Post COVID-19 Sales Pivot: Evolving Your Selling Strategy

Joanne Hewat

Sr. Director, Sales & Strategy at McGraw Hill

Learning Objectives

Has your sales organization fully embraced the opportunities that COVID-19 has presented? There is a fallacy that COVID-19 has impacted sales organizations in a negative way, but there are a lot of things that have changed for the better. Let's discuss how to effectively support your sellers to ensure they have the tools and tactics to reach buyers in this complex world. I'll share how I've helped my team make the leap from in-person selling to award-winning top virtual sellers who have the ability to create amazing customer value from both near and far.

Key Takeaways:

  • How to move from in-person to virtual selling

  • Sales enablement tools that will help your team engage with difficult to reach customers

  • Hosting your best sales kick off ever, and the difference it will make to your sellers

"Something's got to change, we have to approach this and attack this differently because we're not going to be able to get the door open if we continue down this road."

Joanne Hewat

Sr. Director, Sales & Strategy at McGraw Hill


Hi, my name is Joanne Hewat and I’m here to talk to you about my post COVID or I guess, I would call it during COVID sales pivot, and how I’ve evolved my selling strategy with my sales organization over the last 12 months, I can’t believe it’s actually been 12 months since this pandemic has hit us. It’s had a huge impact on sellers everywhere. Lucky for me, it’s been a positive impact, and I’ll tell you a little bit about why and how I’ve made that work with my team.

First, I’ll give you a little bit of insight into me and my world and my past and some of the things that I’m bringing to the table here today. One of those is that I’ve had 30 years of sales and sales leadership experience. For the most part, I’ve worked in educational technology or in the education field. Plenty of those years has been with my current company McGraw Hill. If you don’t know McGraw Hill, you may have used one of our textbooks at some point in your career or in your educational career. We publish textbooks, but we also have sort of evolved over the last 20 years into a digital company where we do online homework management.

I took a two year hiatus and I went out and did a little bit of work in the retail sector with a company called McCarthy School Uniforms. In there, I got the opportunity to spend a little bit of time doing some marketing as well as sales, managing frontline salesforce, but then also managing a group of 300 people working across about 25 retail stores in Canada. I currently manage a team of 50, starting from the top of the pipe with my frontline sellers all the way through into use of the product with my implementation team. They help work with customers in onboarding, and then I also managed the support team. They’re continually supporting our customers through the use of the product and working through on retention strategies.

My side gig is that I have been 3 years now with the Humane Society in Toronto, and it’s helping CO in particular, and I’m the VP of the Board of Directors there, so I get to do lots of fun stuff to help support the animals. Some of that is actually selling as well. I’m also a lifelong learner, and I’m currently enrolled in a digital marketing course at the University of Toronto. I have a passion for mentoring and I spend a good deal of time mentoring other women in my organization and in business in general. I also like to keep it in the family. My husband is a—I’m currently married to a Sales Trainer and Consultant, and so I get to hear a lot about what’s going on out there in the world of selling in amongst different industries, but across the country and actually across North America.

Let me start off by telling you a little bit about my COVID story. Right around now a year ago, and in fact, actually I believe it’ll be a year ago, maybe tomorrow was when the pandemic was starting to become a real issue in Toronto. It’s really when the stores started to close down. I think it was when the MLB as well as the NHL started to cancel. It was Thursday night and I was at the grocery store, and I had planned some training sessions for the following day. I had this plan from probably about a month previous, and the selling sessions were going to be focused on communication. We’re really sort of hot in the selling cycle right now. It’s closing season. We are trying to get commitments from our customers. We are moving business through the pipeline, pretty high velocity. We were going to spend some time focused on some communication skills and some closing skills with the team.

That Thursday night at the grocery store, I remember walking out and thinking I completely have to change what I’m going to deliver tomorrow. There’s no way we’re going to be selling in the same manner. I’m from field selling sales teams so my entire team was hired as a in-person seller, knocking on doors and speaking to customers directly face to face. Now, I was going to have to pivot them to help them understand how they were going to be effective from behind a screen. How are they going to reach people through a pane of glass? So I went home, I rushed home, I changed up those session titles, resent the invites, and they became “How to Sell in a Virtual Environment”.

For people who have inside group events, side sellers working for them, that may seem like a fairly simple task, but when you’ve hired people for a very specific skill set, and now you’re asking them to do something totally different, it is a bit of a leap. It was either going to make or break them. I knew I had to give them as much as possible in terms of skills, upskilling, as well as technology, to help them be effective and to stand out from their competitors. And so goes, how selling happened for us in COVID.

