How to sell in a crisis: a step-by-step guide. The case of Airbnb.

What if your product was mired in a scandal like Airbnb is right now? What would you do? Would you roll with the punches or throw in the towel? Would you rise to the challenge or, like an errant seller, sink to resignation, blaming the product and employer? “Na niliwaambia tu.” (I told them but they didn’t listen). Hii kampuni kwisha mambo yake. (This company is doomed). It’ll be impossible to sell in 2024. Let’s just look for other jobs. But in this economy, we’ll be lucky to get any.” I hope not. I hope you will remain optimistic and rise to the challenge. If so, here’s a step-by-step guide, how to sell in a crisis.

Be in the know

To begin with, this crisis is live. It is not a ‘historical injustice’ or a sale you are trying to recover. Those pose a different challenge. With a historical injustice you can be excused for ignorance but not an ongoing outrage. Two murders, two women, two weeks. Social media is on fire. Within a day the toxic tweets were in the thousands, for instance. And you don’t know? That alone could push your selling efforts over the edge. You affirm the buyer’s belief that your product is as wanting as is being touted. “This product (or company) is a scam,” he will add to the tweets. “I just met one of their salespeople. Imagine the fellow didn’t even know about the scandal on the very product he is selling. Bure kabisa. (Useless).” If they don’t buy you, they won’t, your product.

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How to sell in a crisis: Acknowledge the facts

Next. Know the facts, but don’t defend them. Acknowledge them, instead. Defending them creates unnecessary friction that will likely lose you the sale. In the case of Airbnb, vehemently insisting that, “The problem was with the customers. The room and booking were OK. I’ve even checked the system. We were not to blame.” Or: “The owner of the room should have known who was booking it. It’s in the terms and conditions sheet that they signed.” Or, the worst: “But those were only two cases. We have over 5,000 rooms on Airbnb in Kenya alone. The two are insignificant.” .

Anything along those lines just demonstrates your callousness, deniability and abandonment to the cause. It also loses you the sale. Instead, acknowledge the crisis. “It’s really unfortunate what happened. We are truly sorry it did. Our CEO has even called the bereaved families to offer our condolences….”

By the way, even if the employer (company) has issued a formal and public apology, that is marketing. General. This is sales. Specific. So. Have something (assuring) to say to this buyer. And, no, waving a copy of the apology like a flag, as your defence, doesn’t cut it. Speak. Talk. You are a salesperson, not brochure (or apology letter) distributor. Remember, brochures don’t sell, salespeople do.

(Incidentally, employers in a crisis reading this, rally your sales team and agree how to handle such a situation, in a uniform manner.)

You may like to read: Get your salespeople off the path of least resistance

How to sell in a crisis

Demonstrate empathy

“What do you think about it?” you ask the buyer as you continue engaging. Or, you cautiously state: “I hope you were not personally affected.” This demonstration of empathy serves two purposes. One, it helps with rapport building, and two, addresses the possibility of the deceased (or affected party) being the buyer’s friend, colleague or relative. Imagine going about your pitch, and yet the trending complaint your product is involved in touches on the prospect you are with now – and you hadn’t addressed it. Ouch! Demonstrating empathy is a key component in how to sell in a crisis.

For example: The beers that were delivered to the pubs in your region that the mass food poisoning happened in, may have been manufactured by EABL, but they came from your distributorship. So, best go with: “I’m really sorry we delivered a bad batch. (Acknowledgment). How badly has the incident affected business? (Empathy).” Now, compare that to starting with, defensiveness: “The problem was EABL. We have even told them several times…”

Offer Solutions or clarity. What is Airbnb doing about it?

Moving on. After the air is clear enough and the buyer feels heard, then talk of what you are doing to resolve the problem. To say that, “The government has insisted that all Airbnbs be registered,” is lame.  Politicians will say anything populist to quiet the moment. And the buyer knows this. Poorly constructed bridges and unroadworthy vehicles continue to maim and kill innocent Kenyans. This, despite senior leaders pontificating on national television, at the scene of the accident, how this will stop forthwith as, “I have instructed (this and that and other).”

So. Offer your solution – a ‘recall the batch’ equivalent as happens with faulty cars or phones or J&J’s recall of baby powder. “We realized where the (chink in the armour was) and (how you’ve fixed it). And in fact, not just for the distributorships in this region, but countrywide.”

Or, if the allegations are false, this would be a good time to say so. “You know, the funny thing is that, that short term rental booking wasn’t even done on our Airbnb platform. (Or, “The beers weren’t even from our distributorship). We are just victims of our own brand’s success. It’s the way we call all ride hailing cabs Uber.” That bombshell should open up the discussion further and get the buyer’s head spinning in your favour.

How to sell in a crisis: It is not an objection

Now then. The gravity of the crisis is not something to be treated as an objection to be handled. No. “How can I trust your product with what is in the news,” is not an objection. Such a grave issue is best fleshed out in discussion. That is how to sell in a crisis and emerge as a salesperson that champions product integrity.

So. What if your product was involved in scandal like Airbnb is right now? What would you do? Would you roll with the punches or throw in the towel?


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