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How to Sell During Turbulent Times

Last updated: Oct. 8, 2021 

Originally published April 29, 2020

The old ways of selling may not work during crisis times. Here are some other ways to attract and keep customers.

Running a business isn’t easy — it’s a constant struggle to offer value, and provide reliable service, while remaining financially viable.

All small business owners are familiar with the challenge of staying afloat in normal times.

Now, with COVID-19 keeping people indoors, customers aren’t shopping or seeking services in the same way they did a few months ago, which means it’s vital that companies of all types adapt.

No matter what a company is selling, every firm is asking itself the same question: How can I sell at a time like this? Unfortunately, there’s no universal answer, but we asked JoAndrea Hogg, the marketing and behavioural science chair of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, and Eric Janssen, an entrepreneur and faculty member at Western University’s Ivey School of Business, for a few ideas.

Adapt Your Value Proposition

Your business likely has a good value proposition – it’s the reason why people have been buying your products or services – but for many current or potential clients, money is tight right now, so that value proposition is more crucial than ever. “The companies that have a chance to do well are the ones doing things to solve problems or make people’s lives better,” Hogg says.

One example is a gym, a business traditionally built by getting patrons through their doors. But as in-person visits are restricted, many gyms are adapting by offering video sessions, free workouts that can be done with no equipment, diet plans and discounted online personal training. It’s a smart change that could pay off in the short term by keeping members satisfied and bringing in new clientele who will hopefully stick around once people can go out again.

Be Sincere in Your Messaging

A first instinct for many companies dealing with COVID-19 has been to jump into customers’ inboxes pledging, “We’re with you.” It’s a nice thought, but Janssen says it’s just that: a thought. “I can’t help but read those messages as insincere,” he says. “The companies that mean it are actually doing things right now (to prove it).”

For instance, employees at Shopify, the e-commerce giant that helps companies open online stores, are offering to help small businesses set up stores for free. The company recognizes that more businesses need online selling infrastructure right now, and while they could charge for their assistance, and some clients would pay, it’s betting that its market share will grow in the long run precisely because they are “with” their clients.

Typical Advertising Won’t Cut It

If a company sends out messages that don’t address the current situation in a sensitive way, it can risk alienating its client base and damage the brand over time. “Typical marketing messages aren’t going to work,” Hogg explains.

If you run a travel agency, it would be a poor decision to advertise for “Summer Travel Plans.” Messages like that don’t help anyone at the moment. Equal Parts, a home cookware startup, went the other way: “Millions of us are unexpectedly spending an indefinite amount of time in our homes,” an Instagram post of theirs read. “We’re here to help.”

Over the next several weeks, the company’s messaging shifted, with posts like “A Home Cook’s Guide to Food Scraps,” and programs like Text-a-Chef, which gives customers on-demand advice from top working chefs and funds meal kits for people affected by COVID-19.

Be Accessible and Helpful

For Janssen, selling right now is about putting caring ahead of content, and offering help where possible. Contacting anyone who might be struggling to offer anything other than a solution could do more harm than good.

Accessibility and helpfulness aren’t new concepts, but their value is revealing itself every day: grocery stores are opening early to accommodate seniors, independent bookstores are offering delivery services and newspapers are lifting paywalls to provide free access to their content.

By increasing access in thoughtful ways, a company improves its standing and reminds patrons why they spent their money there in the first place.

Seize The Opportunity

It might sound counterintuitive, but Hogg and Jansen both think that times like these offer businesses an opportunity to retool and re-evaluate.

Companies can use this moment of uncertainty to diversify their approaches and future plans. If a newly opened online store or temporary delivery service has proven more profitable than anticipated, it’s worth asking whether these “temporary” changes should be permanent, or whether they could be a starting point for a new phase in the way you do business.

Plus, Hogg notes, consumer memory plays a major role in long-term success: If your company handles this unsteady situation effectively, your customers will come back as soon as they can.

Contact FBC

Have questions about this or other COVID-19 programs for Canadian businesses? Unlimited consultation related to tax matters is a key benefit of FBC Membership. We’re offering a free consult where we get to know your business and determine next steps on saving you time and money. Request a consultation online.

You can also visit our COVID-19 Resource Centre for the latest information for Canadian business owners