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19 sales leaders share what they want to see in your first email

19 sales leaders share what they want to see in your first email

How do you approach a cold email in a time of crisis?

It’s no secret that the current crisis has changed the landscape of the business world. The business situation of your prospects has most likely changed in some way, as well as their emotional state and the way they react to cold emails.

As the world starts to emerge from its COVID-induced hibernation, how can you adjust your pitch to your prospects’ new priorities? What steps can you take to make sure your emails are still relevant and effective in this changing environment?

We asked 19 B2B sales leaders this question: What do you want to see in a sales rep’s first email?

They gave us insight into the 4 elements your first cold email must include, as well as ideas on how to respond to common objections during the crisis.

Want more advice on building strong crisis communication? Download our free resource, Good (Crisis) Email Templates, to see examples of what’s working and ideas on how to build your own crisis emails.

These are the 4 things sales leaders want to see in your first email

There are certain principles that sales reps should always follow when cold emailing. However, in a time of change, it’s especially important to make sure your cold emails hit these 4 key points:

  1. Awareness
  2. Personalization
  3. Value
  4. Clarity

It’s time to discover what sales leaders say about using these 4 elements in your cold emails:

1. Awareness

Awareness is different from empathy. We’re all ‘aware’ to a degree of what’s happening in the world due to COVID-19. But instead of drawing from real, in-depth awareness, many sales reps are using false empathy and well wishes in their cold emails. Without real awareness, these ‘empathetic’ emails are using all the cringe-worthy phrases you should avoid during a crisis.

So, how can you use real awareness in your cold emails?

Aligning more towards the emotional brain versus the logical brain is definitely an area we are emphasizing during this time. Considering what the contact is potentially going through and what our solutions may be able to improve, relieve, or eliminate during this time must appeal towards their emotions or it won’t stand out amongst the rest.

- Sean Whitley, VP of Americas Sales at Mitto

We all know what the world is going through, and our emails should depict that well. Outreach emails should be a gentle reminder to the prospect that “we are sailing in the same boat”, and “would like to help you if you need the product or service.” Any aggressive selling approach in outreach emails is a big no at the time. Pushing people to buy a product in these difficult times is the worst thing to do.

- Kavish Gakhar, VP Sales-Solution & Consulting of FieldCircleTechnologies

After aligning your awareness of their emotional state, it’s also important to look at what’s happening specifically to businesses you’re reaching out to.

The importance of showing awareness for what your recipient is going through at this time is crucial. For us, we know coffee shop owners are struggling to keep their doors open and employees paid, so our main priority in outreach emails is to show compassion and offer them a solution to these problems.

- Jessie Kolbenschlag, Vice President of Sales at Cloosiv

By identifying the real impact of COVID-19 on your prospects, you’ll be able to send an email that acknowledges the current situation without using false empathy.

Too many reps are overly concerned about how they’re perceived by their prospects. If you’re agonizing over every email, remember: honest communication is the best way forward.

When you build real awareness of their current situation and approach the email with honesty, you’ll already stand out from the 50 generic ‘hope you’re well’ emails that are currently in their inbox.

Of course, building real awareness requires research. You need to understand the current situation of the industry, the market, and the prospect themselves.

Here’s what kind of research sales leaders expect a rep’s email to include:

You should be aware of how COVID is impacting my team, my company, and my persona. The best way to do that is to talk to people lower on my team, and also talk to customers so you know what is likely happening to your other personas.

Find out how COVID is affecting my goals, then tailor your messaging accordingly.

- Kevin Dorsey, VP of Inside Sales at PatientPop

First impressions are important, and the line between "helpful" and "tone deaf" is very easy to cross in this climate. When we're asking for our prospect's valuable time, my bare minimum expectation is that we have done our homework on their role, product, and company, and the email reflects that research. We also strive to keep messages concise (it's easy to write a novel) and focus on using 'you' vs. 'I' focused messaging when we're reaching out.

- Mark Costigan, Regional Director at Amplitude

We all know that research is the best way to qualify a new lead, but in-depth research is even more important during a crisis.

The fact is, your prospects’ situation has shifted over the past few months. If you have been gathering leads during this time, are you fully aware of their current situation as of today (not last month or week)?

Qualification generally involves discovering information in these four areas:

  • Customer profile
  • Needs
  • Decision-making process
  • Competition

Any of these four areas could have changed during the crisis. So, how can awareness help you target your cold emails better?

We thought about who we are targeting more. Knowing a lot of companies are struggling and have uncertain futures, we are focusing more on reaching out to companies that aren't as affected, or are seeing an increase in business (such as online services and apps).

