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It's been more than a year since I posted on this platform.  I now tend to post more on LinkedIn and WeChat, but it's nice to be here once in a while!  Please to add my LinkedIn if you want to get the latest English updates.


While the idea of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) has been mentioned many times, not many people have made observations on how VUCA will affect your sales force.  And this is what we shall find out in this issue!


Hence, this month's topics:

  1. Selling in VUCA; and

  2. Achieving a Balance Between Assertiveness and Empathy in Sales

This issue's main article is on "Selling in VUCA ", and we explore the key factors that will be impacting your sales force in a VUCA world


In brief:

  • What changes sales people and their managers would have to make, if they were to achieve greater business performance in VUCA?

  • How to rely less on past experiences and "tried-and-proven" methods of selling, and more on honing your business acumen during selling

  • How sales people need to have more empathy with their customers to better anticipate what they might do as possible next steps.   Read on... ...

To read the rest of this newsletter, pls. click here ( 

Selling in VUCA

by c.j. Ng

Recently, I got a sales training request from a company in the building materials industry, asking for a trainer who knows their industry, preferably a Taiwanese trainer.  As we had done some sales training for them a few years back, I asked them why not engage the same trainer again?

They replied saying:

  1. "The previous trainer was too “Euro-American style" and
  2. They want a trainer who really knows their industry

I was baffled.  I thought we did quite a good job the last time round, and the training evaluation was very positive too.  In terms of industry knowledge, while we don’t have direct experience in their sector, we had worked closely on projects that were related to their sector.  We were very familiar with the general characteristics of the industry, including typical customer behaviours and sales people’s challenges.

On further probing, I found that what they really meant was, “Don’t do so many discussions and brainstorming during the training.  Just tell our sales people exactly what to do to get the sales!”  In other words, they would like to hire a sales trainer who had years of “tried and proven” experience selling their same products, to the same customers, and then tell their sales people exactly how to do it.

Unfortunately for them, they will be disappointed.  And here are the reasons why:

  • Customers’ behaviours and the competitive landscape have changed over the years, and hence what worked in the past are getting less relevant to today’s customers and markets;
  • Different customers would like to be served differently, and hence the sales approaches for each customer is likely to be unique.  Having only one way of selling is likely to make the sales person appeal to a certain type of customers, and not others; and
  • If there’s an accomplished experience sales person who can teach their sales people the ways to sell to their customers, it’s likely to be one of their senior sales people, or one of their key competitor’s senior sales person.  In either case, they would have known whom to look for, but they don’t.  That means there’s no one whom they are familiar who could teach their sales people some “tried and proven” sales methodologies

Selling in Times of VUCA

It’s been quite some time since the phrase VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) has been coined, but few have applied that into selling and sales strategies.  As in the VUCA environment, sales people are likely to experience the following:

  • Projects that were committed could suddenly be postponed, cancelled, changed drastically in scope, reduced in funding, or all of the above;
  • New projects may also pop up unexpectedly;
  • Sales forecasting are getting more unreliable due to the increased uncertainty and volatility;
  • Selling becomes more complex due to more stakeholder involvement in each deal, with ever increasingly complex buying procedures and requirements
  • Relationships become ambiguous as customers today could be competitors tomorrow, while competitors could be partners as well
It is in these VUCA situations, the traditional “tried and proven” methods are unlikely to be effective.  New ways of selling will be needed for a sales force to thrive in times of VUCA.

The VUCA Sales Person

Given the uncertainty and complexity in this new sales environment, the sales person in VUCA times need to be able to:

  • Think and respond independently;
  • Make use and seek out available resources;
  • Communicate closely with customers and internal colleagues; and more

In addition, the VUCA sales person will have to develop

  • Great empathy to understand the perspectives of customers, partners and colleagues, including political sentiments;
  • Sharp business acumen to deliver solutions that benefit buyers and sellers;
  • In-depth technical awareness to help design workable solutions that will deliver results

All these are skills that perhaps a standard 2-day sales training could not develop, much less following any “tried and proven” pathways.  While some of these skills can be acquired through continued training, others might have to be learned through the sales person’s initiative.  

If there’s one thing that companies can prepare their sales people to adapt and thrive in a VUCA sales environment, it will be to make them think.  It is also as if the ancient Greek philosophers have foreseen such trends that have befallen on our sales people.  As Socrates had mentioned thousands of years ago: “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think” this skill is indeed the most critical of all for the VUCA sales person. 

The Next Steps

To succeed in selling in a VUCA world, there are next steps for both managers as well as sales people.

