It’s difficult to find a facet of life the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021 did not impact. In the business world, one of the hardest-hit roles was that of the outside sales representative. Performing their duties was and to some degree still is stymied by lockdowns and far-reaching work from home initiatives that have all but eliminated a salesperson’s ability to perform the key task in their job description — making sales calls. Sales reps in the pandemic era have been largely reduced to selling to their customers in Zoom meetings and by using email, text and telephone to communicate and connect in an ongoing effort to maintain and grow their business.
Although these extreme conditions are passing, it’s likely the “good old days” of selling like we once did will never be the same. Selling platforms like video meetings and virtual conferences — once considered temporary fixes until things went back to normal — are rapidly becoming normalized and in some cases, customer-preferred methods of conducting business. The playing field for how salespeople can sell is rapidly changing, and today’s salesperson must adjust to these new conditions. Salespeople now need to be adept at communicating face-to-face, in video format and on social media. Today’s sales pros will need to be flexible and ready to employ multiple communication styles to fit their selling environment.
These formats require unique and slightly different skills. Before we go any further, let’s consider three reasons why outside sales calls will not be going back to the way we were.
Many companies have already announced their intention to continue to allow employees to work from home under certain conditions. This means there’s a strong possibility customers’ facilities will be permanently manned by a reduced on-site workforce.
Ongoing health initiatives at customers are also an issue. U.S. companies have made it clear protecting the health of their employees is a primary concern, and post-pandemic policies may seek to continue limited public access to offices.
Discussions with CFOs about the effect of COVID-19 on their company’s expenses and the impact on net operating income revealed T&E (travel and entertainment) expenses were down between -50% to -75% from the time lockdowns began through the end of 2020. These same CFOs reported record first quarter results in 2021 with a minimal increase in sales expenses, resulting in record operating income in Q1.
Customers have always been guarded when it comes to the amount of time they will allot for vendor visits. Virtual meetings using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and other teleconferencing tools can be scheduled with a definitive beginning and end, making it imperative that vendors use their time wisely.
These challenges require sales professionals to communicate using different methods and styles to maximize the impact of their message to customers. The communication skills needed in each situation will vary from subtle adjustments, to styles that have been previously unused or nonexistent.
In the case of customer availability, salespeople will have to use multiple communication and connecting strategies. Opportunities for face-to-face, in-person meetings will continue to exist, but more than ever before customers expect their vendors to have an outlined purpose for the meeting. In particular they want to know why the meeting is necessary. In these circumstances, planning and writing skills become powerful tools for salespeople to sharpen as they navigate to capture their customer’s time and attention.
By starting with the “why,” you can build a solid purpose for your proposed sales call. Ask yourself these questions:
- Why do you want to visit your customer?
- Is there a new, improved product you can offer to them that will help them realize greater efficiency and profitability?
- Will product training deepen and enhance your customer’s ability to design and build better equipment?
- Are you following up on existing business or previous proposals?
When you identify your “why,” you can move to creating the written (or verbal) content you will use to ask for the appointment. With restricted access, it will be crucial to have a strong purpose for your meeting and the ability to articulate the purpose concisely in writing or verbally. Concise communication will help to capture the customer’s interest and convey why your purpose is important to them.
TODAY’S SALES TOOLS
Smartphones. Situations where a portion of the customer’s staff are not physically present at your meeting (perhaps working from home), offer an opportunity to connect using smartphone technology. Imagine making a short 30-second video with your phone, recapping and highlighting one or two key topics from the meeting you just had with the individual’s peers. The message should be creative, to the point and fun. You could say:
“Hi Sarah… Sorry you couldn’t be in our meeting today. I want to share a couple of take-aways with you – (insert points here)”
Close the video by saying you would be happy to discuss the meeting in greater detail by telephone and then send her a calendar request for a 10-minute phone call.