Let me talk about that, the evolving seller strategy that we had happening. First of all, our customers came to us and they needed help. Imagine this, you’re an instructor and you’re teaching a course, and you are so used to delivering that course in person, and now you’re being asked to deliver it online. I’m sure everybody can relate to this, all the schools from around the world went online. We knew we were going to have to help our customers move their courses, and this is our sweet spot. This is exactly where we wanted them to go because we had created this amazing online learning platform that we wanted to get them into. It was how do we help you get set up for success, and so we sold with empathy.

I heard a lot about this, actually, as I sat in on training sessions over the last several months last year as I was trying to upskill myself, I heard a lot of selling with empathy. We had to kind of move away from that, though. I mean, that lasted for a certain amount of time, and then it kind of got a little bit old. Not saying that empathy isn’t always a good thing to do but there were moments where I thought, “We have to continue to evolve past that,” and we’ll talk about that in my next slide. We also had to get creative, so it was how are we going to open the door in a way that—or how are we going to message people in a way that is going to help them want to speak to us, but also, where were we actually in find these people because we can’t knock on the door anymore. I’ll expand on that a little bit. We also needed to keep it fresh, and we needed to keep our people fresh and continue to help them understand what were some different ways to reach people and how were we going to attack that.

Let’s start off with the help. Customers were yelling at us for help. They were saying, “I need support.” This is where my implementation team really shone. Implementation, you would naturally think okay, these are people who are just strictly going to set people up and make sure the customers have a good user experience, they’re going to be there for when they need help. To some degree, my team that does that, but my team of implementation specialists are also sellers. We get people into the product, we get them using it, we help them feel comfortable, and they build that trust with the customers. My implementation specialists are actually continually building trust so they’re actually in a good position to be upselling. We had people getting into the product, we set them up in the platform, and then we spent some time helping them see the value. What value were they getting from it? What value was their direct customer, their student getting from it? Then, we help them see how could they use it continually through COVID, through this virtual environment, but then past COVID. How is it going to help them become even better at instructing in a potentially a hybrid model world where they’re in person part of the time and they’re online part of the time.

The next level to selling with empathy, where I felt like we needed to kind of move into the next step was really using that ladder of trust. We built this trust with customers in those first 4 to 6 months. I think the team had done such a fantastic job at that. We had to figure out how are we going to use those people to help us sell because again, we can’t be there in person all the time. We needed to gain to build this ladder of trust with customers who might speak on our behalf. We’ve really honed in on how do we take the good experiences and the amazing feedback. That’s the other thing I have to say, we had such fantastic feedback from our customers because of the way that we were able to help them build up their course, build up their credibility as an online instructor. Now, we wanted to utilize them to help tell the story of the great experience that they had with us. That was really helping us show how we can offer value.

The key to offering value for us, was walking hand in hand and setting up a hand in hand plan with our Marketing group. Marketing was essential to us in this particular time period because they were building up webinars and sessions for instructors to help them upskill. They were building sessions for peer to peer learning. They were helping people learn how to be better online instructors. We were offering value outside of the value we normally would give.

Then, we talked about being creative. For us, it became using visual aids to help open up the door. I’ll tell you how that came about was in the first 2 to 3 weeks, my reps were emailing like mad because you could not get anyone on the phone, simply because they weren’t in their offices. We, for the most part, don’t have customers home phone numbers so we had to rely on good old email. One of my reps came to me after the second week, and she said, “I sent her 200 emails last week, and I got no response.” I said, “Something’s got to change, we have to approach this and attack this differently because we’re not going to be able to get the door open if we continue down this road. It’s going to be like knocking on an empty office door.”

We went with a video tool. I had done the research the previous year with a company called Vidyard. We decided to sign on with Vidyard. I got all of my reps licenses, and it allowed them to open the door with—I say open the door with a smile here in my PowerPoint—it allowed them to open the door with a literal smile. We were using different tools, also to help make it a little bit more personalized. I don’t have one with me, but we were putting something on a screen that basically had the instructor’s name on it, potentially the course code number on a whiteboard, or a chalkboard or on a whiteboard in behind. It was basically a personalized message to that instructor so that when they opened up the email or if they had a preview, they could see the little thumbnail snapshot of something personalized to them.

