Remember going for coffee?
All gone. At least for now. But the need to continue to focus on business development, sales, and networking has probably never been more important than it is now.
COVID-19 has disrupted our conventional approaches and now we find ourselves in a world where the vast majority of meetings happen over Zoom or Teams. And that requires new approaches and new skills.
What’s Changed in Business Development? Really?
In some ways everything has changed, and most of us have felt those changes take place. So many tools and techniques that we were accustomed to are simply gone. Trade shows, conferences, networking events, and one-on-one meetings have all ground to a halt.
Some salespeople – particularly those who were diehard face-to-face sales people – found themselves in very unfamiliar territory and without a clear plan about what to do next.
But for all that has changed, the other thing we have to keep in mind is that nothing has changed.
We still need to be connected to our clients. We still need to reach out. We still need to nurture our existing networks. We still need to expand our reach and identify new opportunities. All of those activities need to continue. What has changed so dramatically is HOW we go about doing them.
The real challenge for individual salespeople or for businesses is how much flexibility are they prepared to bring to this situation. The goals are the same, but the tactics have shifted. And honestly, when you find yourself trapped or captured by our own tactics and are privileging them over the goals, objectives, and outcomes of the business, then you’ve got a problem.
Businesses have to get themselves oriented to this context and then get to work. Questions they can start with are:
- Tactically what are our options?
- Technique-wise, what needs to shift?
- Where are we weak, and what do we need to bolster?
It’s a return to fundamentals and rethinking how your sales operations function.
Don’t Overlook the Opportunity
It’s cliched to say, “There’s opportunity in the midst of crisis,” but it’s a cliché because it’s true. The risk is that people will dismiss the cliché instead of actually putting in the work to find the opportunities.
It’s the opportunity-minded that are able to seize the moment and make the most of what other people see as a problem or an obstacle or a challenge. Crisis provides us with the opportunity to be more deliberate, more intentional, and to rethink how we’re doing things because perhaps we’ve gotten into a rhythm of doing things that’s not very effective.
Typically, we’re not evolving our practices because they’re not facing any resistance – nothing is pushing up against them. And now all of a sudden, we’ve got COVID pushing up against our business development efforts. Networking events are nonexistent at this stage. Face-to-face meetings have started to occur again, but they are much more limited. Moreover, with a recent increase in COVID -19 cases, it’s not clear how long those will be available to us. With these limits and so much uncertainty, business leaders have to think seriously about how to do things differently.
This is an opportunity for every business development professional and every business owner to revisit their techniques and their focus. This is a moment for renewal. When we do training on effective networking and effective business building, we can see how many of the activities that people use are not very intentional or deliberate. For some, going to networking events and rubbing shoulders and drinking bad coffee is like a placebo: it makes them feel good because they’re taking action, but it’s not producing results. This is an opportunity to double down on deepening relationships with your existing networks and business development fundamentals.
The individuals and businesses that perform at the highest levels don’t do so by accident, it’s all by choice. They’ve decided to select a deliberate set of actions to accomplish their goals and then they execute with diligence.
Many organizations were hit hard by COVID-19 and are trying to bounce back. Some were knocked out of the game. Others are booming. All of them have their own challenges but many are riding on their WIP – the work they already had in the pipeline in order to maintain their cashflow. They were not focused on growth but on survival.
But now we’re six months in and they can’t continue with that strategy and expect to survive. So we’ve moved into a period that needs to be focused on new sales.
Business Development in a Pandemic
The first thing you need to do – whether you’re in a pandemic or not – is to understand clearly where your business comes from. All businesses are attracting clients from three key sources.
While a lot of focus goes into landing potential clients – and we should be constantly trying to do so – we shouldn’t forget that one of the most powerful places to start is with our present clients. They know you, they already buy from you, and they trust you. With a little bit of education and nurturing you might be able to increase their investment in the products and services of your organization.