- Lacey Budd, Director at Customer.io

Contrary to most of the industry and our competitors, we don't use COVID as a rationale for selling our solution. We are completely aware that the current situation has a huge impact on many factors of our and our prospects’ businesses, but we believe that riding the wave is counterproductive. Especially considering the fact that other solutions are much more urgent and we don't want to steal away attention.

- Samuel Siegfried, Partnership Lead at Frontify

A good salesperson isn’t just focused on closing the deal: You want to actually help your prospects succeed.

So, awareness will also help you realize when a prospect is no longer a good fit for your business.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should just cross those prospects off your list. By learning how to treat these prospects well, even when they’re hurting, you can take advantage of this time to develop better relationships for the long-term.

2. Personalization

Once you’re aware of your prospect’s current situation, you can personalize your emails even better.

These sales leaders help us understand why personalization is so important right now, and how you can personalize your first email in a way that stands out from the crowd:

Here at PandaDoc, we’re really emphasizing two big things in our outreach emails: relevance and personalization. We want our reps to tell the story of how our solution will help in this time of need and making sure they incorporate a personal piece of info about the individual or company they are reaching out to. We want our reps to show the prospect that we understand the impact of the pandemic without being too gloomy or insincere and also provide concrete data on how PandaDoc has helped others address or solve the problem they are currently facing.

The bottom line: We’re in a long-game now and can’t push too hard for a meeting. We have to put people over profit.

- Pavel Hayes, Head of Commercial Sales at Pandadoc

My priorities shifted overnight when COVID happened. Just like everyone's did. So, find out what those new 2-3 priorities are and tailor back your value proposition to help me understand where your solution fits in.

For example, for a high-growth company just a quarter ago, sales leaders were focused on hiring the best talent possible. Today, they may be more interested in real-time remote training and coaching or more specifically how to foster an environment of peer-to-peer learning and remote collaboration.

- Jeff Poczatek, Director of Midmarket Sales at Showpad

As these comments show, it’s essential to go above and beyond traditional personalization tricks, such as adding a lead’s name or company. This kind of automated personalization isn’t enough to cut through the noise, especially now.

So, what specific methods can you use to personalize your sales emails?

First, use the research you collected to show that you understand their current situation. (Check out these B2B email templates for ideas on how to use personalization.)

Another method sales leaders agree on: Using video.

Personalization and empathy have never mattered more. It's more important than ever to empathize with your prospects and the only way to do this well is through personalizing your outreach. Custom, in-email videos are a great way to do this.

- Bill Mooney Director of Sales & Customer Success at ClickTime

I suggest using video so I know it's custom and I can actually hear your tone. People reading an email right now can read it in the wrong tonality. Video at least shows you're a human, so I can hear the empathy or concern in your voice. We are doing more video right now to make sure the tone of our message comes across as genuine, not sales.

- Kevin Dorsey, VP of Inside Sales at PatientPop

Curious how other sales experts are personalizing their emails during the crisis? Download our free resource: Good (Crisis) Email Templates and take cues from what other sales and marketing teams are doing to level up their crisis communication.


Of course, awareness and personalization lead to another key element of your first cold email: Value.

3. Value

When you build your emails from the standpoint of awareness and personalization, the next logical step is to make that email uber-valuable to the prospect.

Sales leaders explain how value can be provided without focusing on sales:

Build something that is helpful, content that helps the buyer with no ask.  It should be about relationship building.

- Tucker Hood, VP of Enterprise Sales at Capturely

First and foremost, we’re a resource that CPG companies can rely on to get through the crisis. Our sales team is closely working with the prospects to guide them in the right direction, whether it’s to our software or another information resource. We have put free, practical resources for our customers and prospects to stay on top of Walmart’s compliance and replenishment updates as it relates to their businesses during this pandemic.

- Kanat Bektemirov, Director of Strategic Initiatives at SupplyPike

But creating value in your cold emails should go far beyond resources and information.

If you want to succeed during this crisis, you need to keep closing deals.

So, how do you combine value with your sales pitch? It’s time to draw on the above steps to create value that is based on awareness of the current situation and personalized to the prospect’s current needs.

Here’s what sales leaders have to say:

It's absolutely critical to double-down on providing value.

I've found that to be successful (pandemic or otherwise), you need to do deep research into their business to find a problem that your solution solves. As companies pause spending and growth slows, many will be reviewing their internal processes and adding efficiencies in areas they've ignored while business was booming. Look at their website, read their blog, listen to their earnings report, and find any trace of a potential inefficiency that your product solves.

