Selling in a COVID-19 world - 4 immediate steps to take

Posted March 25, 2020

Brooke Simmons headshot

By Brooke Simmons

Director of Enterprise Strategy at Outreach

A month ago we were cranking out calls, traveling to meet clients, and shaking hands with colleagues. Now, we are facing dramatic change that we have never experienced before. I used to travel around the country to meet with Outreach’s largest customers to partner on strategic engagements with their teams. Now I am hiding from my toddler who is supposed to be watching Frozen 2 again (thanks, Disney+!). Maybe you’re reading this on your phone in a closet where you’ve hidden to get away from your spouse’s really loud conference call. Joking aside, this is a new frontier for many of us, and the old rules no longer apply.

Over the past week, our team at Outreach has seen a dramatic increase in customers asking for guidance on how to adapt their existing strategy to accommodate a global pandemic and a struggling economy. Below are the four steps Leaders, Outreach Administrators, and Sellers need to take to:

  1. The Value You Provided Yesterday Might Be Irrelevant
  2. Re-Evaluate Your Content
  3. Collaborate, Don’t Pitch
  4. Don’t Lose Your Low-Hanging Fruit

The Value You Provided Yesterday Might Be Irrelevant

Part of our job in sales has always been putting ourselves in the buyer’s shoes, and this is still true now. Ask yourself, how have your prospect’s priorities changed in the last 30 days, 7 days, or today? Are they facing more risk or a sudden opportunity? Your content most likely references a value proposition (“We are the fastest in the industry”) or “why buy now” statements that won’t resonate with your prospects today. The value you provided yesterday might be irrelevant or how you message your value might need to be tweaked. Before you change anything in your Outreach instance, think critically about how your value proposition and personas should be changed.

Sales & Marketing Leaders: Update Your Value Proposition and Personas

If your prospect’s business focuses on change, you will want to reflect that in your persona messaging/targeting. For example, here at Outreach, the shift to remote work provides us an opportunity to double-down on our messaging about how we support distributed teams. Our customers are focused on supporting their newly work from home (WFH) teams as well, and we have pivoted our content to highlight the value we provide remote leaders and employees. Our customers in analytics and business intelligence are adapting their messaging to talk about how businesses can forecast and manage risk in these uncertain times.

Don’t automatically write-off entire industries. For example, selling into restaurants sounds unilaterally difficult now, right? Not quite. Some of our customers in food service have revised their messaging to highlight how they support delivery and takeout operations. Lauren Alt and the team at Solv have a similar challenge right now - they provide on-demand in-office visits for urgent care clinics. Lauren and the team recognized that these clinics need Solv’s telemedicine solution more than ever to keep doctors and patients safe, and maintain access to care for at-risk populations. Lauren focused on updating their Outreach strategy to focus on the value provided by telemedicine, and the team at Solv signed over 100 new customers last week.

I spoke with Dan Gottlieb, Analyst in the Sales Practice at TOPO, to talk about what they’re seeing in the market and in the results of their "Impact of COVID-19" survey. Dan advised sales orgs to adjust their strategies to reflect the changes--some seismic--that COVID-19 has had on companies. He notes, “Everybody is experiencing some degree of change right now, and the degree of change varies by their role, industry, size, and geography. To design extremely relevant and valuable engagement tactics, capture the insights below about key personas across the buying committee:

  • The juxtaposition between roles, priorities, day in the life from pre-COVID19 vs now
  • The top 2 critical issues preventing leaders from achieving adjusted priorities and the risk of not fixing them, and then capture the rhetoric they used to describe the issue
  • 2-3 insights from your current customers about their plan to address similar issues."

Dan’s exercise is imperative to updating your key personas quickly while considering your customer’s current needs. If you want to dig in more, I’d strongly suggest listening to TOPO’s “COVID-19 Impact” webinar hosted by Dan Gottlieb and Eric Wittlake. Once you feel solid about your updated value proposition(s), then it’s time to drill into your Outreach content.

Outreach Administrators: Create Content that Supports Your Team

We collaborated with our sales and marketing teams to create new content for approaching decision makers that are facing the new challenge of an unplanned, fully remote sales team. We cloned some of our best performing sequences, edited the messaging and structure, tagged them with COVID-19, and shared them with our team to start using as they initiate new conversations. Here are some new pieces of content we developed:

  • Sequences targeted towards our “updated” value proposition of rapid productivity and our messaging supporting remote teams and enabling managers to coach remotely.
  • Objection handling templates to arm the reps when they get anticipated pushback, for example “My team is all remote right now” or “We’re not purchasing anything new.” Huge disclaimer here: objection handling needs to be done with nuance and empathy. This is all the more reason to templetize and share approved messages so that reps are saying the right thing to build the relationship, not damage it.
  • Snippets highlighting successful customer stories and reference points for the team to use.

