This article presents seven actions to owner-managers of SMEs about what they should do on the sales side to get their companies and their customers through the crisis. The overarching theme is not to wait but to get into action!
To let your business survive the COVID-19 epidemic, you must be a true friend to your loyal customers. Covid-19 has hit hard on our society. And to say the least, Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) worldwide are not spared in this (Cowling, Brown, & Rocha, 2020). Although governments in western societies are financially supporting SMEs, business failures are unavoidable during the coming months and after the epidemic. How fast and to what extent owner-managers will overcome this crisis is influenced by their attitude and behavior on the personal selling role. They need to engage with their customers proactively.
Interestingly enough, owner-managers do no tend to reflect on this vital role after the start of a crisis. Consequently, they do not always increase their sales effort or adjust their sales approach to influence the outcome. In-depth interviews with ten owner-managers of SMEs active in several B2B markets in the Netherlands revealed that seven just sat down and waited for what would happen. If they do not belong to the lucky ones who automatically have benefited from the crisis because of client companies’ online needs, they should act on sales if they have the will to survive.
The selling behavior of entrepreneurs after COVID
Of course, there was one major adjustment entrepreneurs involuntary needed to make. They had to replace face-to-face contacts at the office with online meetings on, for example, Zoom or Teams. Entrepreneurs believe this development seems permanent to some extent, even when COVID is under control:
“Online communication is here to stay, by the way. We have so much turnover from online meetings now, that’s great…also group meetings with customers, of which you always thought, that it is not possible… continue without any problems
But other than that, most of them did not try to influence the outcomes by increasing their sales effort or changing the sales approach. Some owner-managers took actions in other fields to mitigate the pain. For instance, phase out the flexible shell; spread operational work over a more extended period or discontinue a business unit to lower the costs. But no deliberate sales actions were rolled out to keep revenues going.
On the acquisition side, we can all imagine that it is hard to acquire new customers in times of great uncertainty. What is more remarkable that they also did not plan encounters with their current customers. The business world is getting increasingly complex and building long-lasting relations are crucial to protect your company against fierce competition (Ahearne, Jelinek, & Jones, 2007; Johnston & Marshall, 2005; Sheth & Shah, 2003). Within this context, you would expect the first thing you do is call your loyal customers to understand what their thoughts are on handling the crisis. More and more, you see suppliers and buyers co-create final solutions and work strategically together. It is surprising that when the need on both sides is the greatest in times of crisis, there are so few deliberate actions to find joint solutions. Relationship selling, the mother of all modern sales approaches intending to create win-win partnerships (Guenzi, Pardo, & Georges, 2007; Sheth & Shah, 2003), applies in times of great prosperity is maybe even more critical in times of trouble. In difficult times you get to know your real friends. The same applies to the supplier-buyer relationship. What is striking is that none of the participating owner-managers made a specific action plan after the start of the pandemic. One of the owner-managers even believes that there is no value in doing that:
“I think that it is hard to write a plan on COVID because it will be temporary. Then we will fall back to the old way of doing things (interview nr. 4).”
The sales role is crucial
The sales role is a crucial role to become successful. A famous business saying is ‘nothing happens until somebody starts selling.’ Research shows that the owner-manager must carry out the sales role even before launching the product. In this way, the entrepreneur gains early feedback and has more clarity on what to build. We also know that entrepreneurs should be their own account manager, at least in the company’s early stages, and should not delegate this critical task to an employee (Dalecki, 2019; Deutsch & Wortmann, 2011; Onyemah & Rivera-Pesquera, 2017).
Why don’t they act?
As the selling role is essential for a company, how is it possible that entrepreneurs do not see the necessity to reflect on their selling behavior when an external crisis hits them? Or when they do see it, why are they not able to change?
The many faces entrepreneurs have to show.
One of the answers is that owner-managers of SMEs have many roles to fulfill for their companies. They are often heavily involved in and responsible for operational activities on product development, marketing, human resources, finance, operations, and sales. The result is that compared to specialized sales departments within larger organizations, the owner-manager has less time available to perform all these roles adequately (Deutsch & Wortmann, 2011; Onyemah, Pesquera, & Ali, 2013; Onyemah & RiveraPesquera, 2017).
