Making Sales Less Challenging in a COVID-19 World

By Kristin McGuine posted 08-20-2020 10:18


This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of VantagePoint magazine, the quarterly publication of WSAE. Author Carrie McIntyre is the Customer Experience Officer at The Wyman Company (, where she helps associations solve their non-dues revenue problems. She can be reached at or (703) 679-7614.

Carrie is also a co-presenter at WSAE's upcoming virtual workshop, Tactics for Sponsor and Exhibitor Engagement (and Results!) in Challenging Times.

I once asked a room full of small-staff association EDs/CEOs how many of them had to sell as part of their jobs, and everyone raised their hand. When I then asked them to keep their hands up if they liked that part of their job, just two people kept their hands halfway raised (I’m not sure if they were embarrassed to admit they like sales or didn’t feel they should publicly confess their dislike).

I continued by asking the group specifically what they didn’t like about sales, and the answers included: cold calling, revenue expectations, rejection, being told “no,” and not feeling comfortable asking for money. All of those answers were completely understandable, since the most intimidating elements of sales revolve around a fear of failure and rejection.

If I had that conversation with the same group now, and asked how many would be comfortable with sales during a global health pandemic – when marketing budgets have been stalled and/or slashed – I doubt a single hand would raise.

Like so many other obstacles associations experience as a result of COVID-19, sales is more difficult than ever, though still an essential part of the non-dues revenue process. What was tough and uncomfortable in the past now requires even more planning, persistence and, ultimately, ROI.

Not only does your association’s value proposition have to be ironclad, but you have to be able to relay that value in a way that is more consultative than salesy. You have to be able to differentiate your association’s product/service from competitors and explain your why in a manner that gets people excited. And while sales may never be something that you’re comfortable doing, with careful thought and planning, you can do it! It isn’t sales when you believe in the value provided, and companies still need to find ways to remain relevant during this difficult time.

Let’s break the sales process down into a few key steps:

  • Understand your prospect and how the pandemic likely impacted their business (based on their industry).
  • Determine what is important to them right now if they cannot meet with your members in person.
  • Craft a solid story. What’s exciting/compelling about your offering and what makes you different?
  • Position your story well. Don’t overlook the power of marketing collateral and outreach.
  • Execute effectively. Be a pro with the actual sales conversation.

First, understand your prospect. What were they trying to accomplish prior to the pandemic, and where do you think they can pivot? Are they launching a new product? Entering a new market? What’s their competitive position? Are they looking for thought leadership opportunities to write, lead a webinar, or otherwise contribute educational content? Would they typically be most interested in live events for lead generation purposes? Make sure you can answer these questions before you pick up the phone, so you go into the call as an understanding consultant vs. a sales person reading from a script.

You’ll miss the mark with prospects if you don’t get to know them. Asking your prospects open-ended questions will enable you to: (a) learn about their business to identify where you can best help; (b) build rapport and trust so they see you’re trying to find the right fit; and (c) put yourself in their shoes as you think about your association’s offering so you’re more likely to suggest proper options. When you know what someone needs, and you know you have the tools to help them, it doesn’t feel like selling, it feels like helping.

Next, it’s time to craft a slam-dunk story. Most association advertising/sponsorship collateral focuses primarily on what’s available and at what price, often on a form loaded with checkboxes. When I asked those same EDs/CEOs mentioned earlier if anyone ever had a completed sponsorship form sent back without any discussion, no one raised their hand.

Before your sponsors and advertisers see a menu of options and pricing, they want to know:

  • Your why. Why do you advocate for members? What specific industry resources do you provide them in difficult (i.e. COVID-19) times? Why are members engaged and why should they be part of the action?
  • Who are your members and what is their buying power?
  • Why are you relevant to members? What do your members (their prospects) say about the association?
  • What makes you different from the competition? How much overlap would there be with current participation elsewhere, and is the additional spend worth it?

Now that you have the elements of your story, it is important that you tell that story well. What is your first impression on a prospect when they visit your website or receive a marketing email from you? How well do you, your staff and/or members tell the story when an advertiser or sponsor is talking to them?

Telling your story well on your website and in your marketing means:

  • Information is easy to find. Utilizing collateral that places importance on the why not the what.
  • It is easy to get in touch with someone who can answer questions/assist in the buying process (vs. completing a form).

Once you have those things in place, you need to make sure the conversations continue the story.

Pick up the phone. The best email marketing campaign will fall short on results compared to a combination of marketing and outbound calls. I know calls are often one of the least favorite parts of sales. It takes time to get through to people, it usually takes multiple calls to get someone engaged, and a lot of people will say, “no.” But there is a payoff, and you can make this process less painful.

Tips for making calls:

  • If you’re calling about sponsorships or larger-dollar spends, you shouldn’t try to get someone on the phone to pitch them; you should schedule a discovery call. You want them to set aside time to speak with you so you have their full attention and they can give you the time to learn about their business and objectives. Bonus: It’s easier to cold call for this discovery appointment than it is to cold call to give a pitch. Prepare several voicemail scripts that are short, focused on the prospect, and tease several aspects of your offerings. Keep track of which ones you use for each prospect so you aren’t leaving the exact same message every time. I like to think of it as having a conversation where I’m the only one talking and my voicemails build upon each other.
  • Mention a compelling statistic/demographic about your audience.
  • Mention something you saw on the company’s website that could be a hook.
  • Mention several companies currently seeing results from their engagement with you.
  • Drop a testimonial from a member or sponsor about the value they find in the association.
  • Don’t block off an entire afternoon or day for your calls if you aren’t going to be able to stick to it. It’s often easier to block off 30-minute increments across several days and protect that time for calls. If you get on a roll, then keep going, but push yourself to at least do the 30 minutes without interruption.
  • These days, video calls are much more prevalent, which makes it easier for you to make a great first impression and initial connection.
  • Engage your members! A happy client will always sell better than you. Ask your members to reach out to their suppliers and introduce you. If they aren’t willing to do that, ask them who their suppliers are and get their permission to use their name in your outreach (“John at ABC company suggested I call you”).

Schedule your follow-up calls. At the end of each call, review the action items and/or next steps and get the next call on the calendar with an invite. If someone has to reschedule, no problem, but if you don’t schedule the follow-up, it’s easy to fall into chase mode trying to get them to re-engage.

Remember, particularly in these times, that even the most seasoned sales professional will tell you selling is difficult and requires preparation and persistence. Many association professionals fell into this industry, and the last thing they probably thought they would be doing is sales.

But, if you can put aside any negative connotations or fears you have, create a focused pitch and remember you are creating non-dues revenue to support your association’s mission and members, you’ll find the process much more approachable, and maybe even a little fun. 

Hear more great tips from Carrie and her colleague Charles Popper when you attend WSAE's Virtual Workshop, Tactics for Sponsor and Exhibitor Engagement (and Results!) in Challenging Times, in September!