The current pandemic has radically changed a lot of things about business, at least for now. Some of the most important to consider are the timing, nature, and format of customer conversations.
As one business executive asked, “What in the world are we supposed to say now?”
Everyone I speak with is anxious--for themselves, their teams, and their customer relationships. They still need to sell, but cannot come across as tone-deaf or pushy. Leaders want to set an optimistic and energetic tone--even when they have little idea themselves what is around the next corner. They feel the pressure to prepare for a surge in demand, although the timing and degree of a surge is anyone’s guess.
Based upon some work I am doing with clients, and good practices I have been seeing across the state and country, I offer two pieces of guidance that might be helpful today.
First, your team needs a high level of comfort and confidence in leading conversations, including the virtual type. Yes, while Zoom is for some becoming another four-letter word, it is serving a vital purpose. At the moment we don’t have access to the meetings, conferences, retreats, business reviews, store visits, or even community events that organically lead to valuable business conversations. Therefore, business teams need to be proactive in using what’s available.
The second point extends beyond the format of your customer conversations to also include their tone and content. Today’s environment requires a new emphasis on empathy; one's expertise, experience, and network are rarely sufficient to build trustworthiness. As I wrote in my book, "It is only through conversations that you can demonstrate that necessary quality of empathy, thus activating your relationships and putting your expertise to its best use...you can ease customers' anxieties and demonstrate that you will be working in their best interests."
In a Zoom-heavy world, our simple humanity is more visible. (I’m thinking of the many unexpected pet and/or child appearances during virtual meetings.) This is often refreshing. But whether or not video is part of a particular conversation, the humanity and empathy should still shine. The leaders I speak with agree this is the time for less “pitching” and jumping to the demo or proposal. It’s the time for more open questions, active listening, and focus on exactly how your offerings help buyers in this time of need.
Will this new conversational world extend beyond 2020? Will we be Zooming to this degree forever?
My crystal ball is admittedly cloudy. Yet based upon past crises and disruptions, I suspect we are looking at a mixed bag. Things will not go back to the way they were, but the foundations (including our need to gather in community, in person) will remain.
I was thinking waaaay back to my undergraduate days, taking a particular (what I thought would be easy) elective in Music Appreciation. One of the few things I remember is the concept of “song form,” in which a given piece of music commonly has a first section (call it A) followed by a related but contrasting section (B) then back to the A section. However, my instructor called that third section “A-prime” to illustrate that it’s a little different than the original A section (such as with more ornamentation, as the instructor called it).
Professional life beyond this outbreak will in many ways change. For example, we will reconsider how organizations and associations meet (perhaps with more small and regional events for a while, like workshops and retreats, and fewer big national gatherings). If your business has used sponsorships at trade shows as a primary means to generate demand, then how should you adjust?
At the same time, resilient businesses are getting back to basics even as they adjust their product mix or modes of delivery. They might well emerge stronger than ever. Our business world could use more genuinely helpful conversations, whatever our “A-prime” looks like.