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Support Your Customers: Don’t Stop Selling Because of Coronavirus

In a few short weeks coronavirus has dealt another blow to in-person meetings and personal relationship selling. But now is not the time to stop selling, argues MDMs John Gunderson. He frames the importance of continuity in your companys sales process in this time of crisis and thoughts on how to deepen the value those relationships have built over many years.
Concept of coronavirus quarantine. MERS-Cov, Novel coronavirus (

Editor’s note: MDM has been communicating with our community of more than 20,000 distribution leaders across all sectors in North America, Europe and globally. Beyond the top priority for the safety of associates and their families, we’re hearing that sales and distribution center operations are the most affected areas of the business and the toughest to adapt to remote working alternatives. We’re committed to providing you with the latest distribution-specific information and analysis to help you scenario plan and manage the current crisis, and will be sharing our research with you throughout the current cycle. 

Please take our survey regarding your response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. It will truly help inform us to support your planning going forward. Thank you. 

Today, many of your outside sales people are wondering how they will do their job in the weeks and months ahead. Their ability to go see customers in the upcoming weeks in-person will be limited and, in many cases, not possible. Many customer buyers are working from home, probably with kids home from school as well. Those customers in the office will be limiting the number of in-person interactions and multi-person gatherings they attend.

What do you do?

In my distribution sales career, my weekly planning revolved around my in-person calls. For example, my typical distributor sales week went something like this:

Monday-Friday

  • Make one to two in-person calls before lunch
  • Go to lunch two to three times a week with a customer
  • Make one to two in-person calls after lunch
  • Adjust for additional in-person lunch-and-learns, or joint calls with manufacturer partners
  • Fit in emails and order management around my in-person calls

Next week was “Rinse and Repeat” — do the same thing again for 50 weeks a year. This has been the structured approach of many distribution sales people every year of their career. Now that is all disrupted, and we don’t know how long it will last.

Also see: “6 Quick Fixes to Mitigate Your Supply Chain Risk.”

The Model Is Broken – What’s Next?

I have been using this MDM chart in presentations with distributors and manufacturers in the last year to illustrate how the B2B distribution sales process is changing. It’s updated to illustrate that face-to-face selling is going to be curtailed or not even possible for some time.

Coronavirus Impact on B2B Distribution Selling

CoronaVirus

[CAPTION] Face-to-face selling disruption means reduction/elimination of customer entertainment, no in-person customer training, no manufacturer lunch-and-learns, no industry events or tradeshows, and buyers working from home.

Distribution sales has been moving from a face-to-face relationship building approach to a customer decides approach for some time. The new approach requires improved digital tools and interaction and forces you to add true value to earn your customers business.

If you have been building the tools to adjust to the new reality you are probably ready to capitalize on that advantage this week.

If you aren’t there yet there are still steps you can take this week to adjust.

Respect & Deepen Your Relationships

It’s important to respect your relationships with and support for customers in an unprecedented time like now. This week your customers are — just like last week — going be inundated with Coronavirus update emails from almost every company they work with and every place they buy from in their personal life. These are worthy emails for each company to send, but it will make breaking through with any sales communication very difficult.

Also see: “Will the COVID-19 Coronavirus Infect the World’s Supply Chains?”

To be very clear, I’m not advocating here to exploit a monumental crisis. But I think this is also a time when reassurances as well as ongoing normal business sales efforts are an opportunity to validate the value — in a time of crisis — of those personal relationships and reliability as a key supplier. And it’s also important your sales team has clear direction on how they can continue to be successful — to be future- and customer-focused amid a lot of confusion and uncertainty.

If you need to send a sales email this week, make it personal and as short as possible with the core message of, “We’re here to support you. Let us know how we can help.” If you have a customer who is receptive to receiving texts, that could be a great way to break through the clutter. Phone calls may be particularly effective, but again, be sensitive to whether the customer is receptive. A tone-deaf, disruptive sales call this week can do a lot of potential damage.

Build a Sales Promotion to Deliver to Customers

As I said, this is a time to reinforce your core value propositions to customers, done respectfully and appropriately. If you can develop an appropriate and compelling offer-driven promotion that entices customers to call you, it could drive more in-bound calls and sales. It also gives your sales team something to sell and organize their time around. It will be difficult for many of your outside sales people to know what to do since they can’t go make calls, and having a promotion gives them something to anchor their sales efforts around.

Your call plan might be something as simple as this:

  1. Create a strong “buy-now” promotion;
  2. Have your sales team call/text the customer a brief “sending a great promo to you” note;
  3. Send the promo via email to the customer.

Find Alternatives to In-Person Training and Events 

Can you take your upcoming lunch n’ learn and record it digitally? Can you convert your upcoming customer training event and live stream it? There are digital ways to mimic the in-person experience and deliver value. Many distributors and manufacturers are already on the journey to deliver value using video content. It’s a great week to use those assets to reach customers.

I have always believed the saying that “the best experience is an in-person sales call.” The challenge is for the foreseeable future there are very few or zero in-person experiences for your customers. The trend of going more digital and less in person has been happening at a rapid rate the last few years.

I presented this same story (and the slide above) to one of the largest U.S. B2B manufacturers a few weeks ago before the current issues broke. My suggestion was that they needed to deliver their value electronically (in addition to their current face-to-face approach) and that they needed to partner with distributors who had the digital expertise to do so.

Manufacturers will partner with distributors who can deliver their value digitally over those that can’t. I thought that this was a gradual approach, but this week has fast-forwarded the digitally-enabled distribution sales process. Those who have evolved their sales model to be more omnichannel will capitalize on current conditions and take share. For those who haven’t, now is the time to jumpstart that journey.

Some may say that this week is too soon to be sending sales promos. I believe that distributors can mitigate the impact of this crisis by supporting their customers and sales teams and not get gridlocked. While we are far from business-as-normal, we all have to work hard to look and move forward. This is a time when leadership makes a difference. I have no doubt that distributors will step up and let customers know, “We’re here for you, and we plan to support you for a long time into the future. Let’s do business.”

We appreciate your feedback to help us serve you better; please share your comments below or contact me at john@mdm.com. Once again, please take our survey regarding your response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. It will truly help inform us to support your planning going forward. Thank you.

John Gunderson VP of Analytics & E-BusinessJohn Gunderson is Vice President of Analytics & e-Business for Modern Distribution Management. Prior to joining MDM in 2018, John held senior management roles for 20 years leading sales, category management, marketing, pricing, analytics and e-business with leading North American electrical, industrial, construction and electronics distributors.

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