4296_TAIRoleFieldForce_BlogA pharma-industry-specific version of this blog post was published on ZS’s life sciences blog, The Active Ingredient.

Emily Alexander and Jason Brown co-wrote this blog post with Chris Morgan. 

The most pressing challenge for our society is the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the global population and economy. Protecting the health of the population is the chief priority, and  stabilizing the economy is the next most urgent. However, as companies navigate this challenging landscape, leadership also is grappling with how to keep their sales teams engaged and productive . Companies are rapidly addressing practical issues like incentives, targets and rewards and are accelerating initiatives in digital communication and virtual learning.

In times of extreme uncertainties like these, it’s less important to have accurate predictions of the future than to have a clear sense of our obligations and what we want to accomplish during this crisis.   Does the sales force’s purpose remain the same in light of COVID-19?

The Human Response to the Crisis and the ‘Purpose Gap’

Everyone is having their own, very human, struggles with this crisis. COVID-19 has disrupted the status quo in a multitude of areas for our customers and our people. A pulse check of current sentiment of sales teams reveals both practical concerns and some warning signals about a disruption of purpose.


If we want to maintain positive engagement, then we need to address the whole human and their fundamental needs—particularly during this time of crisis.

The Need for a Clear Purpose
Many of these concerns reflect a sudden uncertainty about purpose. Leadership teams are making operational decisions quickly, but likely haven’t had the time to step back and strategically consider the purpose and role of the sales team during COVID-19. 

If you assume the organization’s purpose is the same as always – to deliver the same customer contact and business results as before the crisis – then your challenge is simply to find a way to deliver this through different means. You will attempt to drive up your existing measures of activity via virtual methods and upskill on digital interactions. 

However, the landscape has changed so dramatically that we need to ask if this should remain the focus. Other options for organizational purpose could include:

  • Relationship focus: Improve the customer perception of our company through sensitivity to their current needs and pressures.
  • Retention focus: Stabilize existing accounts and create some churn prevention measures for hard-hit businesses.
  • Transformation focus: Prepare your organization to serve your customers in the changed landscape that is likely to exist after COVID-19.
  • Business survival focus: Particularly for start-ups and low-margin businesses, stay afloat to ensure employees will have jobs to return to.
  • COVID relief focus: Use any relevant capabilities to help in the efforts to treat COVID-19 or prevent economic fallout (if applicable).

Each of these brings different implications for our operational decisions. Establishing a clear purpose that reflects the new landscape created by the crisis brings two key benefits:

  1. It provides a basis for making consistent and confident decisions across the whole range of customer engagement and operations issues. This reduces dissonance for the team and helps address safety needs.

  2. It provides a new mission behind which the team can align, creating a renewed sense of belonging, and a new definition of impact, making them feel valuable again.


Steps to Manage the Crisis

Managing the sales team through this crisis  means considering purpose (our yardstick for valuable outcomes), productivity (valuable work by whatever standard we have set) and energy (the commitment of the team to our purpose). Every company will find its own solutions to these issues, but key things to address are:

1.  Immediately address basic human concerns. Take the team out of direct personal contact and remove any hint of pressure to put themselves in harm’s way. Acknowledge their concerns and confusion. Make it clear that the top priority is to care for themselves and their family. Listen carefully. Stay in touch even more than you normally would. As one sales leader put it, “We have to communicate like we are going through our largest ever product launch at the same time as completing a merger.”

2.  Establish a clear purpose for this period and beyond. The urge to take action is almost irresistible, but as noted, it’s important to align on an organizational purpose during this period – a set of guiding principles to govern decision making. Otherwise actions will be disconnected and will generate dissonance. Consistency of purpose is, if anything, more important than the specific choice of purpose.

Your choice will be influenced by the nature of your customers and products, their adjacency or distance from COVID-19 and the economic impacts, your internal resources and capabilities and the over-arching business goals and vision of your company. As such it may be appropriate to have different answers in different business units.