Entrepreneurs do not like it or don’t know how to do it
Another reason is that the sales role is not the favorite role to perform for owner-managers. They have no affection with it, nor have the skills to sell effectively. As one owner-manager explains:
“Sales, I knew nothing about it. Now a bit more of course, but still I am not good at it, and I don’t like it either.” The result is that when other urgent daily matters pop up the owner-managers is likely to skip the necessary sales tasks: “I have 40 things to do, and then I do cherry-picking… If I have nothing to do, I do sales, but I don’t like it that much.”
Entrepreneurs do not think it is appropriate to ‘bother’ customers in times of crisis.
At the core, it is not a matter of reluctance, but more a feeling of; is this the right moment to ‘bother’ my customers? As ‘they’ probably have other things on their mind. Entrepreneurs do not see, perhaps because of insecurity, the added value they have for customers and how it fits the modern relationship selling perspective to act right now:
“After COVID, I carried out too little sales activities, we are just in a peculiar time, and that makes you think, ‘am I going to call people now?’ It does not feel right to bother them.”
What should entrepreneurs do on the selling side in times of crisis?
Based on experience, literature, and qualitative research, an entrepreneur should carry out seven actions on the sales side in times of crisis:
|1. Call your most essential customers today|
|2. Brainstorm with your employees (and customers)|
|3. Make a short crisis sales plan|
|4. Plan a fixed weekly day in your schedule|
|5. Make supporting content|
|6. Keep acquiring new customers|
|7. Invest in sales training and coaching|
1. Call your most essential customers today
Make a list of your most important and loyal customers. Call them directly. Be a true friend and concentrate on how they are. One participant called his major accounts directly after the lockdown and just showed interest in their well-being:
“I think I just called, and they said, ‘Hi, why are you calling me?’ And I answered, ‘well, I just think it’s a super tough time for everyone….”
it is probably no coincidence that this entrepreneur has recovered long before the crisis is over. The calling is part of an active attitude towards sales activities. With this attitude he build long term relationships:
“I think part is customer relationships. Just keep actively approaching people…I think it is part of, for eight years now, delivering reliable, high-quality work.”
Another objective of the telephone call is to make an appointment. The topic: ‘how do we help each other through the crisis’. Do not focus on the transaction, but focus on how the advantages originating from working with you benefits your customer to recover from the crisis. Now more than ever. If entrepreneurs show their heart is with the customer during the epidemic, the chances increase that the customer stays loyal during better times.
2. Brainstorm with your employees (and customers)
Entrepreneurs should engage their employees in brainstorms to gain ideas on what possible products and service solutions can help (potential) customers through the crisis. They don’t have to do it alone! It has to be a common challenge. Discuss how employees in other functions than sales can support the selling activities. Everyone in the organization has to feel the urgency and has to contribute.
One owner-manager directly acted and called his sales team together:
“On March 10 or so… the team virtually gathered and went through the newspaper together and what is happening in the world and what meaning does this have.”
It also has to be an agenda item in the meetings with the customers. The entrepreneur does not have to create all the solutions for customers; they need to facilitate the thinking process. Just ask customers how they can support them to gain new business opportunities.
For one owner-manager, the payoff of the brainstorm session was that they changed their business model, which helped them to recover and directly increased revenues:
“The new business after the start of COVID, we just had a dramatic second and, actually, third-quarter… we have now switched to a subscription model, and that subscription model is perfect for the value of the company.”
3. Make a short crisis sales plan
Even in ‘normal’ circumstances, entrepreneurs do not always work systematically and create a sales plan.
“We always have the plan to make a plan. And the plan is not there yet…”
Entrepreneurs should spend a day making an action-oriented sales plan of 2-3 pages. Describing, in short, the current situation, what the urgency is and when they will be satisfied—putting on paper in bullet points what to do, when and by whom. They can use this input from the brainstorm session, and they should present it during an official internal meeting and share this document with the involved employees.
