Sales during a worldwide crisis? What to change about selling during COVID, economic downturn, and beyond

Written by: Karl Sakas

While everyone’s distracted and scared during the pandemic, economic uncertainty, or a crisis—should you stop selling at your agency?

No, don’t stop selling—because an empty pipeline will eventually put you out of business.

But the way you sell needs to shift, because this isn’t “business as usual”—for a few months, and likely longer.

Let’s explore how to change how you sell at your agency during the pandemic. This applies whether you’re the one selling (as an agency owner) or if you have one or more team members doing sales for you. [Originally posted in April 2020; last updated March 2023]

Want more? Bookmark my Recession and COVID Agency Resource Center—with events, checklists, and my answers to dozens of FAQs—and sign up for my newsletter to get ongoing agency management advice.

Before You Read the 18-Step Plan

This won’t be easy, but there’s hope ahead. Not everyone will succeed, but you can secure your agency’s future with a good plan—executed well—with support from your full team.

You may have heard snippets from Winston Churchill’s “we shall never surrender” speech. On the eve of an expected Nazi invasion in 1940, the British prime minister said:

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Less well-known is what he allegedly said after that, off-mic to a colleague during the cheering and applause that followed:

“And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!”

Agencies without strong cash reserves will find it hard to afford a long-term attitude on sales—your situation isn’t impossible, but you have a hard road ahead. Let’s review the sales checklist.

Sales Priorities for Agencies: 18 Steps for Agencies During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Here’s my 18-step pandemic sales checklist… followed by a deeper dive on each point.

  1. Accept that this will be slow and hard.
  2. Recognize that your client is the Hero, and you’re the Helper.
  3. Commit to a long-term sales mindset.
  4. Choose to practice compassion, empathy, and patience.
  5. Understand (and secure) your immediate sales and marketing situation.
  6. Adjust your annual sales targets, including the impact on your P&L.
  7. Create lower-commitment “bite-size” sales offerings.
  8. Outline an iterative plan to create high-value marketing content, for sales support.
  9. Show the love to your current clients.
  10. Reconnect with all active sales prospects, leading with your high-value content.
  11. Create a re-engagement campaign, to reach past prospects.
  12. Craft a high-value offer for any cold sales outreach.
  13. Stay accountable, including your followup process.
  14. Build and strengthen referral partnerships.
  15. Enlist your team to help.
  16. Seek bizdev advice from a range of sources.
  17. Find ways to take breaks.
  18. Recognize that you’ll likely survive this.

Now, let’s do that deeper-dive on each of the 18 points. Get your team involved in this article and your process—you can’t do this alone.

Deeper Dive: Digging into the 18 Steps for Agencies & COVID-19 Sales

Success today requires a mix of mindset, strategy, tactics, accountability, and iteration. I believe the strongest agency leaders will encourage their teams to act with empathy, take a long-term perspective, and focus on serving their audience in everyone’s time of need.

1) Accept that this will be slow and hard.

No matter what you do, everyone’s distracted. Now more than ever, your agency’s marketing and sales messages are low in the list of your prospects’ priorities. Your efforts may fail… but if you take no action, failure is guaranteed.

2) Recognize that your client is the Hero, and you’re the Helper.

We’re all the hero of our own lives… but right now more than ever, your job is to make your clients the Hero. As the Helper, your agency is there to help your clients reach their goals… and this helps you reach your goals.

3) Commit to a long-term sales mindset.

Are you going to be helpful, long-term, and patient? Or are you going to be transactional, short-term, and desperate?

My advice here (and in general) focuses on a long-term approach. You may be tempted to compromise and take shortcuts—but is that in line with your values? As they say, values aren’t values until following them costs you money.

4) Choose to practice compassion, empathy, and patience.

This is about clarifying your sales philosophy, and sharing with your team. Everyone’s distracted, and some people are sick—or have relatives or colleagues who’ve died.

Ask and listen, before you tell. Now is not the time to send pushy or otherwise tone-deaf sales messages.

