The Challenges and Opportunities of Virtual Selling
Working from Home and continuing COVID concerns mean that both business-to-business and consumer level salespeople will increasingly “sell” online. Here’s how to adapt and thrive in this very different sales environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed so many aspects of the way we not only do business, but the way we carry out our daily lives. Study after study shows that working from home (WFH) will continue to be a part of many, if not most, of our work lives. There are a multitude of factors involved as to why WFH “works” for people - saving time and money, better balancing work and family needs, being just as productive at home as in the office, etc. While there are certainly drawbacks to having one’s home also be the place where one does business - including blurring the boundaries between work duties and family duties and the sometimes serious mental health concerns due to the isolation involved with working remotely, on balance, both workers and companies are fast coming to the realization that the benefits of WFH outweigh the costs. And companies see that while they have serious concerns in trying to coordinate and collaborate remote workers effectively, they also see that with WFH, they have both the ability to save a great deal on office costs (since they don’t need nearly the office space that they did prior to the pandemic) and the newfound capability to attract - and retain - the “best” workers to meet their needs, regardless of where they are located. Thus, working from home - and the cultural changes, both in terms of organizational cultures and the culture at large - appear to be here to stay long after the coronavirus has faded away (or at least when it will - hopefully - become an endemic, rather than a pandemic!).
Now as a strategic management consultant and professor who has consulted, researched and written on all things WFH since the pandemic began in March 2020, I recently read an article that shed light on an aspect of working from home that I had not thought of before - that being both ends of the sales equation! The insightful article, entitled “Virtual Work Means Virtual Sales—Are You Ready for the New Work From Home Standard?,” was written by Quinn Dantagnan. In the piece, the author went into a variety of aspects of how sales - and sales training - will need to adapt to a very changed world, one where face-to-face sales opportunities will be less and less, replaced by more and more virtual sales encounters. And whether we are talking about B2B (business-to-business) or B2C (business-to-consumer) salespeople, selling has suddenly become far more complex than it was in the “good old days” prior to March 2020.
The reality that Mr. Dantagnan shone his spotlight on in his article is that whether we are talking about selling industrial goods or life insurance, COVID has made us all more cloistered in our homes. This is true with the growth and seeming permanence of working from home, but it is also true in the way that we shop. Indeed, we have quickly developed an “online first” mentality when it comes to our personal shopping, whether it is for groceries, electronics, cars, or yes, life insurance! And so we, as potential customers for salespeople of all types, are increasingly wanting - even demanding - that those selling to us do so less and less in-person and more so via online video conferencing, such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and a whole host of other online meeting platforms. This is especially true in the B2B realm, for as Dantagnan points out, for business customers to meet with salespeople today in-person would mean either inviting them into their own homes (rather than in their offices), which is an alternative many would not even contemplate, or to actually get “dressed” and go “somewhere” to meet with them, which requires more than many of us used to working from home would deem necessary unless it was an extremely critical business decision.
Selling in the “Brave New World”
And so the issue today becomes just how do we adapt sales - and sales training - to this new playing field that salespeople are already encountering and will likely only see become more and more virtual in the future? The foremost issue to me is that really good sales professionals rely greatly on their abilities to read and respond to their prospect’s verbal and non-verbal communications. Now of course, for anyone that has been on a Zoom meeting, you know that one can easily miss - and even misinterpret - people’s spoken words, their tone, and their demeanor. And certainly, no matter how much of a person’s body is shown from their webcam, even the most trained person has less of a body from which to read body language than in an in-person situation.
So the bottom-line is that any sales interaction held online will provide the salesperson with far fewer clues, tells, indications, giveaways, etc. - call them what you will - both verbally and nonverbally than a similar situation held in the “real world.” And even worse, in the online environment, it is far easier to not just miss, but to mistake, the cues that you think that you see and hear than in an in-person exchange!
Finally, especially in the business-to-business setting, it will become even more common to face “hybrid” sales situations, where one is trying to sell to a potential client company that has people engaged with the salesperson both in person and online at the same time! Talk about a hard room to read! This can even be the case in personal selling as well, as one can well imagine a scenario, say for legal or financial services, where members of the family are both in person and online for a sales presentation! In such hybrid scenarios, even the best salesperson or even sales team would be hard pressed to be able to really track the interactions of the various participants the way one would during an in-person meeting, making the sales task far, far harder than it would be if all parties were able to sit down around the table and talk. Now certainly, distance has dictated that hybrid meetings have been a part of selling since the advent of video conferencing. However, the frequency of encountering such a daunting selling environment is surely rising today, and it will only become even more common in the years ahead, for even after COVID (again, hopefully) becomes less of a threat, the patterns and practices of remote and hybrid meetings ushered in during the pandemic will surely grow due to the very practical advantages and cost savings that come from not having to travel really any distance for such meetings.
So how do you adapt selling - and sales training - for the new, far more complex selling environment that salespeople face today? Clearly, there are three primary aspects that are key to all of this. First, salespeople will need to adapt the tools they use - and gain new ones - in order to adapt to selling more and more online. And secondly, salespeople will need to change the way they do things, and yes, that means sales training will need to be changed - constantly - going forward, in order to keep pace with the immense changes in the way selling is done. Finally, from sales management to the front lines of selling, how we think about sales needs to change, probably more radically than it has in many decades, at least since the first computing technologies (PowerPoint and tablet presentation capabilities) came into play when making sales presentations.
