Yes, I believe what I just wrote as the title of this blog. I do think things have gotten easier in sales, not harder, during these crazy times of COVID. Sales is never an easy gig, but it is a vital one for any company that offers a product or service, and for those brave enough to navigate these waters have a chance at a rewarding career that is well compensated.
Let’s start with what I do and why I feel this statement to be true. I am the VP of Sales for a company in the work comp space similar to telemedicine. While this is timely in today’s world, it is not commoditized and many companies large and small do not have this service. When I first started out in this industry nine years ago, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was brand new to the industry; I have an extensive sales background and was recruited for this role because of my track record elsewhere. I had a very steep learning curve and not much support in the beginning. The owner of the company had entrusted me to produce sales and to make the company profitable as soon as possible. It was not happening fast enough and the company was in trouble early on because of this. Like most start ups, we had a small window of opportunity to make something happen before the funding ran dry. I was tasked with getting things figured out and making sales as fast as possible.
Fast forward a few years and we started to really turn the corner in our industry. We landed our first major partnership with a very large insurance company, and the social clout of this alone vaulted my sales forward like nothing ever before. I had a trusted name to use as leverage, making any company I was pitching to feel like we had the industry’s stamp of approval. I used to travel a fair amount in this role, but always felt like it could be done without the expense over air travel and hotels. I hated the fact that we spent $200 for a trip to the East Coast in the HOPES of winning a deal. When we did, it was a bit before we recouped those costs, and obviously when I did not win it was a financial loss. It seemed to me there was a more efficient way to win business without the same level of expense, so I started to work on this approach. I worked hard to polish my virtual presentation skills, honing in on the key things every sales person needs to do:
Get people comfortable enough to do business with me
Solve problems through my company’s service
You’re in it for the long haul
I cannot stress enough the “likeability” factor in the sales equation. While this may be easier to convey through an in-person meeting, it still can be done virtually as well. The rules are the same, and there are a lot of thing that you do not want to do in a sales role, whether in person or not. So many sales people are perceived (and may well be) the “used car salesman” type, more concerned about their commission check than the client themselves. In a classic error of sales approach, many will show up and immediately start talking about all the features and benefits their company’s service offers. They might wheel and deal, offering a discount if you sign up today or other pressuring tactics that are bent on expediting the sales process. Sales people are held to a quota or dollar figure and it shows in the way some approach their craft. The good ones, however, never show their hand. You’d never know that closing this deal means paying rent this month, or hitting a sales goal to break a record. And the client SHOULDN’T know, as this is not client-centric thinking on the sale person’s part.
While sitting face to face with a prospective client was an expectation of doing business together up until recently, I do think that because of COVID the world has shifted (out of necessity) to be more comfortable doing business virtually. When companies had to send all of the workforce home, many were concerned that productivity would go way down due to the lack of direct oversight. What many found was their employees are happier and more productive, not less. Some people worked too much, having a hard time not blending the work/life stuff together. Since you no longer went to the office to work, your home became associated with work, and some worked more hours despite the freedom to not do so. When you apply this mindset to outside the company, many prospective clients have a very different view of the remote approach. For a while, business travel was almost entirely non-existent, and everyone had to adapt. Enter the acceptance of the virtual sales world…
I was fortunate that I was ahead of the curve in this sense, but let me clarify, this was out of necessity. I cannot attend every industry tradeshow and I cannot be on the road 300 days a year to do sales. I am a one man show for direct sales while also overseeing a large group of partnership resellers as well. I need to be available for a nationwide team of people in the field that need my assistance in closing a deal with a prospective client. And of course the biggest factor in this was the financial side of it; we didn’t have the budget to have me on the road all the time. So, I pivoted and polished my virtual presentation approach. I had to adapt and pivot, so I did. I would sit in my office and close deal after deal without ever leaving my desk. Rarely did I need to travel and present in person, only the very largest deals required this, and even then only a few did. I won deals over competitors who did travel and present in person. And I am here to share some (not all :-P) the details of this.
Here is something to keep in mind: we are not twice as good as our competition. We are not half the price, and we are the smallest of the top five companies by quite a bit. But if you play it right, all of these things are an advantage. But these aren’t the things I focus on. When I listed the five bullet points above, this is exactly how I approach sales. The first thing I do is show up on time in the virtual meeting, I am dressed for business and I am organized. I know a little about the company from their website or maybe a preliminary conversation in advance of the presentation to the team. But this isn’t the whole story, as it never is. Each team member is going to have a different list of priorities, or at the very least the list is in a different order for each team member. The Human Resources person is concerned first and foremost how this impacts the employees, the CFO is primarily concerned about the bottom line and the Risk Manager is stuck in the middle. The owner or CEO is looking at all of these things, knowing that saving a dollar today but sacrificing employee morale can cost them much more later. So now what?