To take it one step further, include a personalized 2-minute Loom video that identifies their potential inefficiency and tells a story through your product on how you've solved this for countless companies just like them. At the end of the day, it's about helping them, not you.

- Kevin Ellison, Sales Team Lead at MadKudu

Rather than highlighting product benefits, the value propositions need to highlight meaningful consumer and user benefits. Overall, the tone needs to be sensitive to the current situation we are mutually experiencing and align towards offering utility rather than hard-selling solutions.

- Sean Whitley, VP of Americas Sales at Mitto

In many cases, offering real value with your solution means adjusting your value proposition. Here’s how other sales leaders have adapted their value proposition to fit their prospects’ immediate needs:

When we started the year, the focus of our outreach was tailoring to growth goals that involved taking new risks and making associated investments to support them. Overnight, there's been a shift to focusing on cost savings, customer retention, and LTV. The nature of our solution lends itself very well to retention-focused outcomes, so rather than completely reinvent the wheel of what we are saying to our prospects, we've chosen to double down only on what's relevant and helpful.

-Mark Costigan, Regional Director at Amplitude

We understand on the other end of our outreach are individuals and companies facing challenges and uncertainties. In the sincerest of terms we wish to convey a respect for what people are going through while genuinely seeking if we can be of service. We explain the value Ceros brings to a particular company, while outlining tangible impact(s) partnering with us can provide a client in the short term while all this uncertainty exists, but also in the future when business hopefully starts to pick up again

- Andrew Holman, Manager of Sales Development at Ceros

By presenting the real value of your product in relation to the current situation, you’ll have a much better chance of earning your prospects’ attention.

4. Clarity

How full is your inbox right now?

Well, your prospects are facing the same problem.

In a time when panic and misinformation are running rampant, it’s even more essential that your message remains clear. Otherwise, your cold email will just get lost in the noise.

How can you add clarity to your first email?

Cut through the noise. For the first time in internet history we all have the same inbox, 90% of your emails start with the words COVID, virus, or quarantine. Keep the virus and quarantine out of the email till the end, and at the end "Thank you and stay safe" is sufficient.

Buyers don't perk up because bsmith@startup has a new take on pandemics or good advice for "these uncertain times". They are in their inbox checking emails to get work done. Help them do that, serve your customer. Stick to the value that you will bring your prospect. You want a customer who is looking for better outcomes and success, not the newest COVID update.

- Matthew Dunlap, Sales Operations at Process Street

At this juncture I think everyone is quite aware we are experiencing some pretty unusual times for the economy and society in general. I think the outreach needs to avoid spending too much time, if any at all, having a long preamble talking about "unprecedented times" or anything like that.

I will be more likely to respond if the outreach has a short compelling message showing they did some research about my business or role, social proof of how their service or technology helped companies similar to our company, and ideally some key stats about the potential business impact (cost savings, revenue gain, etc.). These are outreach fundamentals, but they are that much more important today and many outreach emails are still missing the mark.

- Chris Samila, VP of Partnerships at Fullstory

While your first COVID cold emails may have started with some scary statistics or talking about the ‘current situation’, it’s clear that this message no longer resonates with your prospects.

True: COVID news is still one of the most popular topics of today.

But, don’t let that overwhelm the message you want to present.

If you use clickbait subject lines that only draw people in for ideas and news about COVID, you won’t be drawing in the right prospects for your business.

While awareness is key, focusing on the COVID crisis won’t motivate your prospects to respond.

This is where clarity comes in.

Don’t muddle your message with false empathy and virus facts. Be clear about your intentions.

Here’s what other sales leaders advise to keep your message clear:

Now, more than ever, a first outreach email shouldn’t look like it came from a traditional spam cannon. These first email touches should provide customized answers to “why me?”, “why this?”, and “why now?”

- Ben Budde, VP of Sales at Groove

A good first touch during COVID really doesn't look any different than a good first touch at any other time. It should be well researched (show that you've spent at least a minute or two learning about me and my company), and relevant. You don't need to go into a lot of detail. The message should be short and sweet, but you've got to pique my interest and connect the dots between your solution, how it's going to benefit me, and why it might be worth spending time on a call together.

- Scott Ingram, Founder of Sales Success Media

Ignore the fluff and quickly deliver your value add. I suggest you open with a quick line and then provide something of immediate value to address your prospects' most urgent pain points now. Continue your outreach efforts to stay top of mind so that when things pick up again, those are the prospects who are most likely to get back to you.

- Mike Fossi, VP of sales at Arc.dev

Remember: the normal rules of sales emails still apply. Don’t leave behind the skills you’ve honed over the years in favor of a panic-based messaging that will ultimately alienate the right prospects.

