The coronavirus has affected so much of our daily lives. At work, we’re now logging on remotely, rather than heading into the office. The way we interact with and serve our customers has changed rapidly and dramatically. And outside of that, we’re facing upheaval in our personal lives. We’re getting used to homeschooling and managing the stresses and fears we may be feeling right now.
With all of this on our plates, we’re craving community. With social distancing rules in effect, we’ve had to get creative about how we come together.
Last week, the Sterling Woods Group hosted a virtual campfire chat—an opportunity for those in our network to come together, discuss our shared challenges, and talk about ways to find opportunities in this uncertain time.
All business leaders face the tension between needing to be responsible with budgets while also leaving room for growth. History has shown us that it’s the folks who invest wisely during difficult times who come out ahead once the sun begins to shine again.
With that in mind, we decided to center our campfire chat around these two broad questions: Who do you want to be during the crisis, and who do you want to be when it’s over?
Here, we wanted to share with you some of the insights that came out of our interactive call, so you can apply some of the shared wisdom in your own business. And we hope you’ll continue the conversation and reach out if you have ideas of your own!
Look for New Segments to Serve
In a twist on the concept of segmentation, the managing director of a flexible staffing agency shared that her business had been turning away from a segment earlier in the year. Large companies weren’t really in their wheelhouse and generally took a long time to move down the funnel, so they hadn’t invested too deeply in growing this segment of their client base.
However, they suddenly found themselves inundated with requests from large companies in desperate need of flexible teams in this current environment. A segment that had previously been difficult to prospect and serve has suddenly become a key component of their work.
The CEO of a management consulting firm also found themselves serving a brand-new segment that’s been created as a result of other shifts in business. Their firm works extensively in the grocery retail chain industry. However, sourcing wholesalers—like Sysco and Gordon Food Service who typically do business with restaurants, schools, and other large organizations—have seen their regular clients disappear overnight.
Now, these sourcing wholesalers have pivoted into retail grocery sales, but they don’t have the experience in that market. They’re looking for an expert to help guide them. Enter the marketing consulting firm focused on that space. Suddenly, they’re finding that a quarter of their business is coming from a segment that didn’t even exist six weeks ago.
Another participant is in the fine art retail industry, selling to customers like Walmart, Michaels Crafts, and A.C. Moore. While their brick-and-mortar customers have all shuttered for the time being, they’re seeing a huge opportunity in a subscription model.
People are cooped up at home and looking for a creative outlet. Whether it’s an art project to occupy the kids or a painting project for an adult looking for a meditative activity, subscription services—which bypass the shipping pile-up Amazon is experiencing on non-essential items—allow the business to continue to serve customers but through a previously under-developed channel.
Show Compassion and Care
Many businesses are having to rethink their sales strategies. While automated emails and newsletters worked well at the start of the year, people now are craving a personal connection.
One leader has reallocated all of the costs and activities of their entire sales and marketing teams. Because the situation is constantly evolving, they’re making operating plans on a weekly basis, in collaboration with the teams who will be executing on the plans.
For their top customers (or those in Segment A, as defined by our Scout Customer Value Matrix), the primary contact from the business is reaching out twice per week by phone. No emails or texting here! It’s about a highly sensitive and caring connection. B-segment customers are getting one phone call per week, while C-segment customers are not experiencing this level of personalized attention.
Another CEO in the campfire chat indicates that her company, a small business, was already thinking about personal touch at the start of the year, but they’ve ramped up their efforts significantly in recent weeks. Rather than having certain employees step back while their typical tasks dried up, they’ve created an all-hands-on-deck system where everyone helps the company send hand-written notes and call customers just to check in—no sales agenda.
Of course, it’s okay to make an ask if the vibe is right. But we also need to be kind and gentle, and we must understand that people are going through an emotional time. In the end, customers like to do business with those they know, like, and trust. If you can be a kind, supportive force during tough times, they’ll be more likely to turn to you in good times.
Focus on Value
This is not the time for the hard sell. Instead, businesses should be looking for ways to share knowledge and help their customers weather this storm. Those companies that lead with a mission-driven mindset are likely to find this easier to manage.
Creating community is of incredible value right now. We’re all stuck inside, and many people are alone and isolated from their friends and loved ones.
One of our participants indicated that they were tapping into relationships they had built before the crisis to continue to add value now. They’re reaching out to partners and member organizations within their network to plan interactive online content. Rather than staging a typical webinar, they want to create an interactive panel and other forms of content that encourage engagement. While in the past, they’d been focused on in-person events, they hope to build that same spirit of community online.
Another participant is using this time to develop e-learning courses. Her business was thinking about taking this route anyway, but the current situation has hastened the need for this offering. As a business that serves healthcare professionals, they hope to build a course that can be revisited time and again throughout the next few weeks or months and that will continue to help their audience grow and learn.
The Answers Are in the Data
Rebecca Donohue on our team chimed in to remind us all that data science holds the key to successful interactions and identifying opportunities at this time. Our best customers might not be able to make a purchase right now—perhaps they’ve experienced a disruption in their income, like so many around the world have—but they’re passionate about your brand, and this is not the time to forget about them!
Identifying these best customers allows you to speak to them in a relevant way. And staying in close contact with these loyal followers, rather than chasing the short-term dollars, will garner the best results in the end.
While it’s great to be optimistic—and we certainly are—it’s also important to be pragmatic. We suggest that you build a budget that gets you through the next 13 weeks, providing you with enough to survive through the worst of the storm.
Then, build out a two-year budget with zero EBITDA. This will have you prepared for a challenging scenario, and you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised if things turn out better than expected, and you can begin generating profit again quickly.
If you were unable to join our inaugural campfire chat, we look forward to seeing you at our next one! In the meantime, if you have ideas to share or want to chat about the strategies you’re testing out within your organization, feel free to reach out.
About the Sterling Woods Group, LLC
The Sterling Woods Group’s mission is to help clients make sense of their data to predictably grow sales. We apply data science to help you optimize your sales funnel, improve your marketing ROI, launch new products successfully, and enter new markets profitably.
We use a hypothesis-driven, data-supported methodology to discover insights that no one else is paying attention to. Then, we help you assemble the right sales strategies, marketing plans, technologies, and resources to seize this opportunity.
About the Author
Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Starting his career at McKinsey, his focus has always been on embracing digital technology and data science to spur strategic growth.
Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Digiday.
He holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.
Rob lives outside Boston, MA with his wife, Kate; daughter, Leni; and black lab, Royce.