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How to have better customer conversations during the crisis

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THE COVID-19 CRISIS has caused so much disruption and uncertainty for everyone in all aspects of work and life. When talking to customers, it can be hard to know how to strike the right balance between acknowledging the crisis and focusing on business.

Sometimes it’s okay to blend business and personal with your customer conversations, especially during a time of widespread stress, grief and uncertainty. Here are a few tips for having better customer conversations:

Don’t Ignore the News. COVID-19 has caused a massive shift in everyone’s priorities and daily life experience. So don’t assume your sales conversations with customers have to be strictly about business. Start conversations by just asking customers how they’re doing, how they’re coping with the latest news. You don’t have to be afraid to acknowledge the crisis that we’re all in.

Most customers will appreciate you being candid and willing to talk about a situation we’re all going through. At times of crisis, customers may even be more skeptical of salespeople who are not acknowledging the bigger situation.

However, you don’t have to dwell on it. Try to keep the conversation light and optimistic. You might want to say things like, “It’s been awhile since we talked; the situation has been difficult, of course, but in the last month, my company is starting to enter into a kind of new normal, and I would love to talk with you. How are things on your end?” 

Talking about the crisis in terms of a shared experience and a common adversary can help customers feel like you are on their side, like you’re not trying to sell them something; you’re trying to help them overcome a crisis.

Listen with Empathy. Every customer conversation right now needs to put empathy at the forefront. More than ever, be sensitive to what customers are going through. Be patient. Be compassionate. Be willing to just listen—they might not be ready to buy, they might not have good news for you, they might not even be happy to hear from you.

Everyone is going through a lot of emotions right now. You may be calling customers who have had a family member die of COVID-19, who may have the virus themselves, or who may be at higher risk for it. Your prospect’s company might have taken a huge hit and could be struggling to stay in business.

Whatever they’re going through, be willing to show you care—not just as a businessperson, but as a human being.

Show Vulnerability. Your customer conversations might be a good opportunity to share your own story. Not in a sad, “woe is me” tone of voice, of course, but just as another way of acknowledging the crisis and helping customers know they’re not alone.

You might want to open up about your own personal experience. Do you know anyone who’s become infected? How is the crisis affecting your immediate area? What concerns do you have for the industry you serve?

Of course, you’re on these calls for business purposes; you should still try to be confident and upbeat. But it’s okay to commiserate a bit about just how uncertain the world can be, and show your own human response to the crisis, while also offering an optimistic vision of how your company can help them recover, rebuild and move forward into a brighter future.

Help Before You Sell. Now more than ever, B2B salespeople are in the business of helping people. Buyers may be struggling to stay in business or recently had to part ways with some beloved employees or a longtime vendor. They also may be going through emotional turmoil, feeling scared about their own health and their financial future.

Be ready to help. Be ready to think big about how you can help your customer’s business, even in ways that might not be immediately relevant to what you sell. Think beyond the immediate short-term transaction and build a longer-term relationship. Even if you can’t sell to this customer today, or even later this year, look to create the beginning of a business relationship that could last for years to come.