By creating concise, straightforward emails, you’ll cut through the clutter in your prospects’ inboxes.

Good crisis communication is based on awareness, personalization, value, and clarity. If you’re going to send cold emails during this time, you need to make sure they cover these 4 essential elements.

Of course, even the best cold email could face some difficult objections. How can you respond successfully?

How sales leaders are coaching their teams to respond to a common objection

In the last two or three months, how often have you heard this phrase:

“This sounds great, but the timing just isn’t right.”

Wondering how sales leaders are helping their teams deal with this common objection? Let’s see what advice they have:

Our reps have been advised to approach each prospect’s needs and timeline independently of each other. At the end of the day, we look to see if a prospect is open to a simple exploratory call at this time, with no expectation of any sort of formal engagement or commercial conversation.

This way, we are able to run ideas by our prospects, share what sort of success we’re seeing within their particular industry, and attempt to start a line of correspondence so when the market picks back up and business begins to normalize, our prospects know we exist and that we can be a valued partner.

- Andrew Holman, Manager of Sales Development at Ceros

It’s important to remember that no sale now doesn’t necessarily mean the deal is off the table forever. By providing value for the future of your prospect’s business, you put yourself in a better position to make a sale, even if that deal is closed down the road.

That said, while you set yourself up for a possible sale in the future, it’s important to make sure the prospect understands the value your product can give them right now.

Most companies are looking for ways to cut costs. The first thing they’ll probably do is stop all new purchases, especially when it comes to tech.

If your prospects are telling you that now is the right time for them to think about purchasing new products, they may be right. But they may be wrong.

How can you respond to this objection in a way that sheds light on the real value of your product right now?

We are also using our own sourced data points to communicate to prospects (in our space, a business looking to reach end-users/consumers) that consumers still want to hear from them and have continued to show a strong appetite for receiving information about their products and services. For example, a survey we commissioned reported that 77% of consumers felt the communications they received from brands during the crisis made them feel like brands care about their well-being.

In sharing this statistic with prospects, our team members can serve in a consultative capacity, helping to guide strategy that drives brand loyalty - ultimately leveraging our solutions to do so.

- Sean Whitley, VP of Americas Sales at Mitto

When you accurately convey the value of your product, as discussed above, you can turn a bad time into the best time for your prospects to purchase.

When prospects say timing isn’t right because of COVID-19, I’ve directed my team to make sure they understand why things have changed for them and whether what Groove offers is still a good match for what they are looking to accomplish. From a sales perspective, if there is a great match, my team should be thinking “hot lead here,” and then let's hit the gas because time kills all deals.

- Ben Budde, VP of Sales at Groove

Of course, when a customer tells you that now isn’t a good time, you need to discern whether this is really the case or whether they’re just not interested in your product.

In many cases "this is a bad time" really means "no thank you", just like "send me an email" or "I'll call you back".  We do want to see the prospect succeed, so we'll give them an opportunity to consider our solution one more time.

We like to end the email with a multiple-choice question.  One option is asking if they want to hand the project off to another team member or if they'd prefer we sync back up a few weeks out.  Any answer here is information that you need for the deal: Either we learn who else could be in the buying process and what their timeline actually looks like, or we get a "no, I'll get back to you" or radio silence. Either you’re setting yourself up for future success with the client, or you get to closed/lost and move on, keeping better transparency in your pipeline.

Here’s an example:

Hi Pam,

Thank you for the prompt clarification, I'll note the account for you now.

A client I was working with earlier became unexpectedly busy and needed to connect me with a colleague to keep the project moving.

Do you need me to work with someone on your team to avoid delays or would you prefer you and I connect in the first week of June?

- Matthew Dunlap, Sales Operations at Process Street

By using these tips, you’ll be able to respond successfully to the common objection of timing. Then, you’ll be better prepared to close deals in the future when the timing is better, or perhaps even convince your prospects that now is the right time to purchase.

You can still deliver fantastic cold emails during this crisis

While we all continue to adjust to the said ‘new normal’, businesses must still continue to run.

Never assume that your prospects aren’t buying right now, because they are.

The sales leaders we talked with have all seen success during this time of crisis. While many things have changed, the fact is that your prospects want to keep doing business.

They want to succeed, and you can help them.

Always remember to include these 4 essential elements in your first email:

  1. Awareness
  2. Personalization
  3. Value
  4. Clarity

By doing this, you’ll cut through the noise and capture the attention of prospects that are right for your business.

Want to see what good crisis communication looks like in the real world? We collected 19 emails from sales and marketing teams that are seeing success during these times and distilled them into principles that you can apply in your own emails.

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