Social media. Social media is another effective way to connect with customers working from home or in the office. Posts that include a brief narrative, accompanied by a photo or video, work best since they are not time consuming to the reader, yet they can make a lasting impression on your target audience. Interactive posts, where you ask a relevant question are very powerful. The long-running TV show, “Ask This Old House,” features a segment called “What is it?” where one of the master tradesmen shows the viewing audience a tool used in their trade and the viewers and co-hosts of the show try to guess what the tool is used for. “What is it?” posts are excellent methods of connecting with your customers.
It’s important to offer a variety of topics when using social media. Using a mixture of posts featuring new products, company success stories and personal and team accomplishments will bring the best results. Think of each post as a branding opportunity that highlights your company, co-workers or you. If you are not comfortable using social media, consider reading some how-to books on the subject, taking an online course, or getting one-on-one help from a friend or coworker proficient using social media. Start with short and simple posts, and as your confidence builds your audience will, too.
Video conferencing. Presenting in virtual sales platforms like Zoom can be a technical minefield that many sales professionals overlook. Some salespeople have difficulty making the transition from a 3D to two-dimensional conversation. Their instincts tell them the only difference is that the attendees are not in the same room to see them, but their message is still the same. While technically this can be true, the reality is that the absence of human presence has a profound impact on how our message is heard.
When a meeting attendee sits down to log onto a virtual meeting, the mechanical processes they use while looking at the screen mirror those that we use when watching television. All television programs (even reality TV) come with high production quality, including visuals and audio, precision timing and focused content. Television viewers tune in nightly to be entertained or educated while having their emotions touched and their intellects challenged. Virtual meeting attendees have similar expectations of presenters.
It’s not surprising then, that attendees at virtual meetings quickly tune out when the presenter appears unprepared, confused or stiff. Presenters who stumble unrehearsed through their content invite disaster. While their audience may not be able to change channels, they most certainly can tune out by surfing the net on their computer, tablet or phone. Poor audio and video quality, or an inability to work the technology required for the presentation, can cause viewers to become clock watchers, waiting for your presentation to finally end.
Virtual presentations require a different mindset than person-to-person meetings that starts with your preparation and continues until you are “on the air.” In many ways, presenting on Zoom is very similar to your nightly news broadcast, with the anchor giving a compelling opening line to grab your attention, and then providing details in story-like fashion. By the time they are done with the story, the audience can process what they heard and use the information to form their opinion on the story.
Selling virtually should have the same feel, with relevant details about the product and services your company offers. As you prepare for the meeting, consider how to word your main theme and the transitions to the supporting data that you will use to convincingly deliver a solid sales pitch. Consider how you can build visual and audio content that directs your audience to process the information you have given to them, and then make a decision to purchase your products.
It’s important not to overlook the visual part of virtual presentations. Common sense things like your appearance and the background in the room are basic steps. Perhaps the biggest challenge salespeople confront when selling virtually is the loss of personal eye contact. When we lose the ability to make direct eye contact, we lose the intuitive sense of connection that occurs when we are face-to-face with each other. This is further hampered when we as presenters fail to properly use the camera on our computers or webcams. Our brain desperately wants us to look at the individuals occupying the boxes on our screen. However, to actually make virtual eye contact technology means we look at the camera. This may take practice, but it’s worthwhile.
The need for a salesperson’s polish and presence in giving presentations has always existed. However, the addition of video and audio production technology, along with more restrictive time limits for meetings, moves the sales call onto a totally new playing field. Tomorrow’s sales growth will be rooted in the preparations you do today. By delivering a more practiced and prepared presentation, you will captivate your audience and open the door for your customer to welcome every opportunity to meet with you.
If you build on your already considerable sales skills, you can be a trailblazer who defines the post-pandemic normal. Salespeople have met many challenges throughout history, from the introduction of the telephone, to motor vehicles, computers, fax machines and so much more. The current and future challenges brought to the surface during the pandemic are actually welcome opportunities for individual excellence and creativity to carve a new path of selling strategies for others to imitate. Welcome to the future.
Mark Serafino spent more than three decades working in wholesale distribution. After retiring, he formed Sincerely Speaking LLC, coaching and mentoring individuals and groups in personal communications, leadership and management skills. You can reach him at [email protected].