by Deane Patterson, Principal, Patterson Consulting

COVID-19 has drastically altered our lives and interactions. Employees with internet access, a computer and a phone are able to work remotely and for some, the office is no longer the physical epicenter of work. In just a few months, the pandemic has changed the way many do business. This is evidenced by a mini real-estate boom where remote-workers are abandoning crowded cities and towns to live in less densely populated suburban and exurban locations. We are in a time of significant change in how we interact; especially in-person selling.

For salespeople, COVID has supercharged a trend. In my consulting, I regularly work with salespeople who were already finding it difficult to get face-time with customers and prospects. In the same way technology has driven efficiency in production, it has also transformed the office. Employees wear many hats and have less time for the typical sales call, lunches, or meetings. Additionally, a new generation is moving into decision making roles. These younger individuals often prefer interacting via apps, text or email rather than calls or in-person meetings. According to McKinsey1, B2B customers who prefer in-person sales visits fell to 34% from 52% prior to COVID-19. Today, twice as many companies (66%) prefer digital sales interactions instead of in-person.

The landscape has changed, so what do we do differently? Video sales calls? Offer webinars? Email blasts? Well, yes and no. Face-to face selling is successful for good reason. Humans are adept at perceiving subtle cues such as tone of voice and speaking pace, as well non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, posture and eye-contact. All these cues can help build rapport, instill confidence, and demonstrate competency/knowledge. Ultimately, in-person selling creates trust. The bad news is that, simply changing the medium to video and doing the same old thing you’ve done in the past doesn’t work. Video conferences are typically shorter, it’s hard to read faces and body language. Likewise, phone calls are often flat and uninspiring. As many salespeople are discovering, it often doesn’t work. A salesperson recently told me they felt as if they were blinded during a video interaction. That is understandable.

To be successful at remote selling we must build the same rapport, confidence and trust using different techniques. This involves leveraging technology and a systematic approach to sales and marketing. The first important step is to move sales messages ‘upstream’ into your marketing and inbound strategy. Prospects want to evaluate and understand your company at their convenience. For example, salespeople often pitch capabilities during a visit. Move this information upstream out closer to prospects. Adapt it for a prospecting email, post to your site, or social media. Prospects who may not return phone calls, may be searching for your services. Create more ‘engagement’ on your site or pages. Like follow-up by a good salesperson, engagement keeps your company top of mind. In a digital sales process, this is accomplished by fresh and relevant content. For example, updates on projects you are doing and useful industry tips or videos. Next are calls to action. Once a prospect is aware and engaged, make it easy for them to contact you; and be responsive. Signing up for a newsletter, a free document, or a chat to answer technical questions all help a prospect make contact with your company. These are just some of many possible tactics. By relying on marketing to raise awareness, create consideration and pre-qualify opportunities, you reduce the burden on in-person selling. The salesperson has more time to focus on fewer but more qualified business opportunities and closing deals.

With more highly qualified leads, sales can focus on needs, solutions, and closing deals. Discussions with an interested prospect are more suitable to a remote conference call or video meeting. So, it’s time to have those meetings. It is overlooked, but critical that you learn and become an expert at using technology for selling. If you are using a video platform like Zoom, or another conference call software, you must become an expert. Practice with colleagues. Can they hear you, see you? Can you schedule a meeting, adjust video and audio controls, and screen share? You may need to set up your client as well. I tell clients that remote technology is their new suit of clothes, so look sharp. Speaking of looking sharp, pay attention to your video background. I also highly recommend you leverage other toolsets to improve your remote follow-up. Tools like a CRM for contact management, email applications to increase the frequency and consistency of messaging, and social media competency. These tools will help you be more effective at remote selling. Humans are social creatures. Person to person interaction will always be important. After the pandemic it is likely we will return to some level of in-person selling, however like smart phones, this change has taken root and remote selling is here to stay.

1) McKinsey B2B Decision Maker Pulse Survey, April 7, 2020