Consider whether to temporarily adjust your sales team’s commission and bonus incentives, to avoid putting pressure on your sales team that translates to pressure on prospects.

5) Understand (and secure) your immediate sales and marketing situation.

This applies to marketing, sales, and everyone involved. The goal is to avoid making an obvious mistake about an in-progress initiative… or lack thereof.

  • Understand your current sales pipeline, including an inventory of active prospects (and the true status of each, now that the pandemic’s happening). This may require some adjustments.
  • Inventory your marketing leads, to understand what future sales opportunities might look like.
  • Review what’s in your marketing queue, to see what’s applicable (and not applicable) to helping clients today. Decide whether to increase your sales team’s base compensation (via a temporary draw or salary increase).

Decide whether it’s time to terminate chronically low-performing salespeople. You couldn’t really afford them before, but you definitely can’t afford them now.

6) Adjust your annual sales targets, including the impact on your P&L.

Other than those with strong cash positions (12+ months of expenses in reserves), I expect that most agencies will struggle to grow in 2020. If you’re focusing on a hard-hit industry (tourism, hospitality, events), I expect a minimum of a 50% decrease in revenues. For other agencies, I expect a minimum 10-30% decrease in revenues.

To help your reset, here’s my advice on setting revenue targets—including how to create an annual revenue plan. Consider your budget and Profit & Loss (P&L) statement, too—this likely requires identifying strategic cost-cutting tiers, to reflect the drop in revenues.

7) Create lower-commitment “bite-size” sales offerings.

These are things to generate revenue today, even if they’re smaller than your minimums in the past. The key is that the price range needs to appropriately reflect the scope (for you to deliver) and the value (for the client to receive). Ideally, you’ll cut the scope rather than cut your rates.

Why? Because a rate cut sets a dangerous precedent that lasts the entire length of the relationship. To echo agency owner Charles Kirkland, offer a “painkiller” instead of a “vitamin”—that is, something people urgently need rather than an optional or “nice-to-have” service.

This may include a shift toward “staple” services—like lead-gen, PPC advertising, or sales collateral design—versus “nice to have” optional services that clients will defer during economic uncertainty.

You’ll need to “test” different options to see what resonates for your target market today. As a starting point, consider one-off consulting calls, a Paid Discovery option, “Phase 1” project scopes, and shorter-than-usual retainers (as long as you frame things as a special deal).

8) Outline an iterative plan to create high-value marketing content, for sales support.

This will be a layered, multi-phase process that you continually “enhance” over time. For example:

  1. Start with a blog post with your advice on what to do during the COVID pandemic—or during recession or economy uncertainty. The goal is to have something to share. Then…
  2. Run a virtual event that expands on your points, and that includes Q&A. You want to be sure you understand your audience’s key questions and concerns, and you need to record it. Then…
  3. Create a COVID (or Recession) Resource Center, to consolidate the earlier content and future additions into a single shareable URL. Finally…
  4. Offer an ongoing series of advice—perhaps a mix of video and text content, depending on your preferences and your audience’s needs—integrated into the Resource Center. Eventually…
  5. Consider shifting the Resource Center into a more-evergreen content hub, once the current global crisis has passed. (Since unfortunately, a new one will arrive in the future.)

The key is that you need something high-value as “currency” to share with prospects, so your sales outreach and followups don’t lead with “pay us money.” Beyond sales support, this marketing helps you attract inbound prospects.

If you haven’t built (or strengthened) your personal brand, now might be the time for you to step up—because the world needs your thought leadership.

9) Show the love to your current clients.

Clients are more likely to spend money than entirely new people, so be sure you don’t ignore your current clients. Every account you retain is an account you don’t have to [immediately] replace.

Rather than leading with an upsell ask, ask about where they’re struggling, and then listen actively. Look for ways to use their current budge to help them solve problems.

In my case, that’s included one-on-one outreach, offering a clients-only group Q&A call, and recommending specific tools from my Agency Profitability Toolkit. I’m sending more-frequent updates to my clients-only VIP email list, so they get access to advice before non-clients. For instance, they received this update before my main email list or the general public.