Put this purpose at the heart of all your communications; if you haven’t been a particularly mission-driven organization before, now is the time to start.

3.  Create security by re-thinking performance and rewards. Sales teams have natural concerns about job security, income (especially for high variable pay) and about being held to measures of performance that no longer apply.

  • Communicate with clarity and honesty about role and pay security. If you can, set a floor or minimum guarantee for incentive pay so concerns about income and paying bills can be resolved. If this is uncertain, then at least provide a concrete plan by which uncertainty will be resolved.

  • Re-assess business and activity targets. Quickly announce that these are on hold and being re-evaluated. Track trends carefully to project the likely impact for each month of isolation. The impact is likely to vary significantly by geography and industry, so take a segmented approach. Demand will likely decline in industries as companies do not have mindshare for purchases (taking your retirement plan to bid) or are physically closed (restaurants and bars) and could rise in others (increased demand for tele-work software).

  • Re-think incentive plans. This needs to be done in line with the purpose and objectives that you have set. Sales targets should be altered in line with new expectations, whether by adjusting the goal itself or flattening the payout curve. Maybe some of the incentive pay should be re-allocated from sales outcomes to new objectives, such as account retention or virtual activity goals.

4.  Create meaningful work that creates new value. Salespeople are typically very action-oriented and get much of their fulfillment from their interactions with customers and others. We need to find new work for them, not just because of a desire to be productive, but because it will be key to supporting their emotional well-being and energy. 

  • Change your approach to customer engagement. The last week has seen a rapid acceleration of many companies’ efforts in digital communication, virtual selling and other remote customer engagement tools. It is already becoming clear that the content of any communication is even more important than the medium. Businesses and customers are in an entirely new situation, and this must be acknowledged in all communications. Customers are already pushing back on “tone-deaf” messages. In some industries such as healthcare or grocery stores, there’s a question of if sales should be taking up any of their customers’ time right now. In any of these cases, now is a good opportunity to connect with customers on the human level and deepen trust with them if nothing else.

  • Engage the team in problem-solving. This is uncharted and rapidly changing territory, and no one knows the right answer. At the same time, people get a sense of purpose and community from being engaged in solving problems. Activate local problem-solving teams to tackle customer and business challenges. Reward creative thought and support solutions. This is not a burden that leadership needs to carry alone.

  • Build your customer strategy and plans. This period requires new approaches, but so will the period when isolation ramps down. It is unlikely that the world will click back to business as usual, especially with a recession on the way. Choose specific business challenges (new products, competitive threats etc.) and specific high-stakes customers. Challenge sales teams to create strategies and plans for these customers considering the prevailing challenges. Use this as an opportunity to discover ideas for new ways to create value.

  • Build capabilities for the post COVID-19 world. Learning should not be simply something that is used to occupy downtime. The market is likely to change significantly once this crisis is over and you want to be in a position to steal share. Identify the capabilities you will need to thrive in this new world. This is a key driver of the purpose and objectives that you establish. Use this period to elevate the capabilities of your people and build the value of your talent pool.

  • Support community and COVID-19 efforts. Are there things that your company can do to help relief efforts? This may be an easy question if you can manufacture ventilators or fabricate masks, but think outside of the box. Are there payment deferrals you could offer your small business customers, free software you could provide people working from home or product discounting for healthcare workers? Could your sales team provide labor or donations for a food bank?

5. Don’t neglect yourself. Finally, as a business leader, don’t neglect yourself.  Your team now needs your leadership more than ever. Make sure you take the time to reflect on your own emotions and mental state. You owe it to yourself and your team to keep that ship stable. Self-awareness is also a critical component of empathy. Having an understanding of our own emotions makes us better able to understand what others are going through.

There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, and the best way you can guide your teams through this is with strong, calm leadership, a thoughtful plan of action and a clear sense of purpose as your North Star.


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Topics: sales reps, Financial Services, sales rep engagement, coronavirus, covid-19