3 Tips for Connecting with Customers During Times of Adversity

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Many Salespeople operating in the unprecedented era of COVID-19 adversity have a problem. Their companies, trying to act in the best interest of their employees and communities, have asked them to work from home in order to minimize further spread of the virus. However, while their work environment and their customers’ appetite to purchase may have changed overnight (along with the global economy), their company’s expectations around goals and quotas may have not yet. 

As a result, many find themselves saddled with a moral dilemma. 

For the sake of our business the “show must go on,” but reaching out to customers with the same pitches, tactics, and value propositions (in short, acting like everything is normal), seems disingenuous.

So how do you balance the needs of your business with your precarious emotional state and personal values?

Well, the first step is realizing that science tells us the way we behave with our customers now will have a big impact on how they see us in the future! But I’m not referring to the science of virus transmission or social distancing. I’m referring to the physiological and biochemical reaction that takes place in the mind of our customers (and in fact all humans) when we deal with them during times of adversity.

 

Trust: A Biochemical Reaction

In his bestselling book Leaders Eat Last, author Simon Sinek states that when asked a simple question, “‘What was one of your best days at work?”, very few of us recount a time when everything went smoothly and the big project we were working on came in on time and on budget.” Rather, it’s those times where everything went wrong, we experienced a shared hardship, and we had to pull together to get through it, that we remember the most. 

That’s no accident. 

In fact, the way we as humans treat each other during times of hardship produces biochemical breadcrumbs in our brains. As social animals, it’s evolution’s way of helping us remember how best to work together to overcome shared obstacles.

In my book Sell The Way You Buy, I explore this phenomenon and some interesting research from Paul Zak, a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, and a pioneer in the area of neuroeconomics. In 2004, Zak’s lab discovered a neurochemical called oxytocin, colloquially referred to as the “trust hormone.” When we find ourselves in situations where other people demonstrate trust, empathy or kindness toward us, oxytocin is released, letting our brains know it’s safe to engage. 

On the flip side, when someone acts in an inappropriate or unempathetic manner towards us in times of adversity, we can become highly resistant to them…and the feelings of resistance left by those biochemical markers don’t fade easily.

 

3 Tips for connecting with customers during times of adversity

The good news is, the fact that many salespeople are experiencing this minor existential crisis is a positive sign! After all, sellers are also buyers and many of us have a strong desire to treat our customers the same way we would want to be treated. 

Here then are three tips for reaching out to customers and executing your sales motion during this global crisis.

 

1. Acknowledge and empathize

When you reach out to your customers (or even when you respond to their outreach), before diving into business or your pitch, first acknowledge what they might be going through at the moment. Care. Show genuine interest in how they’re doing, especially if their geography or industry has been especially affected. You can even share how you, your company, or even your family has been affected and are coping with some of the same challenges.

For example, “Hi Mary, I’m sure like most of us you have your hands full at the moment and I imagine being in the travel industry has presented some unique challenges. How have things been going? My team and I have been working remotely for the past week and with everything going at home and work are doing our best to stay focused as best we can…”

As we’ve learned from the endless discussions we’ve had with our customers over the years about the weather, our children, pets, vacation stories, and even personal hardships, nothing brings people together more than shared human experiences.

 

2. Personalize and prioritize your outreach to those you can help the most

Given the magnitude of change rippling across the globe, now may not be the best time to diligently work down your standard lead list and reach out to customers with the same value proposition you were using just a few weeks ago. Instead, linking your solution to a specific challenge that customers in a given role or industry might be experiencing, in particular now, demonstrates a degree of personalization and relevance that customers appreciate and nowadays expect. In fact, according to Salesforce’s 2018 State of the Connected Customer research study, 82 percent of business buyers expect the same experience as when they’re buying for themselves and 72 percent of them expect vendors to personalize the buying experience to their needs.

Doubling-down on this winning strategy now will not only create more empathy and affinity with your customer, but best of all, you’ll actually feel good about doing it! And when you feel good about your outreach, you’ll do it with more passion and conviction; both intoxicating emotions in the science of persuasion.

 

Warning: try to avoid using your old, standard value proposition here! For example, your solution might help your customers save money by automating or accelerating some of their business processes. But leading with a statement like “During tough times like these you’re probably looking to save as much as you can, right?”, sounds generic, leading and disingenuous. Instead, focus on a use case that directly relates to something the customer may be experiencing now. For example, “With more employees working from home, many of our clients are realizing they’ll need to spend more time processing a larger number of previously unseen expenses. We can help with that.”

 

3. Make it ok for them to say ‘no’

As I’ve talked about in the past, the psychological principle known as reactance can immediately cause customers to become resistant to the advances of an insensitive, unempathetic salesperson. In short, if a customer feels cornered or pressured by your outreach (whether on the phone or via email), they’ll shut you down, hang up on you, or worst of all, go dark. It’s absolutely true that some of the best sales opportunities are born out of adverse times, but as buyers are scrambling to deal with all manner of professional and personal fires, now simply may not be the right time for some, and that’s ok.

Recognizing the gravity of the current state of affairs and making it ok for your customers to say ‘no’ or ‘not now’ will do two things. First, it makes it more likely that you’ll get an answer at all! Of course, we’d prefer a ‘yes’ but even a ‘no’ or ‘not now’ are both vastly preferable to no response at all. Second, even if the timing isn’t right, your customer will remember that you handled the situation with kindness and empathy when the time comes to reengage (which they’ll be more likely to do). Remember, oxytocin leaves a strong biochemical footprint!

For example, you might say something like “While it’s definitely been a challenging time for all of us, we’re grateful to have helped similar clients in a meaningful way with minimal heavy lifting on their end. I’d love to explore how we might help you but I know you’ve probably got a ton of things on your plate. If you’re keen to continue the conversation and learn a bit more, I’d love to help! If you’re not interested or the timing isn’t right, that’s ok too. Just say the word.”

Note: before using this tactic it’s important to first demonstrate the value of working with you to the client! A classic bad example would be cold-calling a client and saying “Hey, it’s David calling from Acme Co. Do you have a few minutes to talk? And if the answer is ‘no’ that’s ok.” As the buyer, I’d take that out every time! This approach is best used after outlining the value you add (e.g. the personalized approach outlined in section 2). That way, if your customer says no, at least the value of what they’re saying no to will be clear to them should they choose to reengage in the future.

 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has presented buyers and sellers around the globe with a myriad of challenges and opportunities. While businesses do their best to survive and thrive in this unprecedented climate, architecting our sales motion to bias towards empathy and kindness will no doubt pay huge emotional and commercial dividends when the smoke inevitably clears.

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