This is a time to show support, safety, and connection — something we all want.
Reach out to customers — tell them something you appreciate about them. Share with a new acquaintance something positive that struck you in your first meeting. Let a past customer know they’re on your mind.⁴ Find where you connect. This is the common ground. It’s a time where you've felt similarly. Empathy comes from similar feelings, not similar situations.⁵
Wherever you are in a sales or support call, aim to understand the background to what the customer needs. Context is everything. Do you know what their competition is doing? What’s happening in their industry? How crisis response, regulation or financial pressures are changing their business?
Translate what your business can do, into what the customer needs. Be careful you don’t assume that you know. Seek to understand. What’s their immediate need? What are their business challenges?
This is about give, not take.⁶ Ideas directly help customers to react or re-imagine the future. Share what other customers are going through. Share customer success stories. Share best practices.
Ideas are currency you can give away for free. That’s how you build relationships. Be selective and back them up with facts. If you’re a student of your customer, you’ve made it personal. If you’re connecting with purpose — you know what’s relevant to them. Personalize it for them.
This crisis will clear, and when it does, customers will remember the people who stayed with them for the long haul — the people who took a longer view of the relationship. Whether customers want to partner with us in the future depends on how much we partner with them now.
Speak human. Now more than ever, we can’t afford to be confusing. We have to be clear. That means simpler language. Unpacking acronyms and avoiding jargon. In many ways this is an ‘un-learning’ job, because we know a lot about our products and solutions. Remember that our customers don’t. Your job is to TRANSLATE.
Speak human. Use your weekend voice. “Use” don’t “utilize”. It should be helpful, not officious. Smart, but not overly technical.
Task is all about the work itself. It’s the progress driving, results delivering efficiency and effectiveness of the business. If moving the world forward is our goal, then Task has a role to play.
Easy to say, hard to do. To keep executing on the things that matter, we need to get rid of the things that don’t. As we focus on the work, we need to keep asking, ‘will this task help a customer?’ That’s where our focus must be.
It’s human nature to become overwhelmed. As we try to work out what’s most important , we sink into second guessing. Do something, declare victory, and move on. Now do it again. Keep moving forward. As long as we keep moving forward with the work, we keep supporting the people who rely on us.
In addition to focusing on the work, prioritize the specific challenges we can help with. If we hit customers with laundry lists of possible solutions - that’s not helping.
Whenever too much is happening around us, we all suffer from ‘Choice Overload⁷’ — so many decisions need making, it gets easier to not decide at all. Having someone who can narrow the options for us is a valued asset. We might have ten different ways to help this customer, but right now, they only need the ones that make the biggest difference. In the future, there’ll be time for all the options. For now, we serve customers best by listening to them, and helping narrow options down to areas that matter most.
Not only is a customers’ time valuable right now, ours is too. To maximize that value, we need to plan. What can we find out about the customer ahead of the call? Where do we believe we might be able to help them?
For many customers, their focus is on simply keeping going. Anything else feels like overkill. Drop the less important aspects that make no difference. Avoid getting bogged down in the unimportant. Keep your focus on making the biggest difference possible.
Every business is looking — now more than ever — at cash flow. In times of uncertainty, you need cash reserves in the bank. This has the unfortunate knock-on effect that buying decisions are delayed and cut-backs happen.
With careful navigation though, a crisis can be an opportunity for customers. Help them think through how they can speed up their collection of cash. Access to bandwidth and maintaining business connection is more critical than ever.
This is where being a student of your customer’s business and being generous with ideas can help. How can we help them manage inventory, improve online ordering, and stay connected?
Customers want value, they have no time, and they have unmet needs. To serve them, (especially now that many of us are working remotely), we need to be even more organized than usual. In addition to taking time to plan, make a point of getting familiar with the resources and ideas contained within your sales tools, such as playbooks. The CRM also needs to be in the forefront of your work. Document calls immediately after you’ve concluded them. No matter how good your memory might normally be, capture opportunities and actions straight away to make sure they get actioned.
This isn’t about just dialing and smiling — this is about touching customers with purpose. It’s not just going through the motions, but truly showing you’re there for customers and communities in a time of crisis.
The metrics we used a month ago — while they may still be valid — won’t serve us so well today. Remember, most customers don’t believe salespeople can help with their business problems, and research shows most salespeople don’t speak to decision makers. We’re not giving clients perspective or insights to reframe their thinking. We’re not asking questions that get to needs.
The new metric has to be tied to purpose. How many people did you reach out to today? How many people did you help? How many customers did you support? How many ideas did you share? How much did you learn? The actions you take today, and the relationships you build today, will make the difference.
What did you do today to build the networks that move the world forward? You have to move forward, and help customers move forward. This crisis will mean a few customers accelerate through their buying cycles and have definite needs that need taking care of right now. Many however, will have found their potential needs pushed into the future due to uncertainty.
The amount we’re able to Touch these customers today will be a leading indicator of sales results in the future. Ask yourself at the end of the day — how many customers did you genuinely touch in a way that helped them. That’s now a vital metric for our business.
In amongst all the disruption, some positive things are happening. Neighborhoods are rediscovering why nothing beats community. Isolation has led us to pick up the phone (or Zoom Room) to friends and relatives previously neglected. And some of us have even broken out in culinary passions unvisited for at least two generations! (Bread-making anyone?⁸)
Amongst the disruption, a sense of back-to-basics has emerged. Rusty skills are being sharpened-up to help us survive and prosper in a changed environment. For sales people that means revisiting the fact that every customer is an individual, with their own uniquely unmet needs.
As sales and support people, the levers with which we can achieve that are Touch and Task.
For results and forward motion, we need to use them both.
¹ I wish I could tell you where this phrase comes from, but I can’t. It’s one of those great pieces of language that captures pages of information in four words. First heard at FCB Chicago, circa 2004.
² Korn Ferry: Social Distancing Without Sales Disruption
³ Godwin, Jeremy. “Up To Speed Live.” About Verizon.
⁴ Green, Charles H. Green: “Get real - 17 ways to transform your client relationship”
⁵ Berger, Jonah. “In Times of Disagreement, How to Find Unsticking Points” Behavioral Scientist, 6 Apr. 2020.
⁶ Grant, Adam. “GIVE AND TAKE.”
⁷ Schwarz, Barry. “Nation of Second Guesses.” The New York Times, 22 Jan. 2004
⁸ At least judging by the scientific measure that shops seem to have universally run out of flour and yeast. That’s a lot of loaves — In my case (Peter’s) rather burnt and very flat.