Our open rate skyrocketed and we had amazing feedback from those instructors to say, “Hey, this was awesome.” It was so nice to put a voice and a face to your name versus just getting the email. We trained our reps on how to do this effectively. We spent time with Vidyard, and then we actually ran sessions—several sessions on how to be effective in those videos. What’s the optimum time that you use the video for? Don’t go over 30 seconds. How often should you send them? What’s the cadence? What’s the kind of content that people are opening? What do they want to hear? What do they want to see? How can you make it personal? How can you let your personality shine through on the video? It worked.

The other thing that we did was we started to ask for some sort of like reciprocal commitment when we were able to get in touch with instructors. We were saying, “Can you go in and take a look at some of the products, and give me some feedback.” One of my reps—I wanted to just put this in here because I thought it was really creative and interesting, and it actually works was—put a gift card in the platform in an assignment that he had set up for the instructor to go use. Once the instructor got through the assignment, they got to the embedded gift card, and they were able to grab that gift card and grab a coffee at the end of the demonstration. Little things like that were really important.

We started to do bi-weekly calls with our sales organization, but the entire sales organization where we got on the phone and we said what’s working. We talked through a zoom, and people showed examples of emails that were working, Vidyard videos that were working, creative ideas like the gift card in the platform. All of these things came together and they started doing some really, really solid peer-to-peer learning. That’s where I want to talk about keeping yourselves fresh because that was critical for us. The upskilling and the training that we did over the last 8 to 9 months has been critical to our success. We spent a lot of time actually in the last few months on social selling. Again, because your customers are not hanging out in the same places that they were, you’re not catching them in the cafeteria. We’re not catching them in the hallway, so we needed to do some research to find out where were they hanging out and we needed to get in there and start to be a part of those discussions. Whether it be various summits that were being held for teaching online, whether it be groups, certain chat groups, or on LinkedIn. We had to teach our sellers how to get a little bit more in-depth with their social selling skills, using LinkedIn to start a conversation, sharing content out that was valuable for customers, and making comments on that content that would make the customer want to have an interactive discussion or some sort of engagement with the rap. That’s been supercritical.

The last thing that we did was, we took a look at our national sales meeting. National sales meetings, in person engagement, we would do four or five day long sales meetings, we started to cut it down to three or four days previously. We bring ourselves together, we do product launch sessions, we do upskilling sessions, hands-on learning, those all kinds of interesting stuff that we were getting into these last couple of years. Then all of a sudden, we couldn’t do it anymore, so we had to get fresh with how we were going to deliver our virtual kickoff, which we did back in January.

Now, you would say, and I know a lot of companies that did this, they just basically took the same model and tried to sort of transpose that into an online environment. I didn’t see it working. I saw people getting burnt out after four days staring at a Zoom camera, and not just not taking in information, putting their video, putting a screen up over the video, and then going off and doing laundry, cooking dinner, taking care of their families. It just wasn’t going to work for us.

This time around, we did something completely different. We did it over a two-week period for one hour a day. Essentially, we had people build a session. What I did was, I gave those sessions out to the marketing team and to my sales organization, and I had reps who volunteered to run some of those sessions. We said, “You have an hour for this product, or you have an hour for this platform piece, you go and make it yours. Get creative. Do whatever you want, and then come in and be prepared to deliver that for one hour each day.” We set aside one till two o’clock every single day, and we had people come and deliver those sessions.

Wow, I gotta tell you—I can’t remember a meeting that we got such high ratings at the end of it. We excelled and we got the highest ratings in those sessions simply because one, we didn’t ask people to sit on a camera for an entire day long. Two, we kept it fresh by making every day different. People had no idea what they were walking into. They just knew they were going to walk out with some sort of product knowledge but they didn’t know what the actual session was going to look like, and they were highly engaged sessions. It was not sitting back and watching while someone threw a bunch of product information at you. You had to be engaged because of small room breakouts. There were opportunities for practice. We did some role-playing. There was a lot of chat happening. We use a lot of the tools within Zoom so that people were constantly engaged through the entire session. It went over really well, and you know what? They remembered what they learned in those sessions.

That’s my COVID transition and my COVID story around how I have been able to help my team excel and really just keep it fresh through the whole craziness that was this pandemic. Thanks so much for joining me today. Comment below if you have questions. I would love to chat with anybody who would like to share ideas or would love to get to know me a little bit better and learn more about the things that I’m doing with my team. Thanks so much for joining me today and happy selling.

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