Sellers: Put Yourself In Your Customer’s Shoes

Above all, empathy, transparency, and vulnerability are more important than ever. Remember that some industries, like hospitality, travel, and emergency medicine, or areas like NYC or Seattle, have been deeply affected by COVID-19. Think about where your prospect is located, the market they serve, and the industry they are in before reaching out. That Chief Customer Officer? Probably pretty preoccupied supporting his own customers. Head of HR? Most likely focused on figuring out how to support hundreds of first-time WFH employees. Sometimes the best thing is not to contact someone immediately. So take the time now to slow down and research your prospects before you initiate conversations.

If you really need to write that email now, consider scheduling it to go out in the future so that you give your prospect breathing room during this time of uncertainty (Outlook info, Gmail info). Remember, trust and the strongest relationships are built in the most difficult times.

Re-Evaluate Your Content

Now that you’ve thought about the value your solution provides in a COVID-19 world and updated your personas, it’s time to update your Sequences. The good news is that it’s simple to update and share your content in Outreach so that your team is consistently sending the right messaging beginning today. Here are some things to keep in mind when updating your Sequence content:

Sales Leadership: Change Your Communications Channel

It’s likely that your buyers in EMEA and the US are just starting to work from home and are undergoing a period of initial shock. Based on what we’re hearing from customers, the feedback is mixed with regard to what channel(s) are most effective when connecting with prospects right now.

A good example: should we be making calls right now? Given that many people are suddenly working from home, some may or may not have set up call forwarding from their business phone to their personal cell phones. Others may have a sophisticated phone setup and may still be getting emails when you leave a voicemail, so keep at it! If you’re worried that your team will just be calling into corporate 1-800 numbers, maybe limit call steps for now.

Consider expanding to other channels, like social touches through LinkedIn, or utilizing an integrated chat application to support inbound or e-gifts built into Sequences for late stage deals. Check out the Outreach Galaxy to review all our integration partners, and start to explore options to expand your strategy beyond email and phone (To name a few: Drift, Sendoso, Alyce, Vidyard, and Bomb Bomb).

Regardless, re-evaluate the mix of steps in your Sequence and think about the channel that may work best in your situation. This will likely evolve over time so researching different channels or constantly testing will be important.

Outreach Administrators: Update Your In-Flight Sequences

For Sequences you choose to continue using (or that have a large number of active prospects), you can quickly update existing email content or call scripts. At Outreach, we’ve gone into some of our most-used Sequences, including the Agoge Sequences we use to ramp our sales reps, and have updated the email steps. Below is a super simple change we made to a reply step in one of our active sequences:

To set this up, disable any other templates that might be on that Sequence step to ensure all prospects receive the updated message.

We’ve also modified all our prospecting Sequences to be less aggressive by adding in time between Sequence steps. This is easy to do, and ensures you aren’t bombarding someone when they’re already feeling overwhelmed.

It’s mission critical that you don’t let content that references irrelevant value continue to be used by the sales team - I personally have worked with many customers that have fantastic, thorough content strategies that exist on paper, but never get implemented into Outreach (the system that actually communicates with thousands of prospects a day)! This keeps me up at night. Streamlining your Outreach instance right now may be the right call for your business. Consider:

Sellers: Soften Your Asks

We are always focused on our customers, and right now, keeping a meeting might not be their biggest priority and we respect that. To make sure we are keeping their needs front and center, we’ve created templated emails to preemptively ask prospects if they need to reschedule and if so, ask for a better time slot in the next few weeks. For example:

Our SDR leaders have advised their sales reps to take their prospects at their word when they get timing push-offs and pivot toward providing excellent follow up. This means removing the pressure to respond right away and setting up Follow-Up Sequences to go out over a longer time period--we’ve been slotting at least two weeks out--for folks to adjust.

Collaborate, Don’t Pitch

Your prospects’ attention is more divided than ever. Market research is proving this to be true -- TOPO surveyed 350+ sales professionals to understand the early impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on their pipeline, and found nearly 50% of buyers aren’t willing to book a meeting right now. Fortunately, sales is not about one meeting or just about the short term - especially in today’s current environment.