It’s rare that we meet an organization that does a great job of educating their current client base on everything that they offer. Usually clients come in for one product or service and don’t fully appreciate the full range of services you provide – services that could benefit them greatly and would complement what they’re already doing with you. So remember, present clients are a great place to start.
Past clients are often neglected in business development activities. But there’s great value to be had from going back through your list of people that have done business with you to see how you might reconnect and start a new conversation with them.
Let’s face it, we all have past clients we don’t want to do business with again, so those aren’t the ones you reach out to. But go back through that list of past clients and start to think about who might still be a possibility for future work together.
Never has there been a greater appetite for people to reach out than right now. We’re having so many conversations – especially in the last four to six weeks – and it’s clear that people are worn out by the isolation.
Many people are not interacting with their teams face-to-face much, if at all. A recent poll said that 75% of people who went home to work when COVID-19 first emerged have yet to return to an office. Six months later and they’re still working from home and over half of them report that they’re afraid to return to the office.
Add to that the social isolation and distancing that’s required right now because of the pandemic and the fact that they have been talking to the same small group of people through it all and we find ourselves with a great opportunity! People are almost desperate to talk to somebody else. This is the perfect time to reach out.
Building “The Bridge”
Most people are comfortable reaching out to their Present Clients because they have clear things to discuss together. Where people tend to struggle is with either Past Clients or Potential Clients. At a networking event, we might just “bump” into someone and start a conversation. For many, even that is uncomfortable as they try to figure out what to say. Well that situation is much more complicated now because we don’t have as many opportunities to bump into people.
That discomfort is really about finding what we call “The Bridge”. What we’re actually looking for is a way to create a comfortable, easy connection with someone you don’t know or haven’t spoken with in a long time. Here’s a simple example.
If I reach out to Joelle who I haven’t spoken with in over 10 years and say, “Joelle, I was just chatting with Lewis, and he mentioned you. We realized we both knew you. I haven’t spoken with you in ages, so I just wanted to touch base. How are you doing?” it’s a perfectly acceptable conversation. There’s nothing uncomfortable about it because we have a nice, clear bridge to cross – a common relationship, Lewis.
If I just call out of the blue and say, “Hey Joelle, it’s been a long time. How are you?” it’s just not as comfortable. It’s not impossible to do, but we want to make the outreach experience as comfortable for everyone as possible.
There are lots of ways you can build Bridges and I’m sure you can think of many times you’ve done it in the past. But what we have right now, in some ways, is the ultimate bridge because COVID-19 is affecting literally everyone. I can reach out to that past contact and say, “Joelle, I know I haven’t spoken with you in a decade, but with COVID affecting everyone in so many different ways I just wanted to touch base and see how you’re doing.”
It’s critical that we’re reaching out to people right now because the truth is we don’t know if organizations are still functioning, if people are still in the same roles, or if they’ve been laid off. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and we can use that as a Bridge. It’s a very natural, comfortable thing to do right now.
Bridging to Expand Your Network
We’ve explained how to connect to Past Clients which brings us to the question of how you expand your network in the midst of the pandemic.
Part of the solution is to reach out to your existing relationships and use a consistent introduction or referral model that we’re all mostly familiar with. If you need a hand with this, feel free to reach out and we’ll show you how it works.
But the other part of the solution is akin to the people you would bump into in a networking event, that you can’t bump into now. Now, it’s important to realize that the onus is on us to do the bumping and social media becomes essential here.
Not everyone gets excited about using social media for business or for sales, but we need to recognize that the world has moved online, and these are the tools of the trade. The question is how to Bridge. Let’s use LinkedIn for this example. Like most platforms, LinkedIn will offer you suggestions about who to connect with and it might be time for you to use this to your advantage.
For example, to make a connection you could say something like this, “Hi James, LinkedIn keeps recommending that you and I connect and we’re in such a strange world these days with COVID-19 that I’ve decided to relent and reach out to you. I’d appreciate it if we could connect and, if you’d like to do a 15 minute quick Zoom call or phone call just to get to know each other, I’d be happy to do that too. If not, no problem at all.” Again, the goal is to make it very safe and easy.