For managers, you will need to learn to:
  • Come to terms the fact that you may not know everything.  You are going to make mistakes, and you might have to admit that you made mistakes;
  • Be inclusive of diverse or even differing voices and opinions, as long as everybody is focused on the common goals, and observes the ground rules;
  • Explore and actively obtain new information that will impact your business performances, then take the necessary actions quickly.

For sales people, you need to:

  • Be always on the lookout for potential new opportunities and customers;
  • Be always on the lookout for changes that might occur with your customers, be that they are developing new products, entering into new markets, or have changes in their strategies and policies;
  • Develop greater business acumen and understand the customers’ business, as well as what might impact those businesses;
  • Be less reliant on past experiences, but be more observant with what could be emerging trends in their respective markets.

While VUCA means volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, what managers and sales people need to do are to:

  1. Be Vigilant.  There will be volatile changes in the market.  Hence if you are having good performance, you still need to be vigilant as markets may suddenly turn for the worse, sooner than you expected.
  2. Unlearn and Relearn.  Since there’s a lot of uncertainty in the markets, and what worked in the past are unlikely to work well in the future, managers and sales people alike will have to unlearn from past experiences, and relearn according to new sales realities
  3. Clarify complex situations.  Sales processes will become more complex, with more influencers involved when making buying decisions, and more stakeholders will participate in creating customized solutions.  Sales people and their managers will need to clarify such complex situations, so as to deliver the right things to the right people in the right way
  4. Anticipate.  Your customers might one day be your competitor, and vice versa.  What sales people and their managers need to do is to understand their customers’ business ambitions, anticipate what they might do next, and be prepared for the next steps

The road in VUCA will be long, windy and bumpy.  But as Lao Tzu 老子 says "The journey of a thousand miles begins at your feet"  (千里之行始于足下).  And if you can do what Sun Tzu 孙子 says "If you can walk a thousand miles and not feel tired, you will be undefeatable"  (行千里而不劳者,行于无人之地).  Such is the key to selling in times of VUCA.

Need help in motivating your staff to achieve outstanding performance?  Simply e-mail or call +86-21-6219 0021 or WeChat: cydj001 and arrange to have a deeper discussion.

Power Breakfast Hour: 20 Apr 2018

Selling in VUCA

  • What changes sales people and their managers would have to make, if they were to achieve greater business performance in VUCA?
  • How to rely less on past experiences and "tried-and-proven" methods of selling, and more on honing your business acumen during selling
  • How sales people need to have more empathy with their customers to better anticipate what they might do as possible next steps
  • How companies need and can be more nimble to face frequent changes in their market spaces

VENUE: Crowne Plaza Shanghai • 400 Panyu Road (near Fahuazhen Road) • 上海银星皇冠酒店 • 番禺路 400 号 (靠法华镇路)


DATE: Tuesday, 7 Mar 2017


TIME: 08:30 a.m. - 10:30 a.m.




To make this a more conducive discussion, we are expecting a small group of about 15 people only, so please register early to avoid disappointments. Please e-mail your registrations too


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Tips for Managers:
Achieving a Balance Between Assertiveness and Empathy in Sales


by c.j. Ng

While a lot has been mentioned about how one needs to have EQ to be successful at work (regardless of the type of work), but not much has been said about which aspects of EQ are the most useful at work.

As such, we use the sales job as an example of how EQ needs to be applied in the right way to be successful.

Essentially, sales is a balance of assertiveness, and empathy. Assertive, because the sales person needs to assert influence over the customer and drive the sale. Empathy because the sales person needs to listen and empathize with the needs of the customer, and then seek to deliver solutions to fulfill those needs.

Here are some further insights on how having the right balance of both qualities will bring sales success, and how having an imbalance might result in poorer performances.


By and large, sales people need to be assertive enough to reach out to different customers, both existing and prospective ones. They would have to take actions to drive their ideas across, and taking the risks of possible rejections and stalemates along the way.

In a complex sales situation, sales people will need to know how to be assertive to reach out to different stakeholders and influencers that could have an impact on the final buying decisions.

In a way, the assertiveness that a sales person exhibits could include the following components:

  • Having the initiative to make things happen;
  • Guide and influence customers’ thinking;
  • Asking questions to find out hidden needs and agenda;
  • Navigate through different stakeholders and influencers that could have an impact on the final buying decisions;
  • Being persevered to follow through long sales cycles;
  • Not be discouraged by rejections, or when customers say “no";
  • Overcoming objections and win over customers;
  • Working through and influencing internal colleagues to give the customers what they want;
  • Doing whatever it takes to meet sales targets; etc.

