News: Insight

Four phases of sales recovery to reach a new normal

05 May 2020  
Posted by: Andy Hough
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Tuesday 5 May 2020

Executive summary

The Covid-19 crisis has forced the sales industry to make rapid adaptations. To become trusted partners in a time of change and upheaval, sellers must be inquisitive and demonstrate customer-centric behaviour, while companies need to show a sense of purpose that goes beyond revenue-making. This article explores how sales organisations need to adapt each stage of the process of co-creating a deal, and the likely shape of a new normal.


The sales industry has been hit by a massive storm, and is unlikely to be the same again.

The Covid-19 crisis has forced organisations urgently to re-examine each aspect of their business processes, and to escalate the use of digital technology to connect with customers, business partners and their own colleagues.

In the first phase of the pandemic, as we weather the crisis, key priorities are to maintain trust and to build on human connections. Only if you have stood by your customer in difficult times are you likely to be trusted as a future partner.

In the second phase, priorities shift to researching customers (and prospects) as their aims, needs and processes change.

The third phase of adaptation is active collaboration with the customer towards a shared goal or purpose, bringing a co-created project to the point where a deal is possible.

Phase four is the new normal: ethical, purposeful sales that make greater use of technology while valuing and developing both customer and seller.

Corporate transformation only occurs if individuals transform themselves. To succeed in the new normal, organisations must support and encourage their employees in their personal transformations. We must acknowledge that the old normal will probably never reappear.

The pace of change, already brisk, has been intensified greatly by the pandemic, and is unlikely to slacken. Our hope, at the Association of Professional Sales (APS), is that organisations will see the turmoil as presenting an opportunity rather than a challenge – an opportunity to transform the future of sales.

Phase one: resilience and adaptation

The lockdown imposed in response to the pandemic has transformed every seller from an office worker to a home worker. Social distancing will ensure we are physically separated from our customers and our colleagues for many months to come. Most meetings will continue to be online. Any face-to-face encounters, when they do happen, will be at a distance, across offices that have been reconfigured as low-density workplaces.

Sellers have been presented with a stark choice: stay at home and do little, or adapt quickly to new ways of working. They have had to find coping mechanisms to deal with the anxiety of a pandemic, the distractions at home, and the challenge of maintaining working relationships using digital technology. The success of these individual transformations will determine how well the business adapts to its new circumstances.

The impact of Covid-19 has stretched every business model to the limit, and people within our customers’ organisations are experiencing previously unheard-of stresses and distractions. The fear, uncertainty and restrictions placed on us by the pandemic mean that one of the most significant effects is that people are connecting with a degree of sincerity not seen for many years.

Our customers are expecting to see the same humanity in the way we interact with them. As salespeople, we ignore this at our peril.

Trying to drive through sales by holding “deal now” discussions will only end in frustration, and certainly, not many deals. All the indicators suggest that now is the wrong time for such conversations.

Intelligent sellers will hold back, seeking to understand the needs of prospects and clients. The emphasis should be on standing by their customers, delivering for them as their needs change rapidly, and ensuring their success within current restrictions. Building strong, trusting relationships, and achieving a successful outcome for our customers has always been a top priority for good sellers. Now it’s vital. If we do not show concern for our customers, and if we fail to match our actions with our promises, people will remember for a long time.

Phase two: knowledge and planning

While you are developing a new sense of trust with your business connections and keeping open positive lines of communication during the Covid-19 crisis, use any opportunity you have to analyse, investigate and build up your knowledge.

Every organisation is pivoting rapidly and their needs are changing. It is essential to stay abreast of this so you can anticipate your customer’s possible future needs.

Key actions for sales teams should be to:

  • Research each of your customers and prospects with an open mind: their industry, their market competitors and their revenue base.
  • Avoid assumptions about the financial health of a customer’s business, or exposure to industry trends.
  • Based on your research, use territory analysis to decide which customer or prospect to focus on first.
  • Research key stakeholders and their roles. Map their appetite for external assistance against key indicators: for example, open or closed to influence, positive or negative to your company, how they view value in a transaction.
  • Use empathic enquiry to check your research and understanding, so that you start to formulate co-created solutions with your customers.
  • Understand that your customer is focused on the needs of their own customers, as maintaining revenue is vital to their own success.
  • Explain how your solutions may help your customer to increase their cashflow.
  • Draw up solutions that take account of the customer’s pain points. Share your thoughts with key stakeholders, and build their feedback into proposals.

