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How curiosity can help release your ‘secret army’ of employees to build sales and customer retention post coronavirus

As we emerge into the 'new normal' with more agile, leaner structures, it will be a challege to open up and develop new customers, especially when working remotely and virtually. Author Isobel Rimmer offers tips on how HR and learning and development professionals can unleash their secret army of employees – and it all starts with being curious

How curiosity can help release your ‘secret army’ of employees to build sales and customer retention post coronavirus

COVID-19 has changed everything. We are living differently, we are working differently, we are connecting differently, but one thing remains constant: the need to serve customers. New customers, contract retention and revenue streams are the lifeblood of every business at whatever point in the business cycle – in start-up, going through an acquisition or merger or as an established global provider. Whether it was Henry Ford who said it or not, the principle still holds true: “Nothing happens until someone sells something.”

The challenge for HR and learning and development leaders as we emerge from COVID-19 working more remotely, potentially with fewer people and with more agile, leaner structures, is to ensure that everyone with customer contact – whatever their job title – direct or indirect – understands the pivotal role they play in serving customers.

And it starts with being curious and developing a growth mindset.

Our challenge today is to enable everyone in our organisation to be even more curious about customers – curious about why they do things, don’t do things, ask for things, buy from us, work with us or not. It’s not just the job of ‘sales’ – it’s everyone’s responsibility. Curiosity is the happy virus that can help us come out stronger

In a fascinating article by Elizabeth Smith published as we went into lockdown, she makes the point that curiosity is both a behaviour and an emotion. And that when we are curious we have a strong and genuine intention in our endeavours or cause. Our challenge today is to enable everyone in our organisation to be even more curious about customers – curious about why they do things, don’t do things, ask for things, buy from us, work with us or not. It’s not just the job of ‘sales’ – it’s everyone’s responsibility. Curiosity is the happy virus that can help us come out stronger.

I call these ‘non-sellers’ your ‘secret army’ – they may not have the word ‘sales’ in their job title but are in daily, direct and indirect contact with customers and clients. They’re responding to queries, resolving technical issues, chasing payments, carrying out checks, delivering goods, supporting your sellers, handling customer service enquiries. What they share – whatever their title or competencies or behaviours in their job description or role profile – is that they are connected, in some way, to customers.

Some organisations have taken the step and tried to teach these people how to sell. But that’s counter-productive – most of them would rather have their fingernails surgically removed than be seen as ‘sellers’. And too often traditional sales training is seen as manipulative, pushy or aggressive. Our aim must be to help them be more curious to understand their customers even more and show them that if we reframe ‘selling’ and look at it from a different perspective, it’s about helping customers solve a problem. By helping them solve a problem, these customers can choose to work with us, buy from us and even better, recommend us and refer us to others.

In a post-COVID world, recommendations and referrals will be even more important, as it will continue to be challenging to open up and develop new customers, particularly when working remotely and virtually. And it’s more expensive – five to eight times more depending on which research you read – to win a new customer than to generate additional business from an existing one.

To come out stronger in the context of COVID-19, I believe there are three aspects to consider: mindset, toolset and skillset.

To unleash the potential of every member of your ‘secret army’ we have to first help them to be more curious about their customers – to open their minds and to want to discover more about them. Elizabeth Smith calls it ‘curiosity – the superpower we might have overlooked’. With an open and enquiring mind we can create a growth mindset.

But people need a toolset too. Tools and techniques that make it easier to connect with customers and understand them. Not tricks or underhand methods. Think of it as a recipe book – can’t cook or won’t cook? Open the mind to wanting to cook and then provide simple recipes that people can use, practise and make their own. Giving your ‘secret army’ tools and techniques that help them to be curious about customers in a more structured way makes it easier to connect with people, to open up conversations and discussions and to share, naturally, our products and services in ways that will lead to stronger relationships and opportunities for growth.

And these tools can be shared through webinars, via Zoom or in Teams. We are working differently, and we are learning differently. Although simple in concept every tool in the toolset is powerful in application. Show people how to use them in the context of their role and watch them grow in both skill and in confidence.

With a simple toolset we help everyone in the ‘secret army’ to connect, discover, share and collaborate. These four phases are how we naturally build relationships with others. We connect, discover things about one another, share experiences, knowledge and ideas and then collaborate on future activities together. So not only do they apply to interactions with customers and prospects, they help build stronger internal collaboration, too.

With a more curious mindset and with an easily accessible toolkit, HR and learning and development leaders can enable people to practise with their teams, give feedback and embed the skills. A skill is a technique you can use under pressure, but first we have to get used to working with the tools. As with recipes in a cookbook, we can only achieve an amazing showstopper cake if we’ve practised it several times before.

Members of the ‘secret army’ need support, encouragement and feedback to use the tools and apply the tools every day. Managers and team leaders must model the way and lead by example, showing their people that we are all responsible for customers and ultimately for revenue, whatever our role.

If we unleash the full potential of every member of the ‘secret army’ we can come out stronger. Encourage a curious mindset, provide tools and support them in the application. It can be done.

Isobel Rimmer, pictured below, is founder of training and development consultancy Masterclass Training and author of new book Natural Business Development: Unleash your people’s potential to spot opportunities, develop new business and grow revenue

Isobel Rimmer, founder of training and development consultancy Masterclass Training and author of new book Natural Business Development: Unleash your people’s potential to spot opportunities, develop new business and grow revenue

Published 24 June 2020

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