You need to be able to speak to everyone at the same time but say what they need to hear. That sounds tricky, but it may not be as difficult as it sounds. If your presentation is rock solid, it should lead you down this path, and it needs to be built accordingly. It needs to be professionally done, not looking like something your 8th grade kid did for a school project. It needs to tell the story without you to some degree, and it needs to speak to each individual on the prospective client’s team as you go through the process. You have to show how, for each person’s own prioritized list, that your service or product does the following:
You have to have likely two if not all three to really have a shot at closing a deal. Any time there is a change in services or a new offering altogether there is the perceived “pain” of change. This is why satisfying several items on the list of three above is crucial: You have to make it worth the change. This is where the asking questions portion of the equation comes in. You need to hear what the real problem(s) are, and this may not be clearly stated. If you have ever had any Sandler Sales Training, SPIN Selling or other “classic” approach to sales, you are learning to ask questions that guide someone down the path of clearly seeing that they need what you have. In some cases the semantic entrapment is so good you literally paint someone into a corner and make them feel as if they would be stupid not to do business with you. This “entrapment” is by design, but it is not always received with the same enthusiasm that it was taught. Not my style of choice, as I think it does make people feel trapped and most people do not like that. They do like that they “fell for your sales tactics”, even if what you said is in fact true. Your company is not the only option, you know that and so do they.
You need to ask a few poignant questions and let the client talk. You need to listen intently, jot a note or two if needed, but do not interrupt if they get on a role. Let them paint the picture with as much color and detail as possible. In some cases the driver of the search for a solution may start out with the desire for better productivity for example, but what is really at stake is this person’s job. If you are speaking to a sales manager or a Supervisor of a team, the underlying problem usually has more than one layer to it. This is why critical listening is so important, you have to “listen underneath” the surface layer of what they share and slowly bend the conversation to get to the deepest layer where the real concern lies. If you do transactional sales, like selling cell phones or you do enterprise sales like selling a new payroll service or sales resource, I think it is all the same. On the transactional side, you may be one and done, meaning it is unlikely this customer will return to buy in the future versus a solution that impacts an entire company and a long-standing working relationship will be established. Either way, you have to do the right things, and you have to make sure the client knows that you are all about doing the right things.
Speaking of doing the right thing, here is another great piece of advice for all sales people: Don’t kick dirt at your competitors. It makes you look petty and also afraid of a direct comparison. You shouldn’t be afraid of your competition, unless your product or service is second-rate. If you work for a solid company with a great product or service, you should feel like you are on a level playing field. Your company needs to have solid ground to stand on in the marketplace, whether that is better customer service, a less expensive product or a better value overall. If your company doesn’t, go work for one who does. Overwise you’re swimming upriver all the time and you are going to struggle and fail more often than not which lends itself to compromising your ethics and integrity in order to close deals. Not the reputation you want to build for yourself.
The last bullet point from the first list of being in it for the long haul as a couple of meanings buried in it. First, I am not just passing through this job until I find something better, I will be here for a while. Every client likes familiarity and a trusted resource, and as the sales person you are the face of the company’s product or service. Yes, there is a team of people who back me up and make the magic happen, but to the client, I am in some cases the only person they associate with the service. My cell phone number is on my business card for a reason, and that reason I make clear: I am here to help. Once we clear the sales portion of the process, now the real working relationship actually begins. This is where the rubber meets the road; did I set the right expectations for the service and what it does, or does the client have a completely different view of what we as a company provide. If so, things are gonna go south at some point, it is just a matter of when. If I didn’t set very clear expectations of the service we provide, I have failed miserably in my role as the sales representative. And I have set the company up for a myriad of problems because of it.
As a final thought, here is something I always have top of mind:
My reputation is on the line.
I operate in a manner that shows my level of integrity and dedication to what I do. I want to be able to have ANY client of mine share with a prospective client what their experience working with me and my company has been like. Things are never perfect, but how I and the rest of my team handle the things that do go wrong make all the difference. We don’t run from problems, we run at them. I don’t have all the answers, but someone on my team can solve a problem or at least fix an issue and take preventative steps to avoid a repeat. That is as good as it gets sometimes and that is ok. If you have set the right expectations in advance, you will be granted a little leeway when the first issue arises. If you handle it properly you will have a lot more room for error moving forward. If you do not, you’re skating on thin ice, and the company that was their second choice may be getting a call soon…
Sales is not an easy gig, but I love the game nonetheless. It is challenging and rewarding in several ways and that alone holds my attention. If you choose to enter the arena you have shown to be braver than many; if you learn to excel you have elevated yourself to rarified air that few will know and even fewer will understand. You are a critical part of the success of any company, but you bear the burden of “feeding” the entire company as well. So if you think you are ready, grab your helmet and get in the game. If you are a seasoned pro, don’t forget to continue to polish and evolve, otherwise you’ll be left behind the next time the world takes a left turn that you didn’t see coming.
I wish you luck in your endeavors.