In terms of the economy, COVID-19 has had a catastrophic effect on the sales industry.
The true emotional cost on those responsible for making those sales, however, is harder to quantify.
Ironically, says Hazel Stewart, managing director of Australian corporate sales training company Innovate Learn, the same character traits that contribute to being good at sales also means that this sector of the workforce is far more likely to struggle with the impact of isolation and social distancing on their mental health.
With clients including local and multinational manufacturers, Innovate Learn is no stranger to automation. They have delivered sales and service development to a variety of companies in the sector.
“Isolation is counterintuitive to the conditions in which salespeople thrive,” Stewart says.
“In general, they are inherently social beings and thrive on face-to-face interpersonal interactions with customers and colleagues and the energy and excitement that these interactions generate.”
For many salespeople, the isolation of working solo can have a negative effect on their emotional state.
“Some feel a real sense of loneliness and fear; fear of failure, of mistakes, of rejection,” she says.
“They are also constantly worried about the health and wellbeing of their families, especially their young children.”
Dr Norman Swan, of ABC’s Coronacast and The Health Report, says lockdown and isolation have mostly affected the more social among us.
“Good salespeople are exquisitely socially and emotionally attuned, and requiring them to work in isolation is like locking up an athlete,” he says.
Dr Swan also attributes a good diet which includes probiotic foods, physical exercise and learning mindfulness techniques as some of the ways to reduce stress and “keep things together”.
In an effort to practice social distancing and lessen the impact of the virus, businesses across the globe have mandated that their employees work from home. This trend looks set to continue in many sectors for some time.
Certain industries have adjusted to this “new normal” more easily than others. A recent study by Boston Consulting Group found the major reasons people miss the office is the informal contact with colleagues, opportunities to collaborate and brainstorm, in-person meetings and a distraction-free environment: all factors that are highly relevant to salespeople.
In the case of those who used to do all their selling in person, it’s proven challenging to adjust to using either a virtual platform or phone-based selling methods.
Stewart says that some of the people she’s spoken to have mentioned struggling with virtual selling because they miss the cues and signals present when engaging face-to-face.
“This can result in misconceptions and makes sales harder to achieve, as well as depriving salespeople of the opportunity to use their finely-honed interpersonal skills as a selling tool,” she says.
In addition to this challenge, Stewart has seen evidence that working from home rather than in-office has led to salespeople struggling with a reduction in motivation as they find themselves easily distracted without a team to keep them accountable.
Combined, these factors have the knock-on effect of a failure to reach sales targets and contribute to the company’s revenue goals.
How can managers prioritise the mental health of their sales team?
The managers of these salespeople have been just as impacted by the changed working conditions of COVID-19, if not more so.
Stewart says she’s found that the companies doing well under these circumstances are those where the managers have stepped up and adapted – and have their antennae up looking for different behaviours in individuals that might indicate a problem.
These signs may include redirection of priorities, loss of engagement, overt excuses, easily distracted, missing or cancelling appointments, reluctance to pick up the phone and blaming the customer.
Some are finding they have to work harder and have increased contact with their sales teams to ensure they stay focussed and productive, holding daily check-in calls with their team first thing every morning.
This helps to keep the team unified and on-track, and gives the manager the opportunity to gauge if any team members need additional support.
They can then schedule one-on-one calls with these people.
Another option Stewart recommends is engaging an external coach as employees could be more open to expressing emotions and feelings to a “neutral” person rather than someone in a position of authority.
A radical solution that some managers have adopted to maintain a sense of structure is mandating that webcams be kept on at all times to try and replicate the sense of teamwork and creativity that happens in an office environment.
“However,” Stewart cautions, “this only works when it’s positioned in a way that connects with the salesperson’s motives – and is not seen as a lack of trust.”
What can you do if you recognise these signs in yourself?
The following steps are recommended by Stewart to help salespeople prioritise their mental health while working under COVID-19.
Don’t feel self-conscious, embarrassed, or that it’s only happening to you.
Ask for help. Reach out to a colleague or your manager and have a chat.
Try and figure out what you need to reduce your feelings of isolation and increase motivation, then communicate these to your manager.
Don’t be afraid that you will be “marked down”. Be up-front with your manager and ask for additional support.
Structure your day. Prepare your tasks for each day at the end of the previous day.
Use the time previously spent commuting to exercise; if you can, start your day with a walk or run (or schedule it for later in the day).
Get started early so by mid-morning/lunchtime you have ticked off several tasks.
Take a lunch break and do something you enjoy – go for a walk, do a gym workout or read a book.
Break down large goals into smaller, achievable goals so you don’t get bogged down.
In areas where coffee shops have reopened, Stewart’s final recommendation is to look for others in your neighbourhood who are home-based (or put up a sign in your local coffee shop) and start a regular “local business coffee hub”.
“It might only be two or three locals that get together once a week for a coffee,” she says.
“But this breaks up your work week while giving you some much needed face-to-face interaction outside of the house.”