3 Things to Know About Selling During the COVID-19 Pandemic
During the months-long stay-at-home orders, many of us have had to navigate a new normal. For some, this time has been met with the challenge of adjusting routines and transitioning to Zoom life, while simultaneously taking care of children and, in some cases, doubling as teachers.
For salespeople within the print and promotional products business, most have been tasked with figuring out a new rhythm with selling. Products that were once selling may no longer be in high demand, so some companies have already expanded their offerings to include sought-after items like personal protective equipment (PPE). For others, it might have been a process to figure out what is appropriate during this time. While there’s no right answer to what will work for everyone, we connected with Jim O’Brien, president of GO2 Partners Inc., Des Plaines, Ill.; Brian Gill, chief experience officer for Thumbprint, Orlando; and Greg Muzzillo, founder of Proforma, Cleveland, for tips on selling during COVID-19.
Search for new opportunities
It’s a lot to ask teams to abruptly pivot and transform strategies. Millions of Americans have been laid off, furloughed or taken pay cuts. Furthermore, people are grappling with their own worries during these frightening times. In this case, it’s important to remember the bright spots. Change can lead to new opportunities, which is something many companies have recognized.
“Disruptive change to a mature industry like ours can be very damaging, but it also brings with it opportunities,” said O’Brien, whose company is celebrating its 25th anniversary. “Thinking like an entrepreneur should be instinctive for all of us. Acting on those thoughts requires courage and skill, both of which we all have displayed by starting and successfully operating our businesses.
“There is no easy answer to what our business will ultimately be like as a result of this crisis, but staying informed, responsive and attentive to the people who are our clients will pay dividends more than ever before,” he continued. “Most importantly, we are investing in our employees/owners so they are confident that we will have a secure and prosperous future together.”
Muzzillo stressed that while it’s crucial to stay aware, you can’t get overly caught up in the negatives that people may be sharing if you want to boost morale and keep business moving.
“I believe that the most damaging moment through all of this was when it was early on when news that a public company in the promotional products industry was down 70 percent became the talk of the industry,” he said. “I believe that created a sense of negativity and inevitable failure in the minds of many.”
Rather, Proforma wanted to send the message that 30 percent of businesses are still buying. Through almost daily webinars, the distributorship showed owners and their sales associates who comprised that number and what they were buying in order to help them understand how best to secure those sales.
Oftentimes, opportunities are found by taking risks—a move that has rewarded Thumbprint. Although Gill admitted that total orders for traditional business are down, he said the average order size has risen. An aggressive search for new suppliers of PPE has also resulted in exciting, new partnerships.
“As a company, we have had to seek and build relationships outside of our normal [industry association] markets,” he shared. “While it has been uncharted waters, it has been exciting and rewarding at the same time. Some of the largest brands in America have been let down by their supply chain partners, which has allowed for us to swoop in and save the day.”
Provide value over trendiness
With the safer-at-home orders in effect, the pandemic has heavily impacted verticals like bar and restaurant, and travel and hospitality, to name a few. People can’t congregate for happy hour or dining indoors, and most have paused travel completely for now. So, what does that mean for salespeople who specialize in these vertical markets? The answer was clear for Gill: Be creative.
“The world has changed,” he acknowledged. “This is less about providing what’s trendy, and more of providing what’s effective. Even when working with the most recognizable brands in the world, it’s about supporting them in delivering a message of safety and trust. Brands are looking to be cool, they are looking to be trusted. So for sales reps in the print and promo world, we have to think differently. It’s not about trendy, it’s about effective.”
For O’Brien, it’s about shifting your sales strategy to fit your clients’ evolving needs.
“Our sales strategy has changed to better align ourselves with where we believe our clients will be once our nation gets past this crisis,” he explained. “We are attempting to sell solutions that fit that new reality. And, each customer’s new normal will have its own unique aspects, but all will be more focused on technology and safety. We are listening to them talk about what will be rather than what was. Because of all the uncertainty, this is an opportunity unlike any other we have seen in our careers. This disruption will reward some, and punish others.”
We also asked the experts what types of products have been best-sellers, and, not surprisingly, PPE and custom kits topped the list.
“We plan to have a different take on PPE moving forward,” said Gill. “Our focus will be to provide custom PPE kits to our clients to protect their team members and clients as they prepare to re-open their doors.”
Muzzillo said that some best-sellers for Proforma this year have been kits, including ones like “work-from-home, back-to-work kits and products, and event in a box.”
Deanna Castello, chief marketing officer for Proforma, elaborated on these kits and shared examples of what’s inside.
“[The] work-from-home kits included items like drinkware, headphones, webcam cover, web camera, notebook and pens, a branded shirt (to remind them [that] their employer cares about them) and charging cables,” she said. “[The] back-to-work kits included items, such as a bag/tote to transport items back to work, [a] lunch cooler with name tag (to identify their items), personalized drinkware to prevent cross contamination, hand sanitizer and cloth face masks. [And lastly, the] event in a box included journals, pens, drinkware, [a] shirt, hat, the branded box or bag, headphones [and] printed collateral.”
Utilize new methods of communication
If you were to tell people a year ago that virtual meetings would replace face-to-face client visits, there’s a big chance they wouldn’t believe you. But, that’s the new reality. This has led salespeople—along with many others—to rely on new forms of communication.
O’Brien has found video conferences to be a solid option for effectively communicating with old and new clients alike.
“Video conferencing has been a tremendous success for us,” he said. “Video calls may not be as effective as an in-person meeting, but they are far more effective than a simple phone call. I try to make almost all my verbal communications through video. This practice will only get more common and important in the future. I am asking our people to embrace the change, and practice using it to get more skillful.”
As far as new programs or platforms go, Gill is a fan of Zoom and Slack.
“How did we ever work without Zoom?” Gill questioned. “It’s funny how Zoom has become the new ‘calendar invite.’ I don’t see that changing any time soon. We have adopted Slack and Zoom during these new times, and I see them playing a significant role in our ‘new normal.’”
Muzzillo noted that while Zoom meetings have been something Proforma has used, the distributor has also added “ProVideo,” which, as Muzzillo describes it, is a “unique tool for our owners to create a personalized message and embed that in an email. It has the feel of a personal contact and can include links to product information.”
Castello added that ProVideo is a way for owners and sales reps not only to share a personal message, but also reach out from a more human perspective.
“[It’s] not even really about selling ‘stuff,’ but just ‘checking in,’” she shared. “It has worked very well for some of our owners.”