Only if you have stood by your customer to the very best of your ability in these difficult times, will you be in a position to build together, strong, fact-based business proposals.

Doing the right thing by the customer has to come first. Once you achieve that, you can start a conversation about your own company’s targets, revenues and budgets.

Phase three: collaboration with purpose

We have yet to see what the business landscape will look like once the Chancellor’s support programmes wind down. A recession of some duration is factored in; the best outcome will be if it is short, and V-shaped. Situations will be fluid for some time and cash flow will continue to be a challenge.

In this part of the recovery cycle, the seller’s task is to build propositions with those people with whom they have established trust. Everyone is in unknown territory. Customer-centric behaviour and careful engagement with stakeholders will be absolutely essential.

  • Start to formulate financial returns and timescales, in order to co-create investment proposals for board submission.
  • Use virtual workshops to gain broader perspectives from your stakeholders. Align your team internally to individual stakeholders to create a customer-centric focus and a breadth of engagement.
  • Continue to assess and explain the impact of your proposition on your customer’s business.
  • Fine-tune specifics and timescales so that you and your customer are actively collaborating.

Be patient and remain realistic about where your solutions rank in your customer’s priorities, and how they see your offering compared with other draws on their limited capital resources. Retain your focus on helping your customer’s recovery go more quickly towards a new normal, as you co-create the path to approval, commitment and contracts between both parties.

By projecting this sense of purpose, over and above your own company’s needs for revenue-making, you will convince the customer that you have their best interests at heart. Then, all being well, the opportunity should open up to progress through the pipeline stages to success.

Phase four: the new normal

In the 2020 APS survey of sellers, carried out before the crisis, the number one concern was work-life balance. The lockdown has transformed that in a heartbeat. The pendulum has swung from one extreme, being at work wanting to have more time at home, to now being at home wanting more time at work. The question is, how far the pendulum will swing back?



We will return to a reality, but it will not be the one we left at the beginning of 2020. It will be influenced by our experiences during the Covid-19 lockdown: social, economic and personal. We may go back to the office, but it will be slowly, and in small numbers. The digital communities we have constructed during the pandemic will not fade away entirely, as we alternate between office and home-working.

It seems inevitable that greater use of digital behaviour in sales will be here to stay. Our phones and laptops will be ever more important as the tools by which we forge relationships and do business. Insights delivered by artificial intelligence to our screens, will inspire how and to whom we sell more and more.

At the same time, the human values of care and responsibility that we have each embraced will not fade away entirely either. They will change the quality of our selling, through more ethical sales behaviour.

Changing personal values will also put pressure on sales organisations to act with greater responsibility, towards their employees, their customers, their society and the environment. To be effective, to hone a reputation as a desirable business partner, companies will need to acquire a sense of purpose which goes beyond revenue-making. Buyers and procurement will not wish to engage with companies which lack this sense of purpose.

Greater purpose and direction will also be vital for sales organisations in attracting and retaining talent. Hitting a number used to be enough but as 62% of sales people do not hit goal, there is a need for more. Generation Z will not be attracted to organisations without greater purpose.

Developing talent for more than the purpose of hitting a number will be central to a new people-strategy. Coaching will be a vital tool. This will be of particular importance to millennials, who now represent more than 50% of the workforce. More than 48% of millennials leave organisations because they feel their capabilities and careers are not being developed, according to the APS Sellers’ Survey which flagged this as an area of particular concern for sellers in 2020.

The 2020 APS survey continues to show that the fourth highest concern for sellers is being recognised as a respected professional. At the heart of professionalism are ethical behaviour and true understanding of the customer.

This is the key, not just for salespeople, but for the organisations they serve and the customers they work with. This crisis throws up many challenges but it also presents an outstanding opportunity to transform the future of sales for good.

Sales in the new normal

  • Increased use of digital technology
  • Purpose and direction beyond revenue-making
  • Customer-centric and ethical selling
  • Co-creating long-term customer value
  • Coaching for resilience and purpose