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How to Sell to Your Customers When Their Hair Is On Fire

marketing sales Apr 28, 2020
How to sell when your customers are in crisis
Your customers are in shock. The whole economy has ground to a halt. And yet, there are still sales to be made. Here’s how you can sell to your customers (ethically), even in crisis.

Recently, I was talking to David Newman, of Do It! Marketing. And on behalf of his clients, he asked me this very hard question: “How can you sell to your customers when their hair is on fire?”

And, oh man, isn’t everyone’s hair on fire right now?

Now, David is one of the smartest business-people I know. He truly gets what’s going on and is always looking to help other people. David works with professional speakers and entrepreneurs who want to speak to grow their business—and with so many live events being canceled, I cannot imagine a more challenging time for his industry.  And yet David thrives because he is always thinking about how else he can create value for his audience. 

But, for me as a lifelong marketer and sales professional, this question really gets to the heart of the matter. In good times and bad, I help owner-led, B2B businesses grow their revenue by sharpening their strategy, marketing, and sales. So I want to share my answer.

Here’s what you need to know about getting your customers’ attention so you can still sell in this crazy, “fiery” time. 

Know Your Customers

This is so essential no matter what is going on in your business. You should ALWAYS know what’s going on with your customers. And here’s the current reality: Your target market, no matter who they are, are in shock. 

A recent review published by The Lancet medical journal revealed that “confinement, loss of usual routine [along with] separation from loved ones, the loss of freedom, uncertainty over disease status” have been shown to have deep psychological effects.

By reviewing a number of quarantine studies, researchers found that people who had undergone quarantine experienced: “depression, stress, irritability, insomnia, [and] post-traumatic stress symptoms.” 

So yes, quite literally people are in shock. And understanding how your customers are feeling and dealing with quarantining, COVID-19 shutdowns, and all the aftershocks of that should impact how you approach them.

Don’t Pity Yourself OR Your Customers

So there’s no doubt about it, life is tough right now. But here’s the other side of the coin: what we also see during this crisis is the incredible resilience of the human spirit. 

From John Krasinski’s Some Good News show to uniform manufacturers donating PPE, humans, and businesses are doing incredible things. 

So, I’m going to give you some tough love: don’t pity yourself or your customers. Get up and get moving. Life is still going on. Businesses, including yours, CAN still thrive. 

If you reach out to customers with pity, for yourself or them, you’re going to turn them off. They’re dealing with their own problems—they don’t need yours. What we all need right now is encouragement, bravery, and a helping hand. 

Adopt these mindset shifts

1. We’re in it to win it.

I’ve written about this extensively herehere and here. Bottom line: you have to believe you’re going to win and survive this. That’s the inner game that separates winners from losers. 

2. We now have time to retool.

You have the opportunity to re-invent and improve how your company delivers value. Despite the fact that your revenue is hurting, frame any downtime as retooling and refocusing time. 

3. It’s gonna be a long game.

The shock-waves of this crisis will stretch out further than we probably realize. Accept that recovery will take time. Then, dig deep and remember what got your business started in the first place.

Okay, tough love over. Now that you’ve got your mindset straight, let’s talk about action items.

5 Steps to Selling in Crisis

1. Prioritize your accounts.

While a lot of businesses have been shut down, not all of them have. Focus your marketing efforts by prioritizing your account relationships based on two dimensions: strategic and functional.

(Substantial clients for you over the long term)
(Able to buy/sell/work now and in the near term)
Strategic & Functioning Not Strategic & Functioning
Strategic & Not Functioning Not Strategic & Not Functioning

How would you categorize your accounts based on this chart?

You want to put your resources towards the accounts in that top, left position, followed by those in the top right. While you should still nurture and check in on all your accounts, that functionality dimension gets top priority—it’s where your revenue streams will come from. In other words, they can place orders now!

Also, be careful that you don’t mistake an account being paused for an account being dead. Those are accounts that you don’t want to abandon, but rather periodically check-in on—more on that below.

2. Genuinely connect.

If you haven’t done it already, I strongly advise you to start emailing as many people on your list as you can. Not a giant blast email, but a personal email from you just asking “How are you doing? How can we help?” For those strategic and functioning accounts, make it a phone call. 

A genuine expression of humanity at this time goes a long way. So, don’t look for business just yet, but rather aim to be truly, genuinely helpful. People will appreciate that and will remember it (by and large). And, you’ll uncover there might be things they need that you actually can resolve. 

3. Follow up on past orders.

This one may feel uncomfortable, but it is “in bounds” to ask about past orders and deals that you were working on with them. But, it’s how you ask that matters. If you’ve made that genuine call first and you found that they are doing business then asking about a pipeline opportunity is not going to be offensive.

Of course, asking “Are you ready to place that order yet?” is tone-deaf given the global circumstances. Instead, try “Hey, I’m reaching out to touch base on [the specific project/order] and was wondering when might be a good time to discuss?”  Or, even simpler, “What do you see happening on the horizon?”

4. Rethink what you offer to match what they need.

The businesses that are most successful are the ones that can pivot most nimbly. This takes some creative thought. Think about the things that you can do for your customers that are smaller, more incremental. 

Perhaps you were working on a $100k deal with them. But the reality is they have a need for something you sell that is more like a $10k thing. Don’t be afraid to drop the big sale for smaller ones that will help your customers right now.

Marketing in crisis comes down to creating value and finding new ways to respond to your customer’s needs. This is what will set you apart and keep revenue flowing while things are still in flames.

5. Nurture your networks. 

Another key to finding success in the present market is leveraging your connections. This is a great time to revisit your LinkedIn network and make as many intentional connections as you can. 

However, don’t just blast out generic requests. Be intentional about connecting to your customers—and connect your customers to each other! Or connect your customers to a resource or contact that they would like you to connect them to. When their hair is on fire, they’ll welcome the kind hand.

But Most Importantly, Know Your Customers

Let’s circle back to this critical point. 

These five points hinge on the first point: you need to be mindful of the state your customers are in. But on an even more basic level, you need to plain ole know your customers

If you didn’t know them that well BEFORE this crisis hit, then your #1 marketing priority should be finding out:

  • Your customer’s needs
  • The businesses they’re in
  • What kind of help they might need

The “good news” is that we’re all in the same boat now. That humanizes and humbles most people. Reach out in a genuine way and seek to bring value to your offering. You might be playing catch-up, but you can resolve today to know your customer better—today and beyond.

On the other hand, if you were fairly in-tune with your customer before this, your priority should be looking deeper into those strategic and functional clients. Find out:

  • Who is their customer? 
  • Who is their key supplier? 
  • Who are they competing against? 

Talk about it with your team. Look at your top 10 customers that you need to take care of. Do you really understand who and what they’re dealing with? What their challenges are and what would bring relief to them?

You Can Still Make Deals Happen

If you apply these ideas, you can start to have meaningful and productive conversations with people—who would otherwise view you as just another salesperson calling about a transaction they aren’t able to think about right now. 

In all cases, be human, be concerned, and be intentional about your connections with people. Above all, think about how we can help one another. If you do, then you’ll be able to market yourself—even when people’s hair is on fire.

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