Leadership: Equip Your Team to Acknowledge The Moment

We’ve seen great examples of customers developing content that openly acknowledges that life may have changed for their prospects. Remember, you may have reps on your team that haven’t sold in this type of environment; they’re feeling uncertainty and instability just like your customers. Support your team by reminding them of your company’s mission and instilling confidence that the solution you provide is essential. Your open communication and transparency is critical to enabling your reps to have the same type of conversation with their prospects. To make meaningful connections, we have to acknowledge the setting that we are all in -- and that means talking about it.

Leadership: Make Sure Your Calls Aren’t “Business as Usual”

What your reps do on that first meeting with their prospects sets the tone for the entire deal. This isn’t the time for your typical discovery or demo call. Be laser-focused on the 1-2 pieces of critical value your solution provides, and collaborate with the customer on how you can meet the needs of their business. Watch the rep to buyer talk time ratio on these calls - we should be listening more than ever to understand our prospects’ current pain, and work together on building a solution. Don’t demo your features, demonstrate extreme value to your prospect.

Sellers: Let the Buyer Drive

One of our tenured AEs, Reilly Devine, was going through an internal battle: how does he balance his sales DNA that pushes him to hit his goals with the impact of what’s happening in his customers’ lives and in the market? Reilly has invested months in some of his deals, but pushing to close in this moment felt wrong. So he did something different: he asked his buyer how they wanted to proceed. He built his message in three parts: 1. Acknowledge the situation, 2. Explain his obligation to reach out as a partner, and 3. Asked respectfully how to best move forward.

Reilly has since been getting positive feedback from buyers who appreciate his approach and sincerity. We have used his leadership and framework to collaborate as a team, and templatize and share our messages. We’ve tagged these templates and snippets in Outreach so they’re easy for other team members to find and use.

Sellers: Equip Your Champion to Sell Internally

My husband, Rob Simmons, runs an inside sales team for a fast-growing software company, Auditboard. Last night, we were discussing the “R-word:” Recession (we’re having a great time sheltering in place). I’m sure we share the same concerns as many of you: budgets freezing up, deal cycles slowing down, and additional scrutiny being added to new purchases. To protect their active deals, Auditboard is equipping their buyer champions with content that helps them sell upwards internally, especially if many of their prospects start to open up their recession playbooks.

Think about how you can enable your champions. Arm them with content (studies, whitepapers), metrics (ROI, time to value), and customer references. Help them educate others that may become involved with the purchase decision (we predict committee buying is going to make a comeback in a real way). Ensure that your champions can confidently defend your solution even in times of economic pressure.

Don’t Lose Your Low-Hanging Fruit

Now is the time to make sure your processes are buttoned-up. We have many customers in tough markets that are going to struggle with outbound sales right now, especially in travel, hospitality, and health care. More than ever, these businesses may need to rely on other methods to ensure they are building and protecting revenue where possible. Do your own internal diagnostic check on the following:

  • Inbound lead handling needs to be rock solid. Every lead needs to be routed quickly and conversion needs to stay high, especially for customers moving away from outbound selling.
  • Reinforce (or create) an incentivized referral program to mine warm leads within your customers. Your team can use Sequences to contact customers or partners to help get leads flowing.
  • Capitalize on cancelled events. We’re seeing customers use Sequences to convert their cancelled conference registration lists into full demos and executive meetings since we’re not traveling to events.
  • Protect the base. More than ever, staying connected to your customers is key to your bottom line. A well thought-out Sequence strategy can help you communicate COVID-19 updates with customers, schedule critical meetings like business reviews, and manage your upcoming renewals.
  • If you can’t prospect now, build pipeline for the future. Now that we find ourselves confined to our own homes (or various small, windowless rooms), we’re spending a lot of time in front of our laptops. Use that time to make prospect lists, organize your target accounts, and add those prospects to Sequences that start in the future. This ensures that you’re ready to engage when things do recover and your prospect’s focus springs back.

Above all else, remember that making real connections with other people is more important than ever during this time of uncertainty. Thankfully, that’s our job. Stay healthy and take care of each other.

Be sure to listen to our recorded webinar where I answered your Qs about how to help your sales teams adapt to the new WFH world. We also shared some new data around the long-lasting impact of COVID-19 on sales teams.


Read more

Discover the Sales Execution Platform
See how Outreach helps sellers close over 2 million opportunities every month.