Successful Selling and Marketing in a Time of Coronavirus

We’ve changed the way we shop and buy since the coronavirus lockdown — in part or in full- so how does selling respond?

The shift from problem solving to ‘problem finding’ is a trend that was identified by Daniel Pink as early as 2012 but, like so many things, has been accelerated by the world’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This article will discuss the on-the-ground changes that we are experiencing and the strategic shifts that agile organisations and startups need to make to firstly survive and then to thrive.

Selling virtually today consists of two challenges

There are two questions we need to ask:

  • Is your selling proposition (still) fit for purpose? Does it speak to a problem that your customers still have or any antiquated challenge?
  • And, how do you actually sell? How do you go about helping customers realise there problem and your solution?

In the lockdown and post lockdown environment we don’t need to know about gigs or football matches, nor do we need to buy a new party dress — because that party or match isn’t going to happen!

Yes, we might still be interested in sport, music and clothes, but our reasons and method of engagement with these needs has changed — possibly, changed forever.

Equally, some channels to market, such as trade shows, are shut and so companies that rely on them for leads or sales must find alternative routes.

Please note, a new or adapted sales proposition or change in sales method is not a full scale pivot; rather, it is an adaptation of an existing business model. In cases where your market has evaporated, you need a more radical approach which I discuss here…

Re-bundling of the offer

In the local delivery space, led by local businesses, the bundling together of goods into packs — a meat pack, a cheese pack, a vegetable box — make it possible to deliver efficiently.

It also makes it possible for the butcher, veg shop, cheese shop etc… to put packs together without either making mistakes and sending the wrong order to the wrong person or the need for complex software to pick certain items.

The ‘pack’ concept also makes it quick to pick — so that food can be delivered next day without delay and arrives fresh.

Equally, local or community based bookshops are selling books to reader groups — that means, not only selling a book, but also putting people together in a mini community who share the same enjoyment of books — so that they can talk to each other and share experiences. The offer here then, is no longer just about a product or a book but more about joining a community of like-minded people.

New delivery methods change how we sell

Delivery is seeing rapid innovation with local restaurants and market stalls begin to deliver locally for the first time along with large consumer product companies, such as Cadbury’s, starting direct to consumer chocolate boxes.

These steps, which have been feasible for years, have broken through and become widely accepted almost overnight. And the rapid adoption of home delivery further threatens the dominance of both the shopping mall and the large supermarket stores which were already under stress.

Both these examples involve local shops and big consumer brands selling direct to their consumers online rather than through their own or 3rd party shops.

It is almost as if, to sell, we no longer need to sell through distribution channels — we just go direct to consumer!

In which case, selling is largely about availability (or can you deliver in my area) and awareness (through website and digital marketing) of a trusted product/ brand.

Supply is next

However, the supply chains are yet to see significant innovation and this could be the next big source of change.

For instance, local butchers pre-order their meat from local farms whereas large supermarkets — seeking to offer ‘price’ driven goods, bulk order from long distance — beef from Brazil or Argentina for instance, many months ahead.

However, now that consumers can no longer drink in pubs, cafes or eat in restaurants, do they mind paying a little bit extra for local produce? Are they as price sensitive as before? Some will be, but many will not.

If consumers have the convenience (and now relative safety) of home delivery, are they going to give that up so that they can join long queues in supermarket stores to buy non-local produce that saves them a few pennies?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on whether people are able to earn a decent wage. However, the immediate response to the lockdown is that most people want local next day, higher quality produce and they will pay a bit extra.

Hence, companies, such as supermarkets that have built their proposition on ‘saving you pennies’ may find that they simply have the wrong proposition.

And, it may be many months before large supermarket chains are able to respond to the demand for locally sourced and quickly delivered produce — and that is even if they are able to spot the trend.

Hence, it is a fair assumption that radical change to large and long supply chains will be delayed but it will come before this crisis is over.

This matters, of course, for anyone who is selling into the supply chain. Whether you are a local farm or a local manufacturer, or a seller of supply chain or procurement software, then demand will come — but not right now.

Re purposing of assets

A key aspect of these new sales proposition is that they are accompanied by the re-purposing of assets.

For instance, local suppliers delivering to restaurants, pubs and clubs have a distribution team up and running but nowhere to deliver to. It makes sense to switch these resources to home delivery.

Hence, spinning up websites to take home delivery orders and then engaging in a social media campaign to promote the sites are the key sales steps.

In effect, selling has become digital marketing.

Why now and will it last?

So why are we home delivering now when it has been possible for so long? And will it go back to normal when lockdown is lifted?

These are really questions of whether the change is permanent. There are two good reason to think this change is for good.

  • Firstly, a YouGov survey says only 9% of people want things to go back to how they were (source). That’s a huge majority in favour of change that delivers less pollution, less commuting and less mad running around for no good reason.
  • Secondly, innovations often exist or are ignored when timing isn’t in their favour. For instance, Ctesibius — a Greek weapons engineer, invented a form of steam engine 2,000 years ago (source).

However, the invention, as the story goes, was rejected by the Roman court because it would transform transport and mean that the slaves had nothing to do!

