A year ago, we couldn’t have imagined the tumultuous ride ahead of us when, without warning, the COVID-19 pandemic took “business as usual” and turned it on its head. Manufacturers needed to adapt quickly. Flexibility, ingenuity, and persistence helped many not only survive but prosper. We are looking back on the past year to see how some manufacturers adapted their selling techniques to the uncertainty they were facing.

Selling Challenges During the Pandemic

Before the pandemic, the phrases “essential business” and “nonessential business” were not part of our everyday vernacular. As governments scrambled to define them, manufacturers saw orders plummet in nonessential business sectors as well as retail display work. Those fortunate to service essential businesses saw orders skyrocket. The first challenge for sales was to shift focus onto industries showing growth, such as food and beverage, medical and pharmaceuticals, do-it-yourself, and cleaning supplies.

Manufacturers looking to grow in new industries or increase their customer base were faced with the challenge of reaching their prospects. Trade shows and in-person networking and meetings were no longer options. Many decision-makers who were not involved with operations directly, such as procurement and engineering, worked from home. For some, this made them harder to reach.

In the first months of the pandemic, salespeople found that even those in essential businesses were reluctant to talk because they were overwhelmed with keeping up, and the timing wasn’t right to switch suppliers. Large companies and specific demanding industries, such as medical, became even more challenging to crack. Since in-person meetings couldn’t happen, an uptick was seen in prospects requesting quotes and focusing on price, which could put independents at a disadvantage.

Flexibility in Trying Times

It became clear right away, for better or worse, that virtual selling would need to be embraced. For many, it was a massive paradigm shift from the traditional selling techniques they were used to. Through baptism by fire, some learned new technologies to adapt. Virtual meetings, webinars, and virtual plant tours began to replace traditional selling methods.

Part of the virtual selling strategy included connecting through social media channels, such as LinkedIn, creating virtual connections with decision-makers and centers of influence. The connections provided contact information for follow-up. Mobile applications made connecting and direct messaging even easier.

Many manufacturers, for the first time, evaluated the virtual first impression they were making. We saw many update their sales presentations, websites, and messaging. Inbound marketing tactics, combined with outbound and sales follow-up, have helped many manufacturers reach new prospects and build their sales funnels.

Messaging is key. Understanding where their prospects are in the buying cycle is critical. Educational messaging demonstrates proficiency and leadership to those not ready to buy. In the early months of the pandemic, this included everyone that was struggling to find their footing as selling-based messaging wasn’t resonating. Initial communications, however, were focused on putting customers at ease and included information on how they were dealing with the upheaval, such as special cleaning protocols, employee staffing, and social distancing practices.

As their prospects’ needs become evident, successful manufacturers adapt messaging, and sometimes services, to reach them. For example, the pandemic impacted the paper packaging industry as the demand for paper products and e-commerce packaging spiked, leaving some companies facing extremely long lead times, which further disrupted their supply chains. Various state governments restricted employee capacity on the production floor, reducing production. Savvy independent corrugators with excess capacity, understanding that many weren’t ready to change vendors, offered to be a secondary supplier and pick up the work overflow. To take it further, some offered vendor-managed inventory services, which helped their customers manage box inventory while giving them a deeper understanding of the customer’s needs and the ability to provide additional solutions to them.

In some cases, cold calling is more difficult during the pandemic. When business phones are not set up to transfer calls to cellphones, emails sent to those prospects will often be answered with out-of-office messages that provide additional contact information for the prospect or additional decision-makers who can be reached out to.

With the viable prospects pool shrinking during the pandemic, structured and repetitive follow-up is even more critical. Promptly following up on meetings, RFQs, and quotes can be the difference between making a sale and losing a sale to another supplier. If prospects don’t have an immediate need, ask when you can call back, and then make sure you do. Also, ask if you can send information to them periodically through a lead nurture email campaign.

To contend with prospects focused only on receiving quotes, some manufacturers require a meeting to discuss the quote. They may also request samples and set a meeting to discuss them. The idea is to engage as much as possible while learning more about the prospect’s needs. The key is to pivot the conversation to learn as much as you can about the pains the prospect faces.

In addition to changing the way they communicated with prospects, some manufacturers have expanded their solutions to meet customers’ needs. This included purchasing new equipment or going the extra mile for customers, like providing pack-out and fulfillment services.

Lessons Learned

There is still much uncertainty as we move forward and settle into a new way of selling. The No. 1 lesson learned is that flexibility is and will continue to be a primary factor in success, whether that means learning new technologies, adapting virtual selling strategies, moving into new industries, or providing new services.

Another lesson by many during the pandemic is the importance of having a process for managing your prospecting activities. That may sound counterintuitive to flexibility, but an important part of a process is looking at your data to determine what is and isn’t working and then taking necessary corrective actions.

Having a process also ensures that follow-up activities are carried out. When a quote is drawn up, make it part of your process to virtually meet with the prospect to discuss it or, at the very least, follow up after a specified time. If it isn’t accepted, ask why. You might not get an answer, but if you do, it may provide valuable information about what is happening in that industry, especially if you are hearing the same reasons time and time again.

Moving forward, we are still facing uncertainty. Although several vaccines have been introduced and companies have instituted social distancing and other rules to keep employees and visitors safe, new strains of the virus have also been showing up. Some areas have resumed face-to-face meetings, but trade shows are still being postponed or done virtually. One thing that is certain is that flexibility, ingenuity, and persistence will continue to be essential characteristics of top performers.

A version of this article appeared in the March/April edition on AICC BoxScore
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