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The COVID Sales Conundrum: your pipeline will determine how quickly you bounce back

6 Jul 2020

The COVID Sales Conundrum  

Over the last 20 years I’ve asked hundreds of entrepreneurs what they’d like from the venture capitalists who invest in their business. The answer almost always involves the same two things. The first is a network of talented people. The second is distribution.

Getting your product or service in front of your consumers and getting paid is key to your organisation’s success. Doing this well will also allow you to build a really big business. But it’s an area that a lot of companies struggle with. Countless businesses have brilliant products or services. Yet very few of them (particularly in the UK) make the investment in sales that is needed to achieve real scale.

The current economic crisis, driven by COVID, is highlighting just how important a powerful distribution engine is. Most companies, no matter the sector or the size, have seen their sales pipelines dry up. Because of this, lots of business are facing tough decisions, often involving their people, on a regular basis.

Getting your sales function back to normal could be a way to avoid the need for taking drastic action. There’s no silver bullet here, but here are some of the sales lessons I’ve learned over the last 20 years.

Lesson #1: There’s no substitute for hard work

The single biggest factor influencing sales success is how hard you work. To generate a strong sales pipeline in today’s environment, you simply have to work much harder.

In the early days of Octopus, the two co-founders and I spent our time travelling the length and breadth of the country selling. We’d do meetings four days a week, from 8am until 6pm. We’d spend our day off (every Wednesday) on the phones, arranging meetings for the following week. We did all this out of necessity. We knew that if we didn’t get people paying for our products, the business wouldn’t survive.

It’s impossible to recreate this sort of sense of urgency in a more established business, but you can create short-term, must-hit targets to rally the team around. And think about how you might tweak their incentives to inject more urgency into the equation. Every business is different, but should your incentives move from quarterly to monthly? Or are there are some short-term sprints or competitions that will drive the sales behaviours you most want to see?

Lesson #2: Don’t try and push water uphill

While you’ll have to work harder, you’ll also have to work smarter to achieve sales success post-coronavirus. In today’s world, this probably means you’ll need to change your strategy; simply doing 130% of whatever you were doing before won’t necessarily drive results.

The organisations you’re selling to will all have their own issues and will be coping with COVID in different ways. The key is to work out – as quickly as possible – which organisations are still in buying mode and focus your efforts on them (and on other lookalike organisations). These accounts will likely be your best source of referrals too. And much as it’s not very British, referrals are even more valuable at a time like this.   

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid to try something new

Most people in business aren’t keen on change, meaning things tend to stay the same year after year. One of the positive things about an external shock the size of COVID is that it has allowed businesses to think a bit more radically. To really drive your sales in this climate, you might need to take some risks.

Take an Octopus example. Every year we run a series of seminars for financial advisers in the UK. It’s a massive undertaking and always goes down really well with attendees. It clearly wasn’t possible this year, so we designed something a bit different. Rather than hosting yet more Zoom meetings, we created something called Octopus Live. It was a cross between morning TV (thanks to the chemistry of the main two presenters) and a more traditional online seminar.

To begin with, we weren’t sure whether this format would work. But our gamble paid off; we had almost 3,000 attendees (up 50% against our traditional approach). This was partly down to the content, but also down to the unique format. And now we’ve set up a similar event on a monthly basis.

When you do try something new, don’t worry too much about getting it wrong. I still remember the first seminar we held for financial advisers back in 2001. We booked the Holiday Inn in Reading, ambitiously setting the room up for 50 attendees (big mistake). A few minutes before the presentation started, we had four attendees. We used our initiative and persuaded some of the hotel staff to get changed and sit in the audience to pad it out a bit. This, it turned out, was an even bigger mistake; they all got changed back into their hotel uniforms at the end of the presentation so they could serve the drinks to the other attendees. 

Lesson #4: Salespeople are a different breed

As a generalisation, salespeople tend to be highly competitive extroverts. Because of this, they’re likely to have been highly impacted by the COVID requirement to work from home. Their extrovert nature means they get their energy from interacting with other people. They love the buzz and the adrenaline of a big client pitch. When you take these interactions away, it’s quite natural for them to find life a little tougher. For all its positives, Zoom just doesn’t quite cut it, unfortunately.

Try to nurture your staff to help through lockdown. To the extent you can, try arranging meetups for small groups within your sales teams. Even spending a short amount of time together could re-energise them. Or you could set up company-wide challenges to encourage healthy competition and interaction among staff.

Lesson #5: Always get paid  

Sales, like any skill, can be taught. I was lucky enough to find this out quite early in my career at Octopus. Neil Buckland, the head of our sales team, asked if he could come out and observe me selling to some of our financial advisers. I jumped at the chance. I emerged from the first meeting convinced I’d wowed the audience and that it couldn’t have gone any better. Neil said some nice things at first, but then asked me one simple question: “How do you think you got paid for that meeting?”

It’s one of the most powerful bits of feedback I’ve ever received. If you don’t immediately know how you got paid for a meeting, chances are you probably didn’t. The best salespeople will excite and persuade their audience, but then they’ll ‘get paid’ by driving for a commitment. They’ll overcome any objections and they’ll leave with some kind of agreed next step. Always, especially when times are tough, remember this. It may not come very naturally to some of us, but it’s essential.



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