Selling in uncertain times

In most industrial countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of newly reported cases finally appears to be decelerating, after nearly half a year since the global pandemic began. This is good news, certainly. However, according to recent research by McKinsey, the pandemic recovery curve is not likely to be symmetrical – it will almost certainly exhibit a gradual return to normalcy over an as yet unknown length. This is leading to prolonged uncertainty in business, which continues to affect buyers’ purchase decisions adversely.

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In a recent survey of over 680 sales leaders1, more than four-fifths of salespeople reported that at least 25 percent of their customers and prospects have delayed buying decisions, due to the pandemic. Travel, lodging and hospitality have been affected most severely, and most business-to-business solution companies are struggling. Only three percent of salespeople indicated no effect at all, but these sellers are working in only a few fortunate markets: web collaboration technologies, home delivery services and grocery stores, for example.

These difficult times present unprecedented challenges for sales professionals. The question is: what, if anything, can salespeople do about it?

Understanding buyer psychology in uncertain times

Sales professionals who understand the psychology of buyers can adapt more readily to the current reality. More importantly, they can also help buyers to navigate out of the chaos and pursue more productive paths of action.

In normal times, buyers typically make purchase decisions in four distinct phases:

  • A latent phase, where they have not yet recognized the need to do something different;
  • A need determination phase, where they realize they must identify the capabilities they must have to adapt to a changing situation;
  • An evaluation phase, where they examine alternative solutions;
  • A risk phase, where they weigh the possible benefits against costs and potential for failure.

Only after completing all four phases can a buyer make a purchase decision with confidence. Sellers may play a role in any or all of the four phases, though most are invited to participate by buyers during the evaluation phase or later.

Normally, the concerns of buyers vary between each phase. First, buyers focus primarily on determining their specific needs and requirements. Next, they focus most on solution capabilities. Finally, they focus on risk factors and price.

However, these times are far from normal. With the uncertainty of the pandemic influencing nearly every aspect of business, buyers’ perception of risk now pervades every phase in each buyer’s journey. Today, buyers are consumed with worries about employee safety, reduced sales, uncertain forecasts, budget cuts, supply chain disruptions, layoffs and furloughs. As a result, buying decision processes have become frozen by fear and doubt. Buyers now worry about their organization’s ability to adapt and survive – this means focusing on preserving liquidity and cash.

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