Selling through the pandemic

In the swinging pre-Covid days—the memories of which, by the way, are draining like hand-cupped water—work meetings enjoyed only a few epithets from salespeople. The commute, the same-old hotel lobbies and uninviting buffets, and having to listen to droning seminars before that prospect can be pinned down for the deal! 

Now, ask any salesperson what they sorely miss. And the answer, most likely, will be ‘meetings’.

Few know what these face-to-face trysts mean in the business of selling. They are, in fact, windows into the mindspace of customers, offering glimmers of insight into their impulses and calculations. And they provide the market sentiment, which is much more than the immediate closure of a deal. 

It’s from meetings that salespersons are made aware, immediately, of how subtly product perceptions change—that last-minute cancellation just ahead of a peer’s product tease and you would know you’re behind; on the same day, nevertheless, you might receive a shimmer of acknowledgement to your new solution bundle from another prospect, and you’re back in the game.

During the lockdowns, businesses swiftly switched to survival mode, reaching out to customers remotely, testing new product packages, and exploring untapped adjacencies in their portfolios for tools that have come into high demand. It is discernible where consumers are showing propensity for purchase and where they are holding back, and how organizations are making commensurate changes to align with the new world order.

We rang up some in-house experts to find how they’re selling and the clues suggest the market is turning, inevitably, more digital. 

Get me digital—and mind that cost ceiling!

As the internet became the only window into the world, businesses with an established online presence outshone the greenhorns. In the fast-paced SaaS world, sellers were treated to a ringside view to the changes in customer mindset. From a let’s-have-a-staggered-digital-transformation outlook, customers switched to we-ought-to-be-digital-asap mode. That position came with a supplemental question, too: do you have a more economical platform? 

Companies that were edging forward as challengers to the behemoths seemed to have an edge, thanks to their agility, and customizable and pocket-friendly software platforms. Vinod Chandramouli, Freshworks’ Head of Business for the ASEAN Region, saw this weeks into the world’s transitory period to the New Normal. 

“From the customers and prospects I’d spoken to, and from the events I’d attended, the top-of-mind question was this: what process or tool can I bring into the organization to enable productivity?”

If your customer can’t come to you…

As the pandemic set in, two trends began to emerge: one, consumers were left with fewer options to kill time and gravitated toward the internet; two, they accessed the internet for reasons beyond chatting or knowing what was going on in the world—for example, to see each other on video chat platforms. 

Americans are now using their smartphones less, as the increase in time spent at home translated into internet access through large-screen computers. At the same time, the average user visits to large social media websites such as Facebook have grown through the pandemic. It is in this milieu of a heightened need to stay connected that organizations realized that they needed to be on platforms frequented by customers. 

At Freshworks, these trends served as important signposts to help businesses keep up their customer engagement. For example, a grocery retailer alerting regulars on WhatsApp about a fresh load of oranges, or a hyperlocal delivery startup looking to send delivery alerts that won’t get buried under an avalanche of promotional messages. No doubt, WhatsApp is a tricky medium to do business, but the pandemic, strangely, has provided an avenue for the right kind of inroads into what was once regarded as personal space. 

Picture this: Your favorite formalwear store is shut. You’re casting about for a replacement but the choices are unimpressive. What if your regular retailer approached you on WhatsApp, allowed you to pick from a variety of shirts—color, size, and price options included—and let you complete a transaction on the same platform? Well, this scenario is playing out in the real world already! 

Freshworks is enabling this novel sales channel for a variety of retailers with great brand recall but a yet-to-arrive online presence. “Besides having the entire sale completed on bots, we also enable guided selling to help customers talk to agents and get their queries answered before going for a purchase,” said Himanshu Singh, Head for India Pre-sales at Freshworks.

Fundamentals more important than ever

The pandemic restrictions came as a shock but allowed businesses a pause for introspection. The few weeks of total inaction imposed by governments across the world had businesses go back to the drawing board and redesign their strategies for a new world. Some concepts considered as bedrocks for building robust sales channels were studied again. In a way, the disease was clearly a reset button for businesses to consume their fundamentals and ingest them anew. 

The advent of the pandemic and its slow ebb has clearly shown that we should study the Ideal Customer Profile seriously and deeply, said Chandramouli. The perils of not whittling your customer base down to ‘the ideal customer’ are borne out in this HBR article, which also introduces us to the reason why pharma giant Merck does not have patients or doctors who prescribe its medicines as its primary customers, but university researchers. 

Bonds forged in crisis go a long way

In the present situation, salespeople have, undoubtedly, come across instances where they have had to check themselves. Many say they’d stopped themselves from talking to customers about their products and, instead, asked them how they were doing. Some sales calls have ended with barely any product introduction—the major portion of the conversation circling about the adverse conditions in which customers are doing business. 

Listen in to this short audio clip to find out how Abhishek Paliwal, an Enterprise Solutions Engineer at Freshworks, gives himself a mental shrug and gets down to that sales call.

All said, the thing to remember is that businesses are not unlike people in how they look after one another during stressful times. It goes to show that relationships forged during a universal crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic are meant to go a long way. It is important, however, to make that call and keep the bond intact, so that when things look better we are in a position to take off from where we left off.