So let's first talk about the tools of selling and how they need to change. First, as Dantagnan made clear in his article, those PowerPoints that worked so well in a conference room in presenting to a group and the tablet-based presentations that delivered so well in one-on-one sales meetings in person do not translate well to the Zoom environment (or Google Meet, or Webex, or really any online meeting platform). Companies will need to rethink how they convey their sales messages to potential customers to “work” in the online meeting environment, enabling potential customers in such sessions to better engage with both the salesperson and with the material. He suggests clickable items where the audience member (s) could him or herself find out more information on the material being presented. From a technical perspective, companies will need to provide their salespeople with the tools to not just be able to meet the bare minimum requirements for conducting online meetings, but to assure them that their tech will function well and look good! To that end, companies of all sizes should be prepared to make certain that their salespeople have plenty of bandwidth (both at their offices and in their homes) for conducting video conferencing. And for those who will sell virtually while traveling in the physical world, their mobile plans need to provide them with the same capabilities while on the road. Additionally, management should outfit their salespeople with the equipment (computers, tablets, phones, webcams, microphones, and even greenscreen and/or company logo backgrounds) to look as professional as possible in their online encounters with potential clients. Finally, companies need to make certain that their CRM (customer relationship management) systems are robust and meet the information needs of their salespeople with the kind of data that they need to succeed in selling in the new, and rapidly changing, environment that they face.
Next, let’s address sales training. Companies and their sales management/human resource management personnel will be hard pressed to be able to provide training that will equip salespeople with the knowledge and skills that they need in advance of a rapidly changing sales environment. Instead, at least over the next few years, the best practice will be to have salespeople exchange ideas and tips with one another as to what they find works best - and what doesn’t work at all - in the new selling environment. Sales managers should encourage robust dialogue on these topics among their own salespeople, and they should support their sales personnel to reach out to other sales professionals (through local and national business groups and yes, through their own personal contacts) to seek out both “best practices” and “don’t do’s” that they can share internally with their colleagues. Sales management should encourage, enable, and yes, incentivize their best salespeople to share tips with their peers, conveying how they conduct presentations, “read the room” (both in the virtual and hybrid selling environments) and gather information pre-and post meetings from potential customers. And for new salespeople and sales training programs in colleges and universities, the educational focus needs to be on equipping these new and future sales professionals with the knowledge and skills to be able to sell effectively not just in-person, but in the online and hybrid selling environments. This means that companies and universities offering sales training/majors will need to invest in the technologies that will enable their students to practice and gain confidence in selling in each mode that they will face “out on the street” (which again, will increasingly be a virtual one!). For a look at what kind of technology is needed to help train salespeople today, you are encouraged to take a look at the Professional Sales Program at the author’s institution, Southeastern Louisiana University.
And finally, let’s speak about how the sales role - and managing salespeople - will change with the shift to more and more online selling. The new, increasingly online selling environment gives salespeople an unprecedented ability to reach out to more potential customers with really, in truth, less effort and time commitment, let alone the days and days spent traveling to meet with clients in person. And for companies, sales management will never quite be the same, and in a good way, as the shift to more online selling means, as as Dantagnan pointed out, these benefits:
Reduced sales and marketing expenses (trade shows, travel, etc.). Lower cost of acquisition for new deals and customers due to reduced selling expenses. Expanded sales geography. Virtual selling erases distance and makes it just as easy to sell to the prospect around the corner as the one around the world. Improved sales efficiency: In the hands of well trained salespeople, virtual selling tools convert one-to-one selling activities into one-to-many activities greatly improving each salesperson’s ability to reach out and touch lots of “someones.”
However, the shift to more and more digital selling and less in person sales does have one significant downside. This is the fact that the “personal touch” will inevitably be diminished, Whether it is a salesperson’s conversations with people in the client company to those lunches and golf games that were yes, an important part of personal selling, those do go away - or are at least significantly diminished - when one shifts to more and more of the sales process going online. The personal touch, even friendships, with not just the key decision makers in a company, but often with personnel who work with, service, and help make your product and/or service “go” in real world use, just won’t be there to the degree that it was in the past. Even with all the digital communications in their world, it just might not be as possible that knowing “Old Bob” with the XYZ Company that we’ve bought from in the past will be able to carry the cache that it did in past days. And yes, that sometimes is a “good old boy” network that holds companies back, and so diminishing it is a good thing, as it does serve to open up opportunities for all and make the selling and buying process more fair and objective in many, many instances. However, not having that camaraderie that has been an important part of lasting sales relationships will change the sales equation quite a bit and in the process, diminishing the importance of that human touch in the sales and buying process for companies.
So, will the shift to much more virtual selling result in the proverbial “Death of a Salesman?” Not necessarily - for any salesperson of any age! But all sales professionals will need to seriously work to ensure that their methods, their tools, and their attitudes and approaches meet the demands of the very challenging and fast-changing selling environment out there today - and tomorrow!
About David Wyld
David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.
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