Customer relationships and your company’s customer relationship management shouldn’t have to take a back seat because of the pandemic. The way you interact with them, though, should take the pandemic and its effect on your buyers into account. With more people staying home, buyers are making more online purchases for services and goods at a faster rate than pre-pandemic, meaning they are adjusting their perception of your company and its salesforce from face-to-face to digital interactions.
The ongoing shift toward a digital-first, automation-minded economy is transforming the way businesses view their sales infrastructure. It’s an undisputed reality that the past 18 months have reshaped how small and medium-sized businesses make sales and interact with prospects while compressing the timeline for long-range planning.
These changes aren’t going away, and your salespeople must be able to adapt, or they face becoming irrelevant and obsolete. Successful sales of the future will require a delicate blending of personal sales prowess and digital assets that assist salespeople in closing deals (or replacing them completely).
Small Business Challenges
During the pandemic, salespeople were thrown into a tailspin at having to shift their in-person selling techniques to a virtual environment. As if that weren’t enough, they had to overcome additional obstacles tied to the pandemic, like new budgeting issues, wild swings in customer demand, and changing salesforce demands (e.g., homeschooling children and family health issues). Sales professionals had to learn to connect with customers and to move them through a sales cycle in a new, non-traditional way.
With so much change on the horizon, it’s important that you build flexibility into your sales planning process and long-term sales plan so you can flex them as external sales and industry environments change. Think of your forecasts, which are just your data-based opinions of future revenue, as a work in progress. Rarely will you be 100% correct, simply because it’s impossible to predict external impacts on your business.
Imagine you’ve just forecasted your annual revenue and a month later, a large competitor enters your market. If that competitor comes out with a low-cost alternative to your product, they’ll hit your business with a one-two punch that will reduce your forecasted revenue: attracting your customers and making it difficult for you to acquire new ones.
However, if you approached your sales forecast as a work-in-progress, you would have included buffer space for unforeseen circumstances such as these. This buffer space allows you to tweak your performance standards as you determine how to engage prospects in the environment.
Be sure you don’t fall into the trap of attributing all subpar sales numbers to the pandemic. Yes, you’ll want to factor in the heaviest-hitting months of the pandemic into your company’s performance evaluation, as well as what that means for your future revenue. But it’s also critical that you dissect any lags in sales numbers to determine whether any rough patches were the result of latent trends or internal issues that began well before COVID-19 reared its head.
Maybe your sales team was struggling to work with marketing to convert digital leads or lacked education on the resources available to them to share with prospects. These issues had nothing to do with the pandemic and would need to be addressed on a separate basis, so it’s important they don’t get lumped into a “subpar performance due to pandemic” category.
How to Engage Prospects More Effectively Using the Resources You Have
There might be one tool you already have in your small to medium-sized business that can help your company adapt to these rapidly changing demands: your customer relationship management system (CRM). Your CRM is already the lifeblood of your sales pipeline, allowing you to track and manage deals while automating tasks and workflows to the appropriate team members.
Given that many employees couldn’t physically work in the same office during the pandemic, CRMs allowed co-workers to coordinate and collaborate more efficiently. Data could be shared in a single repository, which is a benefit that continues far into the future. By allowing everyone access to real-time, clean data, CRMs help your people work cross-functionally to make data-driven decisions. This, then, allows your business to scale and grow.
Here’s how to use a CRM to stabilize what might be a COVID-scrambled sales journey and restore order to an often chaotic sales environment.
Tips for Sales Leaders to Use a CRM to Stabilize the Sales Journey
- Leverage key leading indicators in your reports.Leading indicators (signs of what is to come) are just as important as lagging indicators (data-driven insights on what has already happened). With leading indicators, you can still change the final outcome.For your key leading indicators to be accurate, it’s critical that data gets entered correctly into your CRM. It’s important that data is entered realistically. Optimistic or pessimistic (often called “sandbagging”) data entry often leads to an appropriate level of expense control. When it is believed that future sales will be lower or greater than reality, expenses won’t be aligned. Accurate data also means being able to clearly understand which step the potential buyer is in at every point of record in the sales cycle. This allows for better forecasting and insights on close rate. If you enforce how important that data is to determine their future income and whether they’re on track for their quotas, your sales team will be more likely to take ownership of the data hygiene and quality.
