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How to Sell During a Crisis

Outbound sales

selling in crisis

Amy Smalfus, VP Content & Learning Strategies

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As organizations frantically turn their attention to keeping their employees and customers safe, maintaining business continuity, and protecting cash, many sellers find themselves in an unprecedented situation.

Suddenly, almost all opportunities in the pipeline are stalled, and there is no playbook on what to do. Sellers face a host of challenges like:

  • A case for change that may no longer be relevant or urgent in the new reality
  • Lost access to customers
  • Diminished chances for finding new prospects
Fear and panic are pervasive for sellers — within their own organizations and within their customer organizations. Pressure to “sell and close deals” without guidance on how to navigate a crisis situation exacerbates fear and is more likely to trigger unproductive seller responses. Driven by panic, poor leadership, or a combination of both, many sellers will fall prey to bad behaviors, which will exacerbate the situation and damage their business prospects beyond the current crisis.

The Range of Responses from Sales Professionals

Never has a sales professional’s livelihood been so uncertain. Even the most tenured, successful professionals will find themselves challenged. This setting has prompted responses that fall on a continuum from inaction, to self-serving behavior, to empathetically in waiting, to trusted advisor.


The unprecedented circumstances of today are so far-reaching that they have left some sales professionals frozen. They are overwhelmed and demoralized and are struggling to continue with basic activities. This immobility often stems from the unforeseen nature of our current crisis. Social distancing, supply chain disruption, and historic unemployment are new factors that were less intense, or not present, in previous economic upheavals, including the 2008 global financial crisis. Inaction is less of a choice and more of an uncontrollable response to the stress of it all.

Self-Serving Behavior

Others are aggressive and quick to act. They are so focused on hitting quota that they appear self-serving or desperate as they pressure people to buy. They quickly resort to discounting. While some attempt to show concern for their customers, they lack sincerity and quickly jump to “selling.” Worse, what might have been a strong relationship in the past will be damaged forever by the triteness of their response in crisis. How one shows up in difficult situations is the true test of trust. Many sellers will come out of this global health and economic crisis in a trust crisis.

Empathetically in Waiting

Other sales professionals will genuinely connect with customers, showing sincere concern and empathy, which customers will appreciate and remember. However, these sales professionals fear that their attempts to “sell” will appear inappropriate and will damage trust. These fears prevent these sales professionals from rising to the level of trusted advisor. They miss the opportunity to create unanticipated, differentiated value by finding opportunities to reframe thinking around how they can help the customer in the new reality. They preserve the relationship for the future, but they miss the chance to provide value and differentiate themselves in crisis.

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Rising to Trusted Advisor

The most effective sales professionals avoid these three responses and rise to the level of a trusted advisor both emotionally and intellectually. Their first response is to look outward vs. inward in order to see the crisis through the eyes of their customers. They intuitively know that any previous case for change envisioned with the customer may no longer be relevant. They will research how their customer’s industry is being impacting by the crisis. They will examine the business continuity issues, what opportunities are surfacing for the customer, and how industry players are adapting. They will reframe their own thinking of the customer’s business issues and pain.

Furthermore, effective sales professionals will check in with the customer first on a human level, showing they sincerely care. They will leverage opportunities through video conferencing to deepen the personal relationship as they get a peek into customers’ homes. They will recalibrate their understanding of the customer’s business issue by being prepared and curious about how the crisis is impacting them. They share insight based on conversations with other customers.

In this process, they glean critical insight that helps them to realistically consider where they can create value and influence a buying decision and where they must simply nurture the relationship. Where there are realistic opportunities in the near term, they show up with insight and new perspectives that reframe thinking. In either case, the customer finds value in the conversation itself, and trust is strengthened because there is no hint of “selling” as the customer and sales professional collaborate together. Creating this environment means that sales professionals need a plan that consists of:

  • Leveraging extraordinary preparation
  • Developing an acute sense of what behaviors will appear self-serving
  • Reconnecting and recalibrating on the customer’s new reality
  • Asserting perspective to reframe thinking
Although it might seem, on the surface, that sellers with long-term relationships are best poised to weather the storm, that is not always the case. Many relationships are based on the promises the product delivers and not the value the seller adds to the equation. At a time when really understanding your customer’s business is the only key to a very narrow doorway of opportunity, many sellers may find that they, in fact, do not know their customer’s business very well.

The current setting, while difficult, offers real opportunity to press pause and hit the reset button by:

  • Connecting with the customer on a human level and recalibrating to their current challenges
  • Empathizing with the customer’s business and personal situation
  • Reframing thinking on ways to create value based on the customer’s new reality

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