COVID-19 has upended a number of industries and jobs. Among the professions that have been hardest hit are sales and business development, which have traditionally relied on face-to-face interactions to build networks and relationships. People who ply those trades have had to pivot to remote selling with mixed success.
Salespeople, says Jamie Anderson, chief sales officer at Xactly, a sales performance management firm, “are the lifeblood of an organization.” They are, he says, the primary revenue drivers.
“During the economic fallout of the pandemic, salespeople were relied upon more heavily than ever,” Anderson says. “Under immense pressure to meet their targets and keep the lights on, reps also had to navigate a brand new way of selling.”
Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, says the No. 1 change she—like many others—has had to make during the pandemic is a shift to remote selling. “It is no longer a luxury or a nice-to-have,” she says. “Pivoting to online meetings, webinars, etc., is a smart and productive way companies can continue to have conversations that educate and inform, build relationships, and move forward during this crisis period.”
It’s a shift, though, that doesn’t come naturally to all.
Doug Brown is CEO of Business Success Factors, a business revenue growth expert, and former president of the Chet Holmes and Tony Robbins companies. “The challenge for most people who have sold face-to-face is they do not understand that they need to overcommunicate when selling remotely, and building rapport is more important than ever,” he says.
Brown’s current company grew by 22 percent in 2020, which he attributes to an understanding of how to effectively sell remotely.
The key to remote selling, Brown says, “is to build high rapport and create continuous communications with personalized follow-up at its core.” He’s used a variety of communication channels and tactics, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pipedrive, GMass, email marketing, masterclass web-training, and videoconferencing services such as Zoom.
“What has worked is building a human-to-human connection and addressing the personal needs of the buyer as well as the business needs and matching those to our product and service offerings,” Brown says.
Conversely, what doesn’t work is cold prospecting without building a relationship first. Relationships can still be built in an environment where face-to-face contacts are limited. For many salespeople, especially those in business-to-business (B2B) roles, LinkedIn has become a proxy for coffee, lunch meetings, and cocktail hours.
At Fit Small Business, Casey Zuckerman, chief revenue officer and leader of the company’s sales and optimization division, says sales staff have leveraged more social ways of getting new business and engaging existing clients, by, for example, “commenting on our clients’ LinkedIn posts and reconnecting with old points of contact who have changed jobs during the pandemic and are now at new companies.”
Beyond one-on-one connections, marketers also are finding ways to replicate group experiences online.
VIRTUAL MEETINGS REPLACE LIVE CONNECTIONS
Conferences, at least of the in-person variety, went by the wayside in 2020, causing those who relied on them to find new ways to build awareness and sales to adopt new approaches.
“Due to the pandemic, our sales team at Fit Small Business had to completely scrap our conference attendance calendar,” Zuckerman says. “Instead of going out to dinners and attending industry events with our existing and potential clients, we had to make it work from home.”
Taking meetings and conferences to a digital environment doesn’t have to mean a drop in attendance, though. In fact, Xactly’s Anderson points out that his company’s annual Unleashed conference went virtual for the first time in 2020 and attendance skyrocketed, allowing it to reach its largest global audience yet. In fact, he notes that the company has been able to “engage so many people that otherwise may not have been able to travel to the event in person.”
As an unexpected additional benefit, Anderson says, sales reps found that because they didn’t need to travel and set up face-to-face meetings, they had an easier time connecting with high-ranking executives. “They are setting up meetings and landing deals they never previously thought possible,” he says.
Not all firms are finding the need to move to virtual meetings, though. Some are leveraging the power of legacy communication channels. “We haven’t actually done many virtual conferences during the pandemic,” Zuckerman says. “Without in-person networking, they are less attractive. Instead, we have reinvested in taking more phone calls to keep ourselves top of mind.”
Whatever channels are chosen, it’s important to coordinate their use strategically.
With such a wide range of communication channels available, and such a segmented consumer market, it’s unlikely that any salesperson is going to be able to select a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, salespeople and the organizations they represent need to consider how they can be as accessible as possible through as many channels as possible at all hours of the day and night.
Websites still remain the hub for online interactions for most organizations, Arnof-Fenn says. “We have learned that your website is your calling card and SEO is critical to your success. My advice is to make sure your site is robust and can handle e-commerce traffic, if necessary.”
Arnof-Fenn recommends finding ways to leverage content marketing, influencers, video, pay-per-click, podcasts, webinars, and other tools to help ensure websites stay at the top of search results. “Online marketing is the best way to reach your audience now, so allocate more budget for online activities to engage your audience and prioritize it over print and events to prepare for a future with less travel for conferences and trade shows,” she says.
The strategic use of an array of communication channels to connect with customers and potential customers consistently and seamlessly is often referred to as omnichannel marketing. Even prior to the pandemic, more and more customers were engaging with businesses remotely. Omnichannel marketing allows them to make these connections from anywhere, on any device, and at any time. Arnof-Fenn predicts that remote selling will continue for most, if not all, of 2021.
But all these virtual connections can take a toll.
FIGHTING ZOOM FATIGUE
When the Oxford English Dictionary comes out with its list of new words this year, chances are good that “Zoom fatigue” will be on it. In fact, it’s already been identified as a neuropsychological disorder by psychiatrists. A Psychiatric Times article defines Zoom fatigue as “the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with overusing virtual platforms of communication.” It is, the article says, “widely prevalent, intense, and completely new.”
As Zuckerman noted, sometimes a phone call is really all that’s needed and more than sufficient during these trying times to make meaningful connections.
Zoom calls are, of course, highly prevalent and likely to remain so. For those finding themselves frequently engaged on Zoom or similar online meeting platforms, Arnof-Fenn offers some tips for effectively engaging in the virtual environment:
- call people by name;
- don’t use slides;
- vary your voice tone/intonation;
- smile when you speak;
- slow down a bit so you can be heard clearly; and
- make sure you’re in a quiet place with no distractions from pets, kids, or phones ringing.
In addition, she suggests: “Always write a thank-you note or email afterward. It helps you stand out and reminds people of your strengths and interest.”
Finally, don’t skimp on purchasing the right technology to facilitate virtual interactions. While most computers have built-in webcams, investing in an external webcam can help you look more professional—lighting and backdrops might also be worthwhile considerations depending on your settings and audiences.
Something else not to neglect? Your existing customers!