Leading Sales Teams Through A Crisis

Forbes Business Development Council / Julie Thomas, Forbes Councils Member , President & CEO of Valueselling Associates


During an economic slump, it’s tough for even the best sales leaders and teams to fill the revenue pipeline, yet some companies still manage to close deals. How can you prepare your business for resiliency during a financial crisis? Furthermore, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are working remotely, so sales leaders are also grappling with keeping a remote team motivated and moving forward.

As the president and CEO of a company that offers sales training and coaching services, what I’m seeing now is that if a sales team and sales process was undisciplined before this crisis, they have a steeper hill to climb than organizations that had some discipline and rigor around their processes. Regardless of the past process, as a sales leader, you should be allocating time and energy to focus on one-on-one coaching and development with your teams — and now you have to do it remotely.

Make sure you equip your team with the skills they need. Although it’s not a quick fix, my company has found that teams supported by a strong coaching culture tend to outperform those that don’t. We also firmly believe that every coach needs a coach, especially in today’s reality. We all need to be open to teaching, coaching and leaning on one another.

Equip Your Team With The Right Skills

As sales leaders, you are responsible for ensuring that your team is equipped with the right skills and tools for the new reality. Some of those may be technology tools. Yet, even more important are foundational sales skills such as communicating effectively, demonstrating empathy and establishing personal, human-to-human connections — all of which are key skills for effective prospecting. Normally, sales leaders teach people that when they’re prospecting, some of the messaging leverages anxiety, influence and motivation. However, times of crisis might be the times to lay off the anxiety questions — questions that are designed to elicit an emotional response. People have enough anxiety in their life, either personally, professionally or both. They are worried about their jobs, and they’re worried about their families and their loved ones. Piling any more anxiety on this is probably not going to be effective.

One of the techniques that sales reps absolutely should leverage now is becoming a value-added resource for the person they’re prospecting to. In order to add value, you need to understand or predict what is of value to that individual.

To add value, do your homework and appropriate research on the roles and the people you are trying to sell to. Going through that exercise adds to your credibility and allows you to be a value-added interruption. I say “interruption” because we need to recognize that we’re an interruption when we’re prospecting — there’s no way around it. The key is asking: how do you make sure you’re a value-added interruption? Appropriate research in advance of the outreach lends itself to creating this value.

In addition to teaching your teams day-to-day prospecting skills, sales leaders need to look at the big picture. As a leader, there are many different qualities we are expected to bring to the table, but one of the most important is agility.

Embrace An Agile Leadership Style

One of the industry experts we work with identified a number of critical leadership skills during times of crisis; the skill that particularly resonated with me was agility. He explained that everything we’ve learned about agile software development in the software world is critical to business leadership, especially during times of crisis.

You can display confident, agile leadership through a collaborative approach, multi-functional teams, weekly or even daily projects, and a fail-fast and recover-fast mindset. Agile leadership means you need to change rapidly when you get new information and update your plan accordingly.

As we discuss recovery from a crisis like the pandemic, the CEO should drive successful planning as a cross-functional exercise.

Since we don’t know how long this is going to last or when it’s going to lift, you’ve got to be ready to turn on a dime. Companies that are prepared and agile in their decision-making processes will generally be more successful than those that don’t have that agility.

Foster Resilience In Your Team and Yourself

Another way to demonstrate agility is to engage on the front lines. I think recently many salespeople have had this mindset: “The world is crazy right now, and no one wants to take a call from me. No one is going to buy anything right now.” With this perspective, they stop the activities they need to be doing altogether. With a supportive coaching process in place, they instead will be encouraged to persevere and remain focused on selling through the crisis to come out the other side. In our sales training sessions, we tell sales reps, “Don’t negotiate with yourself,” and that essentially means don’t make excuses that lend to talking yourself out of moving forward.

As leaders, we can foster resilience by getting directly engaged. Whether it’s retention or growth, I urge you to lead by example. Pick up the phone, assist with prospecting, conduct discovery calls and schedule a daily or weekly check-in with your team. As a leader and a coach, it’s so important that you get real-time information and debrief your team so that you can be agile and adapt to any situation. And finally, your own daily behavior matters. It’s not what you say, but what you do during these times.

So, think about it — how can you best coach your team, how can you prepare to take an agile approach and how are you leading by example? These are your keys to resilience and to successfully lead and motivate your sales team through a crisis situation.