Maybe you’re finding yourself to be resistant to this idea so let’s reinforce why you should do it. Think about the last six months. That LinkedIn message will be the least weird thing that’s happened to that person in that time period. And remember, that person has been working from home, isolated from colleagues and clients for months. I’ve been home for 186 days in a row with my wife and kids – who I adore by the way – but I am very happy to be involved with other conversations even if I can’t do it face-to-face. There’s a real desire to connect.
This is the time to be more visible and more active on social media so that people can bump into you and more importantly, for you to start bumping into them.
We’ve talked about the shift to an online world, but it is AMAZING how few leaders know how to use the tools. We understand that everyone learns technology at a different pace, but you need to get good at using these tools and you need to do it right away. This is how business networking is being conducted today and will be conducted for the foreseeable future.
I was telling one of my leaders today, “Listen, you keep talking about when this is over, and things go back to normal. Let me challenge that thinking because if you’re holding onto this dream that at some point when a vaccine’s available that all of a sudden everything’s going to go back to pre-March 2020. You’re living in a dream world. It’s not. The behaviours are now ingrained. Things have shifted.”
It’s essential to invest in a good set up. If you’ve got a home office, invest in the right lighting and audio. This is how you put your best foot forward. If you show up and the audio is lousy and you can’t be seen because you’ve got a window behind you creating back lighting that’s making you look horrible, then you’re working against yourself. You wouldn’t show up to a networking event all disheveled. Understand that this is now the new reality, and we’ve got to get good at it. We’ve got to invest time, energy, and perhaps a little bit of money to get the right setup so that we can do this more effectively.
Be Present & Relevant
There are two things driving most of our thinking around sales and networking. First, we have to be present. We have to take it upon ourselves to reach out to Present, Past, and Potential Clients. We need to make sure they know we’re still in business, that we’re still serving clients, and that we’re still available.
Second, you have to be relevant. Don’t come at people hard with a sales pitch. That’s out of place and a little crass. This is the time to focus on connecting, caring, nurturing, building rapport, and catching up. Let me give you an example.
I just had a great 40-minute call today with someone who I’ve only had casual conversations with at various events once or twice. We’ve met, but we don’t know one another well. We had a phenomenal conversation. The focus was on catching up, understanding how COVID-19 was affecting them, what they’re learning as a company, and how their business is adjusting. It was an honest and open conversation. I didn’t raise the issue of my services once, but at the end, he said, “I’ve really been thinking about bringing you in to work with our team.” Not every call is going to end that way, but none of them will if you’re not reaching out.
Critical Next Steps
When people ask us what we need to do, a few key actions come to mind.
First, you’ve got to build a plan. You have to be deliberate about this. This is not going to happen accidentally because it’s a new set of behaviors. It won’t happen any other way.
Second, you need to really own the tools of the trade. Spend a little time and maybe a little money mastering the use of online tools. You need to show up looking good. Make sure your video and audio and lighting are properly organized. Learn how to share information easily and master the use of Zoom and Teams. You want the focus to be on them, the relationship, and what you’re saying. Everything else is taking away from the relationship and the message.
Third, we would encourage you to do anything that will raise your EQ. Take steps to learn how to read people, listen to people, and understand people better. Being present is part of that. Listening deliberately is part of that. Making it safe is part of that too. You don’t have the whole body language to work with now, you’re working with head and shoulders. That means you have less information to work with so anything that will improve your ability to connect and engage with people will be a good investment.
These are all areas we can support you if you need it.
Ultimately, we want to encourage you to reach out to people. Do it as a genuine act of caring. It’s going to be to their benefit and they’re going to appreciate it. As a final reminder, stop looking at this only as a crisis. In many ways COVID-19 has probably changed our lives forever, but it’s a tremendous opportunity to be deliberate, to grow, and to serve.
A lot of people are feeling very alone right now: let that motivate you to reach out and connect with as many of them as possible.