10) Reconnect with all active sales prospects, leading with your high-value content.

This category includes pending prospects who’ve asked you to follow up in the future—for instance, “Check back in a month” or “Check back in two quarters.”

They may not buy—now or ever—but they’ve at least claimed they want to hear from you in the future. This gives you license to follow up a few times, until they respond or until you send Blair Enns’ “Closing the Loop” email.

11) Create a re-engagement campaign, to reach past prospects.

This category includes prospects who said “no” and prospects that disappeared into The Abyss. They aren’t likely to convert now, but it’s worth a try.

Why? Some of the “lost” prospects won’t be happy with their current agency—and some of the prospects that ghosted you before will suddenly have urgent needs today.

12) Craft a high-value offer for any cold sales outreach.

I’m not a huge fan of cold sales outreach, but now may be the time for you to start if your inbound pipeline isn’t strong enough. Remember Charles Kirkland’s point about the urgency of selling a “painkiller” instead of a “vitamin.”

What would that offer look like for your agency… and how would you describe the value proposition to someone who hasn’t heard of your agency before?

13) Stay accountable, including your followup process.

If you aren’t doing weekly “sales management” meetings, now is the time to start. They help you (or the salespeople, if you have a broader team) stay on track.

If you’re doing sales as the owner and don’t have someone to hold you accountable, recruit a colleague. The ideal match as “sales manager” may not be a sales expert, but they’re comfortable asking you hard questions.

Consider whether to add new pipeline stages in your CRM, to acknowledge prospects’ distraction levels. Your old sales process might need some updates during the pandemic.

14) Build and strengthen referral partnerships.

If you don’t have partnerships (formal or informal), it’s time to start. I regularly refer not-a-fit business to other agency consultants, and vice versa. I intentionally don’t accept referral fees, but most agencies do—it’s like a bonus 5% or 10% on work you’d otherwise decline altogether.

If you have partnerships but haven’t been in touch in a while… that’s not ideal, but now’s the time to reconnect.

If you’re top-of-mind when a partner hears about an opportunity, that’s one less sales opportunity you need to find via cold outreach. And to a point, more referral partners mean more opportunities.

15) Enlist your team to help.

You’ll need to find a balance on billable vs. non-billable work… but if client volume is down, use the time to support self-marketing. For example:

  • Your strategists and other subject matter experts (SMEs) can support content marketing and other initiatives.
  • Your project managers can help you stay on track.
  • Your operations team can provide additional support and structure in your sales efforts.

Ask for help—even self-starter employees can’t read your mind.

16) Seek bizdev advice from a range of sources.

Cast a wide net to find the sales and bizdev advice that works for you and your agency. With an eye toward other advisors who specialize in agencies, consider following:

And see my 37 top sales tips for specific ideas to try at your agency right now.

17) Find ways to take breaks.

If you don’t pause occasionally for self-care, you’ll burn out. You’ll need to find the right approach to handling sales during the pandemic, but working 100 hours a week likely won’t help.

Why? Because you’ll see diminishing returns as you become exhausted… and you’ll make mistakes that actively hurt your results. Here are 15 small ideas to try. And request help from your support network, including your therapist, your coach, and fellow agency owners.

18) Recognize that you’ll likely survive this.

If you get through this, you can handle almost anything. You—personally—will likely survive. And if your agency doesn’t make it, you will likely manage the setback. It will be sad and difficult and expensive. But you will likely emerge again, to pursue new opportunities. Good luck!

Taking the Next Steps

What’s next? Block in a few hours to start your plan, and get your team’s help making this happen. This won’t be easy, but you need to start sooner than later.

Want my one-on-one advice on navigating what’s ahead? I have a range of agency-specific options to support you—including DIY tools, custom personal advice, and comprehensive programs designed to help you navigate the toughest situations.

Ready to feel less overwhelmed? Contact me, and then complete my pre-intake questionnaire. Based on that, I can recommend the right next steps.

Question: What are you changing about sales during the current global crisis?

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