- Encourage cross-functional CRM use.The advantages of a CRM don’t stop at sales. Yes, the importance of a CRM in sales is undeniable, but you’re doing the rest of your company a disservice if you’re not also bringing them into the CRM loop. The CRM should also be used by marketing, operations, and any other relevant departments so they can support the sales department more effectively and contribute their own data and insights.Product differentiation and timeliness, for example, are critical elements of future sales success. Just look at Zoom’s rapid takeoff for providing a clear value proposition of virtual meetings with a best-in-class user experience just as the pandemic hit. These are the types of topics your marketing team is tackling, creating messaging that resonates with buyers, and determining the best methodology and timing for bringing new products to market. With more data available than ever, your marketing team likely possesses a granular understanding of your customers’ specific needs and behavior. That’s critical information that can be entered into your CRM and used to equip your salespeople to provide a hyper-personalized sales experience.
Marketing can also benefit from understanding sales behavior, as documented in the CRM. Understanding buyer behavior helps them determine how to best communicate the company’s value proposition on the website and cultivate it using online reviews. With 91% of the 18- to 34-year-old demographic trusting online reviews as much as word of mouth when making purchase decisions, that social proof component is critical.
- Don’t get carried away.With modern CRMs, form is now as important as functionality. In the past, it was enough to have a place to enter information and see reports. Modern users expect dynamic interfaces that are easy to use.You might be tempted to build the ultimate CRM that encompasses all data points a salesperson could ever want. But if your system is too complex or difficult to use, understand, or populate, no one will use it. While you might want the perfect tool immediately, start simply, and then slowly build out the system’s functionality and complexity.
The Dos and Don’ts of Applying CRM to Sales Infrastructure
Do: Involve at least one sales team member in selecting and customizing the CRM.
Sales reps know better than anyone how to engage prospects. If you don’t gain their representation, the final product won’t be received well by the sales team. It will also likely miss key attributes the sales team requires to be successful.
Do: Incorporate company lingo into the CRM.
The basic components of a CRM are the same, but there are also many differences. It is important to find the CRM that is best for your team or organization. Sales reps will disregard the CRM if it has generic language that doesn’t fit their approach to winning new business. For instance, many businesses define marketing-qualified leads, sales-qualified leads, and prospects differently. Make sure you understand conversion points and build out your CRM accordingly.
Don’t: Utilize the CRM as a rep requirement.
Rather, present it as a benefit to their business or territory. Salespeople won’t use the CRM if they only see it as a compliance tool rather than the key to gaining insights and growing revenue. Make sure to provide in-depth training when the CRM is introduced, as well as ongoing support to make sure your sales team is continuing to get the most out of it.
Don’t: Require too much rep input.
Be sure to weigh management’s desire to gain a lot of information with the reality of how long it takes to enter that information. The more information that’s needed, the more of a burden it becomes on your salespeople. It’s a delicate balance to pinpoint what is reasonable to ask sales teams to capture and what is most relevant for reporting back to management.
After nearly two years of global tragedy and business upset, everyone hopes the pandemic will ultimately recede into the background. Some businesses are still in a “let’s get back to normal” mindset, but when it comes to a long-term sales plan, there’s never really a true “normal” baseline. Far-reaching changes to the way businesses sell make it necessary for your company to seek opportunities to improve and upgrade operations via your CRM and equip your sales team to leverage it.
To understand the magnitude of the pandemic’s effect on your sales team, take my company’s sales impact assessment. This tool will provide a better-informed starting point to getting your team’s growth and customer relationship management on track.