The COVID-19 crisis, associated lockdown and its economic effects have had a significant impact on the businesses we work with. A few weeks in to helping them navigate the rapidly changing situation and range of complex influence challenges that have surfaced, trends are emerging which reveal the most common problems.
From challenges with proposing a genuinely valuable and relevant service/product to a customer in the current climate, to engaging with stakeholders remotely, here's the top five common challenges we're hearing from our clients, with some practical advice for solving them.
1. “We need to continue our in-flight sales campaigns/negotiations/service delivery but we cannot engage face to face.”
This issue doesn’t relate just to interactions with a key stakeholder but also that supportive stakeholders have fewer opportunities within their workplace to influence their colleagues. It is often these informal interactions where people are influencing on your behalf which are the most powerful.
Mapping out where your influence lies in these situations and who can most impact the situation within the client is vital. This will almost certainly have changed during the crisis and you may not be speaking to the right people anymore.
We are finding that the current situation is allowing some of our clients to get conversations they couldn't before. With some, this is more senior stakeholders who are being brought into the conversation earlier, in others it is that supportive stakeholders are including a wider range of people into conference calls. For some clients, they are also being referred from their key stakeholder directly to the decision maker. This can help mitigate the loss of influence elsewhere.
2. “I need to align my extended team quickly to focus on a particular situation.”
One of the key difficulties here, is that with a rapidly changing situation, different people within the team will be working on different assumptions. Furthermore, it's unlikely to be clear exactly what is fact and what is assumption. This can be the case in normal situations but regular face-to-face contact with team members usually leads to false assumptions being corrected more easily.
Holding a central list of factors that are affecting your situation, why you think they are significant and why they are relevant to your challenge allows people to check that they are working from the same understanding. If they aren’t, exploring why people are working from different assumptions can uncover useful information that people didn’t know they had, or help to correct misunderstandings.
Doing this will highlight gaps in your knowledge that you might not have been fully aware of, particularly as the changing situation will have thrown up significant new 'unknown unknowns'.
For some of our clients, the extended team includes partner organisations or sales channels and here the same advice applies.
This short video explains more about how to do this effectively.
3. “Help me to help my customer to decide whether the product/service we provide should be paused appropriately given the situation or should continue?”
There may be situations where your objectives clash with your customers, but often misaligned views on the situation are caused by a lack of information and a difference in understanding. When discussing these decisions with a customer, we recommend starting with a “tell, explain or describe” elicitation statement.
Using a narrative question such as “Tell me what stopping the programme would mean to you?” commands a narrative response which will generate more information than just starting with a 'who', 'what' or 'when' question. When we give a narrative response we also tend to focus on what is most immediate to us, so taking this approach will show what the customer is most concerned with. Try to keep the other person talking for as long as possible using active listening techniques such as minimal encouragers. These are the “Uh-huhs” or “Mmmms” that signify that we’ve heard what the other person has said and it’s their turn to continue talking.
At the end of this there are likely to be areas that are still unclear about why the customer views the situation in that way. Here you should follow up with specific 'who', 'what', 'where', 'why' questions to get to the bottom of these issues.
What you are really doing here is helping the client rationalise their own position by verbalising. When this is done in an entirely non-confrontational way it can be a really useful exercise for both parties as it will often firm up misunderstandings on both sides.
Time permitting, it’s also worth getting the client to approach the situation from the other position. I.e If you have started with “Tell me what it would mean to continue with ...” then follow it up with “Tell me what it would mean to stop…” This isn’t meant to catch the other person out and this should be explained, but it is intended to unearth additional information which may be relevant for both parties.
If the decision is key to both parties and time permits, it is worth allowing time for reflection after the conversation and if appropriate you should provide a summary of how you heard the conversation from the client. This also allows you the opportunity to fill in any remaining gaps in your knowledge.
4. “I need to keep close to my client/supplier/partner so that I can respond to their changing needs. How do I do this when there are so many competing demands on their time and I may not be answering an immediate issue of theirs?”
The immediate issue isn't the only thing that people are thinking about now. Being in the best place to emerge from the other side is going to be the key difference between success and failure. Framing messages around this rather than the lack of an immediate relevance is the best way to keep relevant.
Not all of our clients are finding it difficult to stay in touch with their key contacts. Some people are finding that lockdown has freed up time while for others they are flat-out. It is worth checking in with clients at this stage to find out what their communication preferences are at present as these may have changed since the initial crisis response. Some of our clients are finding that people are wanting to shift to alternate ways of keeping in touch such as WhatsApp groups. Directly asking clients may open opportunities to continue to engage with them beyond the end of the crisis.
If you are not already, consider what forms of social media your key contacts are on and whether it is appropriate to follow or connect with them on these. LinkedIn and Twitter present opportunities to remain in touch beyond just making a connection request or following someone.
5. "Help me propose a genuinely relevant and helpful idea/solution in a way that is congruent with the current climate.”
It can be difficult to position a new service at this time in a way that does not appear opportunistic. Understanding the other person's frame or perspective on the situation, will help you deliver your message in a way that resonates with them and is perceived as relevant, rather than opportunistic. What are the key drivers, both professional and personal that will make this most relevant to them?
We use a framework of desires and fears to help understand an individual's motivations. The current situation is creating many new threats that stimulate a fear response. If your idea/solution can help remove some of these fears, either at the individual or organisational level, then it will be completely congruent with the current climate.
These new challenges are likely to continue to change as the crisis continues, people find solutions to some problems and others arise. If you have any specific influence challenges affecting you we would love to hear about them.