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Selling in Times of Uncertainty and Fear

By  Bruce Lewolt

Having survived many market disruptors like the coronavirus during my 30 years in sales leadership, I've learned a valuable lesson - sales and marketing leaders who are the first in their industry to adapt to new market conditions emerge from the crisis stronger and take market share from the competition.

A crisis like COVID-19 plays out in three phases, uncertainty and fear, shell shocked, and happy days are here again. Each phase requires a different sales and marketing strategy. I combined my experience with research on past pandemics to write a series of posts. This post examines what works during phase one.

In times of uncertainty and fear, a prospect's natural fight or flight mechanisms are on hyper-alert, which makes them less trusting and slows down their decision-making process.  At the same time, prospects and your current customers are more willing to switch suppliers due to pressure from the board to find ways to cut costs or find new sources of revenue.

Here are six steps that every sales team should take today in response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Step 1 – Develop a new set of discovery questions

Daniel Kahneman, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow, won a Nobel prize for the development of Prospect Theory. A compelling aspect of the theory is framing. During times of uncertainty and fear, people narrow their frame by only thinking about short-term consequences.

Effective salespeople ask questions that force prospects to think long term, which Kahneman calls Broad Framing. Broad framing questions remind customers that disruptions to the economy eventually pass and that not making a decision is, in fact, a decision—one that often produces negative long-term consequences.

Step 2 – Build a Relationship Wall Around Your Current Customers

In the current economic climate, just being a trusted advisor is not enough. Customers must view salespeople as being what psychologists call from us. This point of view means your customers see your salespeople as a part of their extended family or group.

Ask each salesperson to meet with their best customers regularly and develop a plan to help each customer weather the current economic storm.

Step 3 – Adapt Your Unique Value Proposition Statements

Effective salespeople typically identify the three most compelling business reasons (The Big 3) for a customer to choose your solution over the competition. While there may be a dozen reasons for choosing your solution, the brain generally remembers and focuses on just three. Your salesperson's job is to make sure that at the point of decision, everyone on the buying committee remembers your Big 3, which generally focuses on achieving important goals and maximizing the opportunity. During times of national crisis, however, at least one—and in some cases two—of The Big 3 reasons should focus on mitigating risk and demonstrating why yours is the safest solution.

Build a committee comprised of your best salespeople and senior executives from marketing and sales. Ask the committee to rethink your unique value propositions from the perspective of the current crisis.

Step 4 - Implement Mental Toughness Training That Includes Thought Control

During a crisis, your salespeople may start to stress out and become anxious. Anxiety often manifests in three forms: it changes the pitch of the salesperson's voice, slows their ability to think on their feet, and hinders their ability to listen effectively. These manifestations of anxiety then cause the prospect to put up a shield and become suspicious of the salesperson.

Now is the ideal time to give your sales team mental toughness training. For maximum effectiveness, make sure the instruction includes resiliency coaching, breath and anxiety control methods, as well as thought control training. Mental toughness training helps salespeople during a sales presentation, and coincidently helps them get to sleep faster at night.

Step 5 – Revise Your Objection Management Strategies

Objection Management

Everything sales trainers teach about managing objections fails during times of crisis. This is due to the increased emotion behind every objection.

Train your salespeople to employ empathetic statements to take the prospect's emotional temperature before responding to an objection. These statements allow the salesperson to uncover the real objection and to ensure that the prospect is in a rational state of mind. Further, your strategy must always be a bridge back into the selling presentation and the Big 3 value propositions.

Step 6 – Act Quickly

During times of crisis, salespeople must recognize that prospects who agree to purchase can shift back into uncertainty as soon as they hear the next newscast. Therefore, salespeople and the entire organization must move at light speed to get signatures on agreements and deliver at least one component of the solution as quickly as possible.

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Why Do We Need Another Learning System?

Because the nature of selling is very much like athletic competition where knowledge and skills must be mastered to the level athletes call Muscle Memory. Otherwise, under the competitive pressure of selling, the salesperson will revert to their old behavior. To be successful in the competitive sales environment requires a level of mastery that can only be obtained with personalized instruction and repetitive individualized practice. Finally, the practice must be with real world scenarios where salespeople record verbal responses so both the content and the verbal delivery can be evaluated.

Learning management systems play the components of a course in the same way to everyone regardless of their prior knowledge, rate at which they absorb information, or the amount of practice they need to reach mastery. Instead of real world simulations that require effective verbal responses, an LMS asks multiple choice questions. In competitive selling situations, prospects don’t ask multiple choice questions.

In head-to-head tests where the exact same course content on overcoming objections was delivered on an LMS and in the BrainX system, the LMS group saw no increase in performance because the salespeople didn’t master the material and therefore reverted to their old behavior. As a result the time the sales team invested in training was totally wasted. On the other hand, the group that used BrainX mastered the material, changed their behavior and produced a 22.5% increase in sales.


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