Entrepreneurs can add backward planning; this shows how many emails, calls, (online) visits needs to be done to achieve the gap between the current and the desired future situation.
4. Plan a fixed weekly day in your schedule
Entrepreneurs must prioritize sales activities by choosing one or two fixed (half-)days per week to focus solely on selling activities. Nothing may intervene. Start this by making a shortlist and who you want to encounter. Then just do it. The entrepreneur analyzes and concludes if the steps of the sales plan are carried out this week. In addition, the entrepreneur can plan fixed moments for the employees to make sales activities together. An example is a joint acquisition day in which everyone has to call at least fifty sales leads.
5. Make supporting content
Entrepreneurs should send customers regular (social media) content on how to get through this crisis. The brainstorming sessions can help to generate this content. Entrepreneurs can make a personalized presentation or use other input (articles, academic papers, blogs, vlogs, etc.) about the crisis. These items give added value to the most appreciated customers or the ones who can become very valuable. Entrepreneurs use the content to profile themselves as a helping hand to customers on social media and as input for the sales meetings.
This entrepreneur acted very fasted:
“So after that first week (of the lockdown) we immediately thought ‘hey, you know, how do you do that online with your team and what tips or tricks do you use, I made a kind of two pager out of it with what do you need to be successful…and I shared it widely on LinkedIn and with my customers”.
6. Keep acquiring new customers
No, it is not easy to gain new customers during a crisis. Still, the entrepreneur must act. No matter how hard you try to help your customers, not all client companies will survive the crisis. At the very least, you have to lay down the foundation for new customers in the future. Here, the entrepreneur should not focus on direct transactions but needs to build trust. For most entrepreneurs, making cold acquisitions is a challenging and often unsatisfying job. The entrepreneur needs to set the goal for the number of potentials that they will approach every week. Furthermore, the owner-manager needs to analyze if they can find more (luke)warm potential in their surroundings. Perhaps with network organizations, sports clubs, family members of employees, and social media connections.
7. Invest in sales training and coaching
Sales training and coaching maybe not the first thing entrepreneurs think of when things are going badly. Still, entrepreneurs should reflect if they have got enough competencies to carry out the sales activities effectively. If not, it may even be the first step in this process. Selling is a profession with skills that entrepreneurs can acquire, and many entrepreneurs do not realize that enough. Most of the interviewed owner-managers have never received training or coaching in this crucial role. Entrepreneurs should not be pennywise pound-foolish but must invest in their own and employee’s development. Owner-managers who have done this in the past know it pays off:
“Fantastic, we did have a very good training once…which followed the steps of what is your current situation, what is your desired situation, analysis of the gap, which solutions do we have, check the problems with each solution, this is indeed the solution for your problem, okay, next step, next step, closing the deal.”
Another owner-managers adds: “And then came . I still remember his statement; he said sales is just a military organization. We had three sessions. So, the sales funnel was introduced. And the sales pitch. Oh yeah, and then how to sell. That pulled the switch that I was not doing it right.”
If there is no money, entrepreneurs must look if there is someone with sales experience in their network and ask if they can support them.
Increasing the opportunity to survive
Some things happen to you in life. Like COVID-19. Ultimately, we have to deal with the cards that are dealt. Most companies have bad cards because of the epidemic. Entrepreneurs cannot mitigate all risks, but they will increase the opportunity to survive by playing the given sales cards well. To limit the damage, owner-managers must pick up their sales role right now!
This article emerged from a doctoral research project on entrepreneurial selling. The project is part of a larger program of a Dutch University on entrepreneurship and failure. For the specific understanding of the entrepreneurial selling behavior after COVID entered our society, the researcher asked open questions concerning this topic to ten owner-managers of SME’s in the period between October 2020 and March 2021.
About the Author
Maurik de Groot MSc is a sales & marketing lecturer at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He has ten years of sales- and account management experience and advises entrepreneurs on their sales activities. Currently, he is undertaking a Doctorate of Business Administration in cooperation with the Business School Lausanne on entrepreneurial selling.
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