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05 November 2020

What the NBA’s Bubble Season Taught Us About Sales During COVID

Max Bunag

Mourning the Loss of In-Person Sales Management while Embracing New Habits

Can you even remember March 11? I know, it’s hard. It was the day that it all seemed to end. The NBA  cancelled the game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz and, well, the entire NBA season. Then there was the alarming Tom Hanks tweet. From there, the entire American way of life fundamentally changed and nothing has been the same since. 

Back then, in those hard-to-remember pre-COVID days, I would have woken up, driven an hour-and-a-half up the Peninsula, walked into an office with a sales pit full of coffee-induced cold-callers and gossiped all morning between phone calls and meetings about that NBA game and that tweet.

Well, that never happened. And nothing like that for more than 230 days since then. Sigh! 

As fast as NBA games were cancelled and Bubble games began and the many declarative tweets about public health that followed the Hanks tweet were sent, so was office life. We didn’t have a Disney enclave where we could carry on. Gone was “water cooler” talk by the coffee machine, energetic call blitzing power hours, ad hoc white boarding in open conference rooms (my personal favorite), arrant NERF darts, overly obnoxious gong “bangs” for closed deals and booked meetings, and most importantly the small talk.

While these practices may seem supplemental, they were in fact essential to day-to-day Inside Sales Management.

The three major differences that we’ve had to adjust to in the past 8 months are:

  1. Culture Creation in an Era of Remote Individuality
  2. Coaching experience: From Observational Management to  Metrics-Driven Management 
  3. So Long to the Live Call Blitz 

How can “small talk” be that important? I know one of my top sales rep’s  favorite football teams is the Philadelphia Eagles, but prefers “real” football to the gridiron. I also know one of my top inside sales reps met Draymond Green last year in San Francisco. I know what another rep shot last weekend and their handicap. 

I know another one cancelled  a trip to the French Alps to attend  a house music festival, and that another finally paid off their last credit card and is opening a Chase Sapphire account.

It seems trivial. But these conversations not only serve as small talk they are the foundation to building a team culture and in particular, a sales culture. Culture isn’t created by words of affirmation on a wall or mission statements in a handbook or website. It’s created by the folks that sit around you for 10 hours a day.

Are your top producing reps crushing the phones all afternoon and booking more meetings and closing more deals? Guess what the reps who are not are doing after seeing and hearing that grind behavior.

In the pre-March 11 world, culture was created by gatherings. All the interactions mentioned above quite simply don’t happen anymore. Conversations are induced and forced by virtual means: scheduled happy hours or daily Zoom calls have taken the place of the organic gatherings. 

What does this mean for sales? 

In those scenarios, it’s tough for folks to “organically” communicate about simple things like what they did last weekend, what they’re doing this weekend, what’s working on the phone and what’s not, what messages are resonating, what voicemail gets more response, and what NOT to say in a pitch go away. Instead conversations are more likely to be proctored on a particular topic more like a scheduled presentation in an open forum setting.

In the pre-COVID world, 12 reps sitting in a 20 by 20 space, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and face-to-face would quite literally walk in, visually see folks grinding all day, hitting the phones, listening to the pitch, listening to voicemails, asking probing qualifying questions and absorbing all of it.

Coaching Experience: From Observational Management to  Metrics-Driven Management 

What happens now? Now, I publish metrics and manage based on quantitative conversion rates. Based on those rates, I manage based on the numbers and the numbers only. The qualitative observations are gone unless I happen to be on a call, which is logistically much more difficult than “grabbing a room” and taking a call.

Ultimately, the missing key in all the above are the ability to “spot” things. People management is based on feel and sense based on reading the sales reps. 

Do the reps understand the message in a team meeting is it resonating or is there resistance? Are they picking up and actioning the enablement and coaching being provided? Is the script, pitch, and collateral being utilized in customer facing calls and messaging?

In a “traditional” inside sales setting, all the above can be ascertained and course-corrected in an instant by watching and listening. Today? Not at all.

Now, everything is reactive. Feedback needs to be collected after team meetings. Coaching has to be reviewed weeks after to ensure it’s being put into action by scheduling time to listen to calls and additional certification sessions need to happen to ensure the content has been retained.

Bye Bye Blitzing

From a culture perspective, call blitzing may be the example of something that’s most sorely missed. A staple of the inside sales motion since it’s very inception, blitzing is simply the act of all the sales reps on the floor calling in unison for a set amount of time trying to get a hold of as many people as they can in that time. It’s a gamified version of what sales folks do every day. The measurables are simple: How many calls can you make, how many people can you get a hold of, and how many meetings can you book?

The point is it creates a buzz, an energy, and a competitive environment that an individual rep sitting alone cannot create. Cold calling is one of the most difficult facets of being a sales rep. Trust me when I say this, no one likes to cold call. That being said, it’s one of the most  important facets of our sales cadence. Without it, there are no new prospects to talk to. The optics of a cold-call blitz alone can create a culture and set a tone. High energy. Walking into a sales pit, quite literally hearing the energy (think “The Wolf of Wall Street”) creates the vibe to keep going.

Today: Cold calls are conducted from home offices with the energy sapped completely out reliant completely on self-discipline and time management. The input is monitored and tracked via Salesforce and the output is announced upon completion. 

We achieve what we can, but the energy, the collaboration, and the competition are gone. Reps are dialing against themselves having to monitor a dashboard to track progress. No bouncing pitches or ideas off each other. No listening to creative voicemails, and no gongs when meetings are booked with prospective customers. We review as a team after the blitz is complete and we golf clap the folks that made the most calls and book the most meetings.

Ultimately, the call blitz is about two things: the sales activity and the instant feedback that can be administered not only by me but the surrounding team as well. 

“I noticed you didn’t have a call to action in that last pitch with no call to action there’s no action. No action means there’s no meeting.”

Adapt to survive 

We’re more than eight months into our new reality, and ultimately, sales is a metrics driven function we all know that and live in that reality whether we’re at home or in the office. Our ability to rely on observational management and casual interaction have been replaced by explicit over-communication and an intense focus on metrics and CRM hygiene. 

At the end of the day and in the long run, this is absolutely a good thing for the business. The inside sales team has their house in order. Pipelines are clean, calls are being made, meetings are being booked and Salesforce reflects that. 

It might not be ideal. Just like when the NBA returned to the Bubble and resumed action, players and coaches adapted to a new environment and new constraints. Some struggled to play without the cheering (and booing) fans. Others adjusted their game, tossing up more three pointers since they knew the referees were calling more fouls. And a foul on one missed three could literally be a game-changers. 

The best salespeople have also adapted to the new reality. They’ve developed new habits. They’ve been more disciplined and they’ve learned to strive for success even under the toughest circumstances. When we eventually return to the gongs and the sales huddles and espresso-fueled sales blitz calls, we should be even more prepared for winning.