Shape-Shifting For The Win: Sales And Marketing Moves For 2021 And Beyond

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The global pandemic took the world by surprise. But the economic crisis it precipitated wasn’t unexpected. The list of hardest-hit industries and companies that thrived during the darkest days of the pandemic didn’t contain many surprises, either. The travel and restaurant industries were bound to suffer under a global lockdown. Big Pharma attracted venture capitalists and individual investors alike. Online retailers benefitted, of course. 

But even within those business categories, there were companies that survived and companies that failed. What made the difference? Many market success stories can be traced to strategic sales and marketing shifts initiated by perceptive business leaders. 


Pivots large and small

How did companies that emerged from the COVID-19 crisis unscathed prosper? Largely by being nimble. Fine dining establishments started offering take-out. Commercial airlines that previously transported only passengers shifted their operations to focus on moving cargo. Health and beauty product giant Unilever, facing a consumer base that didn’t care so much about shiny hair anymore—social isolation will do that—boosted its manufacturing of sanitation supplies. Dyson, GM and Ford converted their assembly lines to turn out life-saving ventilators; strategic revenue-boosting moves that helped them stay afloat.


Nonpivotal changes also drive growth

It doesn’t take a full pivot to succeed. Often, well-considered investments that shore up a business’ core strategy prove equally powerful. Amazon undertook a massive PR campaign, committing $10 million to social justice organizations, including the Black Lives Matter movement. The company doubled down on supporting the brands that sell products on its platform, investing more in cooperative advertising. CEO Jeff Bezos’ gloomy predictions of declining profits never materialized. In July, Amazon announced that year-over-year profits had doubled. 

The lesson to be taken from Amazon’s story? Business leaders might want to resist the natural urge to conserve during a crisis. Slicing your marketing budget could be a strategic misstep right now, since competitors are more than happy to fill the void in customers’ heads when a brand disappears from view. Companies that continue to invest in marketing, particularly supporting sales with more effective tools, may be better positioned to take advantage of an economic recovery. And make no mistake, we will recover. 


New world, new sales strategies

The COVID-19 era created towering hurdles for sales forces—so high that a majority of sales reps couldn’t clear them. A study conducted by Revenuegrid analyzed data from 500 B2B companies and revealed that 84 percent of sales reps missed their Q2 2020 quotas. Ouch. 

The most immediate challenge posed by the pandemic was the imperative shift to remote work. Many businesses invested quickly in digital infrastructure. Their survival depended on it. And yet, a recent study of tech spending by Gartner found that IT investments overall decreased by 3.2 percent in 2020. As the economy begins to recover, the same study predicts IT spending will increase by 6.2 percent in 2021. 

Savings on overhead and documented productivity spikes may make tech improvements an attractive proposition. How much of that IT spend will go toward salesforce support? It’s hard to say. But let’s take a look at five places it might go when businesses reevaluate their sales strategies.


Redefining the human touch 

Let’s give a nod to the obvious: People drive sales. Inside salespeople, now working from home, must learn anew how to organize their personal lives to meet their professional and emotional priorities. Extroverts, who thrive on social contact, may find social distancing a greater drain on their collective psyche as handshakes and deals-over-dinner have all but disappeared. But all salespeople must embrace a new way of communicating and learn to be productive and happy under pandemic-driven circumstances. They also have to increase one emotional capacity: empathy.  

Not to paint 5 percent of the U.S. workforce with too broad a brush, but there’s a common mindset among many sales professionals: Every moment not spent directly earning a commission is wasted. And empathy takes time. Nowadays, you never know when a prospect is desperately worried about a family member who has COVID-19 or whether a pile of unpaid bills is keeping them up at night. Salespeople are used to listening for the direct “in”—what will motivate this customer to buy? But now they have to learn to listen for clues, unrelated to product and service needs, but still very revealing. Empathy is at the heart of relationship building. And relationships are at the heart of sales.


