Why you should stop selling right now

“When should I start selling again?”

“Should I take switch those ads off just now?”

“What should I say to my clients?”

Most small business owners all have a similar dilemma. We need to sell our thing, possibly more urgently than ever before. Still, it doesn’t feel right to be sending out “business as usual” marketing, when “business as usual” has been suspended.  Probably forever.

People who stop actively marketing now to concentrate on building relationships are much more likely to get new clients when this is all over.

You probably feel reluctant to send out your usual sales emails and ads at the moment, because you don’t want to look like a tone-deaf idiot. Unless you’re this law firm, who spammed me yesterday, trying to sell me a will-making service. Really?

The world has changed, but we still need to make a living.

Some guidance on the timing of your marketing messages:

If your clients are severely affected by the crisis right now

If you usually sell to the travel industry, events, bricks and mortar retail or restaurants, you know that your clients are currently in shock and worrying about the very survival of their companies. They’re in emergency mode for the next few weeks and will be busy trying to manage staff, cash flow or even worse predicaments.

The only thing they want to hear from you is a personal email asking how they’re coping. Maybe follow up with something cheery in a few days. Don’t worry if they don’t get back to you; they’ll probably see your message, smile and delete it.

One of my clients who works in live entertainment had the great idea of putting lots of classic funny posts out on her personal Facebook page and befriending people in her industry. No sales messages at all, just heart-warming kids cuddling kittens. Great move.

Your aim here is to build your trusted relationships with your clients, prospects and potential clients who have never heard of you before. All you can do at the moment is to build those relationships. If you do that successfully now, those people will come to you for help and are much more likely to buy from you in a few weeks or months, when they’ve moved on from the current emergency.

Just be lovely.

If your clients are still working, but differently

Remember that most of your clients might be busy setting up remote working, and are worrying about phone systems, working out how to use Zoom, or that they need an ergonomic chair in their kitchen. Even if they did the first stage of that last week, they’re still in shock and coming to terms with what’s happening, just like the rest of us.

And their time management will be messed up, either because they have children at home, or because they’re not used to the discipline of remote working. I’d leave a couple of weeks before you do anything that even suggests buying from you. Give them a chance to process what’s going on in the world and catch up.

Until then, you have an excellent opportunity to create resources which are useful for your clients. You’ve probably had millions of ideas for guides, blogs, showcases, stories and never had the time to pull them together and create that collateral. Now is your chance to put this into action.

By being the source of high-quality information, you become the trusted advisor for your potential client. Holding back on the sales messages now means that your potential clients will be much more likely to buy from you in the future.

Or you might use this downtime to start working on a new product, or a better system for what you do, especially if you’re adjusting to new ways of working yourself.

This isn’t a softy sausage option

Your gut instinct is probably pulling you in different directions. We’re all scared by the impact of the crisis. And we want to get into action. I’m not telling you not to do marketing. I’m suggesting that your marketing should focus on building your audience, creating trust, maybe with a tiny touch of how great your services/products are.

That’s a hard-nosed business decision. And it might involve some hard work, maybe learning some new skills like writing an onboarding guide or a video showcase. It takes guts to not jump into “sell sell sell” mode when your cash flow is hurting. But it will do you more good in the long run.

You might be seeing other people out there assertively selling. I suspect quite a bit of this comes from a place of fear or optimism bias. Optimism bias is where we think that bad things affect other people, but not us. We can carry on as usual. But their ads, free webinars and tone-deaf emails are unlikely to do them any good. Most companies are not going to be making buying decisions this week or next week. They’re too busy cancelling the contracts they started a month ago and coping with the world-changing.

Hold off, build your audience and then sell later.

What you can do right now

Take some time to reach out to existing clients and find out what’s happening for them. If you’re in the middle of doing work for them, reassure them that you’re still working and explain any changes in how you’re working. Don’t make excuses, we’re all under pressure here, but do let people know in advance if there are going to be delays or changes in how you work.

There have been a lot of generic emails coming out recently – you’ve probably had emails from companies which you’ve never even worked with telling you that they’re working remotely now. Take the chance to personalise this a little, show how you’re setting things up for the new way of working and reassure people. They do not want to hear that you are all set up to work remotely – that’s old news now.

If you are an e-commerce company

If your products are in high demand at the moment, the only marketing message you need is to reassure customers that you’re open and any changes to your service. I love this message from Real Seeds giving me confidence that I will get my favourite Cupidon Filet bean seeds. Eventually.

If you don’t have a massive queue of orders coming in, you can safely show off your products to boost demand. A little subtlety is useful here. It’s fine to showcase the items in your online craft supply shop items which are suitable for kids but leave parents to make up their minds about how this would help with homeschooling/entertaining children. Don’t splurge in with the assumption that everyone is in isolation and ready to take up a creative hobby, and push them to buy your guitar lessons.

Demonstrating empathy and that we’re all in this together is a good idea right now, just like Real Seeds are doing by talking about their postal workers. It might be challenging to drop the formal professionalism we’ve all trained to use at work, but demonstrating your human side a little bit will be preferable to showing your stiff upper lip.

But when am I going to be able to actively sell?

I get it. Unless you’re one of the companies who are in hot demand right now, I feel your fear and pain. I’m in the same situation, which is why I’m thinking about how this is all going to pan out in so much detail.

The exact timeline will very much depend on what happens with the spread and impact of the Coronavirus. I’ve written here about how this will affect the global economy and our businesses.

Research into other crises, recessions and global events show that individual humans and groups follow the Kubler-Ross change curve in our reaction. The good news is that the change curve does go upwards at the end.

Everyone will react in a slightly different timetable, and some of us will cycle back on the curve, for example, going through shock, denial, frustration all over again once we reach the zenith of the depression stage.

The world is currently in shock when I’m writing this at the end of March. And then we’ll move into denial, kidding ourselves that we can cope if we just stay at home. Writing this article might be me in denial, telling myself that by researching, thinking and writing for you, I somehow have some agency and control over what happens. By mid-April, as a society, we’ll be in depression. And then we might start to move forward into experimenting.

It’s at that point when your clients and potential clients are moving forward on the curve that you’ll be able to suggest a discussion about how you might be able to help them. If you work on new products, marketing collateral and your company’s systems right now, you could be in a stronger position then. Spend some time building a loyal tribe of people who respect and trust you, that way, when they get to the experiment and decision stages, they come to you first.

Here’s the Kubler Ross cycle again with some indications of when you might be able to start more actively selling again. Until then, just be lovely.

What to avoid doing right now.

Don’t just blunder on and pretend that everything is normal. It’s not, and you’ll annoy people if you act as if it is. That’s you being in denial about what’s happening.

And don’t do what I did the other day in conversation with a friend and point out that you’re ahead of the curve by having worked remotely for years. My pal is working from home for the first time and quite rightly said: “oooh, get you.” With heavy sarcasm.

Avoid making yourself out to be a big hero right now, here to help your clients. Everyone is a hero for getting through this, and our frontline healthcare workers are the superheroes, not you or me. Your potential customers will resonate more with you sharing some of your feelings and human frailty at this time.

Note on using this article –  I’m writing from the UK at the end of March 2020. This article is useful for planning your marketing for the next few weeks if you’re reading it after that, it’s obsolete, and you should remind me to take it down or update it.