When facing rejections, sales people can be assertive in the following ways:

  • Be persevered and follow up with the customer over the long term;
  • Not be discouraged by the rejections, and move on to other, more suitable customers


Empathy, on the other hand, works in a different way. In this aspect, sales people will have to be attentive to customers’ needs, and then seek ways to fulfil those needs.

Empathy can imply:

  • Listening to what customers say, as well as what they did NOT say;
  • Building trust with customers;
  • Be mindful of the customers’ feelings and avoid antagonizing the customer;
  • Having a positive “can do” attitude and provide great service; etc.
  • Having empathy doesn’t mean being nice to customers, or not saying “no” to customers. It simply means stepping into the shoes of customers, and see things from their points of views.

Striking a Balance

Now it would be obvious that if sales people are overly assertive, and under-empathize, they could be come aggressive and offend customers. On the other hand, if they over-empathize but are not assertive enough, they may lose control of the sales process, and be pushed around by customers.

Here’s a typical scenario of how sales people need to apply a balance of assertiveness and empathy in sales.

Let’s say you have a prospective customer whom you are trying to make contact. They told you that they are quite happy with the current suppliers that they have right now, and do not need to buy from a new one.

A sales person who is less assertive would just walk away.

A sales person who is assertive, but not empathetic, would try to convince the customer how the new products or solutions will deliver much better performances than the existing ones. However, the customer would see this as aggressive sales behaviour, and then become defensive. The customer might then avoid seeing the sales person in the future.

A sales person who is assertive and empathetic could explore with the customer on a few aspects, such as:

  • If the customer were to work with an additional supplier (instead of changing suppliers), what would be some of their selection criteria?
  • If the customer were to explore how to make their existing equipment or materials perform better, what will be those areas they would like to see an improvement?
  • Who in the customer’s organisation are currently satisfied, and who else are currently dissatisfied, with the solution they have?

Do note that in the initial phases of selling, the empathetic sales person will avoid issues such as:

  • What products to recommend;
  • What price point to hit;
  • When would the customer buy;
  • What quantities would they buy

This is because the customer really does not have a strong need at the moment, and being assertive to close the sale would push the customer away, rather than pull them closer. The right kind of assertiveness would be to probe further and find out if the customer has other unfulfilled needs, and explore different options.

Now, assuming that the customer is willing to explore, and is now actively engaging with your technical colleagues to test your samples and get their advice. However, this “technical interaction” has been going on for a long time, and there has been no further inclination of the customer’s wish to buy from you. In fact, in a couple of new product purchases, the customer had asked for your quotation but did not but from you. You felt that the customer could be taking advantage of your company’s resources, and there’s no firm commitment for a purchase from you.

The sales person who is overly empathetic and under assertive, would simply maintain the way it is, in case the customer gets offended and refuse future communication.

The sales person who is assertive and empathetic would:

  • Politely ask the customer if there could be a commitment to buy something in the foreseeable future;
  • If the customer could not give an affirmative answer, let the customer understand that the resources provided can only be given to customers with confirmed purchases. The resources that had been provided to the customer will have to be reduced;
  • If the customer still decides not to buy, have the assertiveness that there will be other customers who will buy, and be assertive enough to walk away

Hence, sales people can improve their sales performance if they could have better EQ. In this case, it would be the constant practice of balancing their assertiveness and empathy.


Need help in enhancing your sales force's EQ? Simply e-mail or call +86-136 7190 2505 or Skype: cydj001 and arrange to buy me a mocha. All information shall be kept in confidence.

Directions Management Consulting


Directions Management Consulting is the partner of LeadershipIQ in China and Asia. LeadershipIQ helps more than 125,000 leaders every year through the facts drawn from one of the largest ongoing leadership studies ever conducted is used to help companies apply resources where the best possible results be achieved.


In addition, Directions Management Consulting is a leading provider of sales performance, innovation and experiential learning solutions in China and many parts of Asia.


Using the Belbin Team Role Profiling is the sales performance arm of Directions Management Consulting specialising in conducting training, research and consulting services for sales managers and their team.


Currently, Directions Management Consulting has served clients such as Delphi Packard, InterContinental Hotels Group, Alcoa Wheels, Standard Chartered Bank, Merial, ThyssenKrupp, Lowe's Global Sourcing, Diehl, Kulzer Dental etc.


Directions Management Consulting will increase its efforts to conduct leadership studies in China and other parts of Asia, so that more companies apply resources where the best possible results be achieved in this part of the world.d.


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