Changing the way we look at numbers

COVID-19 has turned traditional sales-tracking models on their heads. So exogenous a shock to the economy as a global pandemic renders year over year comparisons all but meaningless. Pretty much on every level, we’re asking ourselves, “How can you compare 2020 to 2019?” 

Sales managers who are tracking sales on a weekly or even daily basis and view the numbers through a COVID-holistic lens—one that accounts for infection rates, changing stay-at-home orders, and other events outside their control—may find more, useful insights. 

And closed deals aren’t all we should be measuring. An actively managed pipeline is like a life insurance policy for sales. In some organizations, salespeople are responsible for the entire pipeline, while in others prospecting is a separate function. How much time do your salespeople spend on developing and qualifying new leads

It may make sense for sales managers to revise how they allocate sales resources to optimize each team member’s skills. If sales managers are responsible for measuring sales velocity and close ratios, your company’s facility for quickly and effectively sharing sales data could have a substantial impact on your top line. Reevaluate the technology you have in place to support pipeline activities; investing in pipeline visibility tools might give you an advantage.


Changing the channel?

According to a study conducted by the upstart e-commerce fulfillment company Deliverr, online sellers are modifying their sales channel strategies in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The report states that 31 percent of online sellers are prioritizing finding fresh marketplaces, 24 percent have increased the number of channels on which they’re selling, and 14 percent have abandoned marketplaces that weren’t delivering for them. 

We’ve also seen companies that were born online parlay their digital dominance into brick-and-mortar opportunities. Hair care company Madison Reed, for example, is now available for sale through some 1,200 Ulta stores. Well-positioned for the new stay-at-home economy, the company posted record sales in 2020 and recently received an additional $50 million in funding. 

With small businesses disproportionately feeling the COVID-19 heat, sales teams may need to shift their focus from SMBs to enterprise accounts. Enterprise selling is more complicated and encompasses a longer sales cycle. Salespeople will need to develop new customer profiles, change their scripts, and learn to nurture relationships with multiple stakeholders within a single company, and they’ll need more patience. But the rewards of honing an enterprise sales strategy are considerable: Bigger deals and reliable month-to-month sales increases can provide plenty of motivation.


Changing the product mix

While new product development is generally considered a marketing function, it’s intrinsically connected to sales. Salespeople sell by solving problems for their customers. The world has different problems now and salespeople are privy to them. Improving communication between sales and product development teams is critical. Problem-solving products give sales teams more ammunition in the hunt for revenue. 

Plus, new product introductions are simply a natural entrée into conversation—a great “excuse” to get in touch with existing customers. New product development tends to slow during periods of economic recession, so companies that optimize the NPD process for speed, cost and effective customer targeting will have a leg up during the recovery.

One time-tested strategy that’s worth mentioning is offering customers free products. Zoom, the company that’s become synonymous with meetings over the past year, has given free access to its technology to K-12 schools nationwide. The impact of that single decision has undoubtedly changed the nation for the better, but also builds brand loyalty within a new demographic. The company also extended its free meeting time limit on a few winter holidays so families could spend more virtual time together. How’s that for a goodwill builder? Consider getting more creative about freebies. When you have something free to offer, having successful sales calls gets a lot easier. 


Switching outreach strategies

Some research suggests that what’s old may be new again. The monumental shift to email communications over the past couple of decades has certainly brought efficiency to sales outreach. But, a study by HubSpot found that while the number of business emails being sent has increased, response rates have dropped by 2 percent. 

That said, people are using the phone more. Leading telecommunications companies are reporting a dramatic rise in the number and duration of phone calls. Business callers are driving call volumes that remain steady throughout the day. Which brings us back to isolation. And empathy. It’s not too far a stretch to conclude that businesspeople are lonely. While they still want to help themselves online and expect businesses to provide a satisfying digital experience, a human voice may be more welcome now. Especially a compassionate, consultative one. And if you have a freebie in your back pocket, all the better.

Susan Doktor is a journalist, business strategist, and principal at Branddoktor. Follow her on Twitter @branddoktor.

  • Originally published August 19, 2021