Hence, innovation is more often held back by either the political interests of the powerful or simply a lack of momentum. However, when an idea’s time has come, no army can stop it (Victor Hugo), and we never un-invent anything. When the Stephenson’s rocket (the first modern steam engine) caught the imagination of the age in 1829s, it lead to an explosion of railways across the world within the next 20 years — from the UK and Europe to North America and Asia!

The producer, direct to consumer, home delivery model is here to stay. And, our marketing methods, our bundling of products and sales methods need to adjust to this new reality.

New tech too

A reminder that great sales is solving problems people didn’t know they had is offered by the tech company Queue-it.

This organisation sells technology that prevent surges in internet traffic from crashing your website by managing a queue of people trying to get into your site. Many companies didn’t know they had this problem until a few weeks ago!

Community / local sells

Something has happened in our respective lockdowns. Our remoteness and virtual existence has renewed the value we place on our community.

This might simply be our local community — bound together by geography, or it might be a group of people whose share values and whose virtual connections overcome their physical distance.

Nevertheless, pivoting your proposition to emphasise your community or local base is important in the New Normal.

However, any claim to be a community or local based business needs to be authentic. For instance, if the community has a need — say the refrigeration of medicines, then that is an opportunity for a local shops with fridges to offer to help and they need to do so for free and at speed.

Hence, smart social media strategies will — authentically — seek out local and community problems and seek to solve them for everyone’s benefit. Think again of the bookshop that sets up (free) reading groups among its community. Or of the bookshops that sell ‘self-isolation packs’ (source).

No more business to business trade shows

Trade shows are, and will be for some time, over .

Many companies that depend on shows to source leads and nurture business relationships now need to find new ways to meet new people and develop relationships.

Equally, serendipitous meetings at conferences or Silicon Valley or Hoxton coffee shops will not take place.

So, what will replace these? Smaller, more focused online conferences? Maybe, but…

The new business of B2B marketing

Many trade shows and even tech conferences, are poor at collecting information and data and hence could only offer attendees, exhibitors or list buyers a ‘haystack’ of leads.

In traditional marketing, this would require a volume based haystack sifting processes in order to find a few needles! Often called a telemarketing team.

And, because trade selling worked this way, there was never any reason to change it. Until now, of course…!

The new approach will be led by artificial intelligence to sift the initial haystack into a much smaller pile of straw and needles and hence, change the fundamental approach to B2B marketing.

Instead of describing customers in terms of haystacks — companies with SIC code xyz and between 3 and 10 years old and based in UK — companies can use data science to compare existing customers to very similar customers.

This is a method described by Outlier Technology as using ‘needles to find more needles’.

Hence, companies will shift from describing their prospects as haystacks — and set up a process for finding needles instead.

This will fundamentally change marketing. Traditionally, marketing has been about processing large lists (haystacks) into small numbers of qualified leads. To do this, a large telemarketing or contact operation was required — but instead Artificial Intelligence can use public data set to vastly simplify this first step.

Hence, B2B marketing teams will move further away from the numerics of large numbers and focus more on account management and business development techniques focused on a much smaller group of high quality leads — or potential needles!

Volume marketing to highly personalised business development

This shift from volume telemarketing to high value business development was happening anyway, but now, with the lack of trade shows the demand for AI to help sift data and prospects will grow rapidly.

However, the AI can only go so far and then humans need to take over. In particularly, this will see a shift to the high-value add method of business development and the almost certain end of old fashioned telemarketing.

A third reason for this change is that in our virtual world, we will value personal connection more.

Hence, the skill in building personal connection via virtual selling is a critical skill for the future. And, remember, when you video call people who are working from home, they are inviting you into their home. It is quite natural that the language and formality of this sales process will be different.

Hence the emotionally intelligent business development team will be the most successful.

At home presentation for consumers too

John Lewis — a large UK based department store — is offering in store consultations via video — on a business to consumer basis.

This is quite a radical change. To allow a consultant to talk to you at home about your need to furnish your nursery or prepare for the birth of a new child, you need to have a great deal of trust in both the brand and the individual sales consultant.

Which leads us to our last point about selling in a time of coronavirus:


Essentially, those businesses that build trust during the current crisis are the one’s that will succeed long term! And those that don’t, won’t.

For instance, some large supermarkets have used home delivery as an opportunity to send you food that is near or close to the use-by date; clearly picking items that you would not choose yourself if you were in store.

This has caused a large loss of trust.

Equally, how Wetherspoon’s founder fired staff will live long in the memory and again, destroys trust.

From ‘going for growth’ to ‘survival’

So our goal then is — for many — to switch from ‘growth’ to ‘survival’. And that begins by reviewing our sales propositions, our sales methods and to ask, honestly, are we building trust with our customers and suppliers?

This article is the fourth in a series of articles on how to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Previous articles covered building home based teams, fundraising and cashflow, plus, The New Normal.

This article was written based on deep insights shared by Nathan Pearson of Local Grocery Deliveries and David Tyler of Outlier Technologies with valuable contributions from Geoff Wilton and Stuart Smith.