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Leading Through Change

Surprising Insights From Gartner About Selling During Crisis

Research firm Gartner shares its latest findings about selling from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

As a sales leader, I thought I had seen it all — from selling after 9/11 to leading an enterprise sales team through the 2008 financial crisis. But few of us could have predicted our most recent challenges. During this pandemic, I’ve found myself repeating advice that I’ve been given in the past: sell courageously. Lead with empathy and approach your customers with a point-of-view. Most importantly, don’t give up. It’s your job right now to show up for your customer and share the expertise that will help them build business resilience. 

That’s why a recent conversation I had with Brent Adamson, distinguished vice president at research firm Gartner and best-selling co-author of "The Challenger Sale," really resonated with me. He’s talked to hundreds of sales leaders who aren’t giving up and are taking steps to overcome the challenges. Below is a collection of insights he shared with me.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gartner's Brent Adamson on the wrong question to ask customers

1. "How can I help?" is the wrong question to ask your customers

The single worst question you could ask your customers right now is the very question with the best of intentions: how can I help? Why shouldn’t you — amid so much uncertainty, change, disruption, and pain — ask your customers this question? Because more often than not, they have no idea how you can help them. They’re not sure what kind of help they need in general, let alone from you.

When customers don’t know what to ask for, they default to easy requests, like discounts. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine your supplier asks you how they can help. You’d probably want a cheaper rate or another 30 days to pay your bill. This well-intended question can quickly take you down the wrong path. Instead of a conversation that gets to the root of their problem, you end up discussing price, terms and conditions, and other topics you were trying to avoid.

Instead, try starting your sales conversation with a statement or suggestion. Show them what you’re seeing, the different ways you’ve been thinking about the business, and how you might help them, then compare notes. Collaboratively map out two to three different scenarios and how you might partner together going forward on each one. This sets up a very different conversation, then the open-ended question, "how can I help?"

2. Virtual selling isn’t all that bad

Many sales leaders have told me that virtual selling, in some ways, has increased their flexibility and productivity. For example, one person told me how he always thought you had to be on the road and see customers face-to-face. Now, instead of flying around the country and making four calls a week, that sales rep is doing four calls a day.

Virtual selling also helps optimize your resources. You’re able to broaden the way you deploy salespeople and hire people in cities you couldn’t before. Yesterday, a head of sales told me he put his best salesperson, who’s based in the Southeast, on the biggest opportunities in California. He would’ve never done that before because he’d have been too worried about the cost of cross-country travel. Now, this rep is talking to high-impact accounts in California every day.

I don’t know if customers will always be as available as they are today, but it does make you wonder if the old sales rules about face time still apply and how sales leaders can keep the best parts of virtual selling moving forward.

3. Tactical questions are strategic questions

The one thing that would be valuable for any sales leader right now is to sit down with his or her managers and ask:

  • What should our sales reps be doing?
  • What should our sales team do if customers are or aren’t buying?
  • What are the optimal sales rep behaviors we should be encouraging?

While these are tactical questions, they are informed by strategy. If I asked your leadership team these questions, would they be able to answer? If I then asked five other people on their team the same questions, would they provide the same answers? If reps are going to help in this environment, sales leaders need to be tactically aligned to drive focus.

Recently, Gartner was advising a big chemical company struggling with supply chain interruptions and making tough decisions about which customers they do and don’t supply. To drive focus from the top down, the company’s sales leaders were working on creating guidance and coaching for sales reps, specifically on this issue.

Gartner's Brent Adamson on why the best sales reps are decision coaches

4. The best sales reps are decision coaches

What many customers need right now is a coach to help them make decisions in this environment.

We see three approaches when sellers engage with customers:

  • Giving: I can give you a lot more information on that.
  • Telling: Let me tell you what you need to know.
  • Sensemaking: There is a lot of information. Let me help you make sense of it.

Gartner data shows that of the B2B buyers surveyed, sensemaking reps are far more likely to win high-quality, low regret deals than giving or telling reps. Said another way, customers don’t want you to tell them what to think. The true value a sales rep can provide is helping customers prioritize the questions they should ask to figure out what information is most relevant to them.

How do you help your sales reps do this? Create a framework they can use to engage customers in a productive conversation. Diagnostic tools are especially powerful now because they bring order to the chaos. They boil the complex world down to attributes or criteria.

Gartner has been tracking diagnostics for over 10 years. We like them because they’re:

  1. Framing devices. They group the questions you think are important for your customers to consider.
  2. Neutral. When your diagnostic tool is based on research, you’re not telling your customer where they stand. They decide based on the series of attributes or perspectives (e.g., maturity levels, performance levels) the research has provided.
  3. Helpful. With data in your pocket, you are armed with the information you need to help guide customers on how to get to the next level.

As your reps serve as a decision making coach, use diagnostic tools to help you prioritize, communicate, align, and drive consensus with your customers.

Want more sales leadership insights?

Adamson shared more insights from Gartner, including examples of how companies are leaning into their handling tough conversations and creating backup plans to address fast-moving changes. Watch our full conversation to learn more.

Or read more from our Leading Through Change series, where we share the latest leadership, tips, and resources to help manage your business in a time of need.

Lizanne Kiel is a senior vice president at Salesforce, where she is responsible for a sales team committed to the success of 2,000 commercial customers. Lizanne has more than 25 years of experience driving growth, delivering results, building high-performing sales teams and leading through change. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

More by Lizanne Kiel

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