Insight & Knowledge

Setting up virtual sales for long-term success

As the troublesome 2020 comes to an end, now is a perfect opportunity for executives to reflect on how the new normal will look like.

Key takeaways

– COVID-19 has fundamentally shifted seller/buyer interactions towards more digital & virtual interactions

– Sales leaders need to address this shift with immediate actions to secure revenue in the short-term and start assessing the potential long-term impact of this shift

– In the short term, sales leaders should focus on existing customers and getting meeting activity up, despite not being able to meet in person

– For the long term, sales leaders need to start assessing how this fundamental shift impacts (1) salesforce capability requirements, (2) organizational structure, (3) relationship with marketing, (4) requirements for supporting technology, and (5) requirements for a new salesforce culture.

A permanent shift in how B2B buyers buy (and how sales organizations need to sell)

COVID-19 has severely impacted how buyers engage with sellers. With more than 4 billion people sent home worldwide, the possibilities of conducting physical meetings with prospects and clients are almost non-existing. No one knows how long this situation will last, and it is dubious if things will ever get back to how they were – even when the health situation returns to normal.

What is clear is that B2B buyers are embracing new ways to engage with sellers at an accelerating pace, and there are no signs it will shift back after meeting restrictions lift.

Research shows that 70-80% of decision-makers now prefer to engage through remote interactions or digital self-service. And this is the case not only for smaller transactional purchases. 70% of B2B buyers now report willingness to complete +$50k transactions of new products or services through end-to-end virtual or digital engagement with vendors.

Any seasoned sales leader will know the correlation between facetime and sales performance and thus recognizes an urgent need to install the fundamental capabilities needed to ensure that sellers can still sell to customers – now virtually.

But a growing number of sales leaders also recognize that this fundamental shift in buying behavior is not likely to change back when meeting restrictions are lifted. These sales leaders are making investments in sales force development beyond virtual selling capability training to succeed in the new reality and take advantage of the benefits that come with it.

With +70% of buyers and sellers saying they now prefer remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions and only about 20 % of B2B buyers say they hope to return to in-person sales*, the clever sales leader addresses the immediate challenges from current meeting restrictions while making the right long-term decisions that set up sales for success in a new B2B buying environment.

In the short-term, focus on existing customers and getting meeting activity up.

Although a permanent shift in buying behavior demands long term changes to the commercial organization, it cannot happen at the expense of meeting short-term sales targets.

Current meeting restrictions have left many sales organizations challenged on 2 fronts, in particular, hurting the ability to meet short term targets:

1. Prospecting for new clients, without meeting face-to-face

2. Overall meeting activity down, when sellers can’t meet with buyers 

For this reason, the 2020 strategy for many B2B sales leaders has been two-fold.

1. Focus salespeople on growing business with existing customers

In a world where buyers’ ability to meet with new vendors are limited, they naturally turn to people they know and who already understand their situation, organization, needs, and challenges.

This means that it is getting more difficult for sellers to get virtual meetings with new prospective clients, just as it means that the competition will experience difficulties getting access to the sellers’ existing clients.

When sellers eventually get a virtual “needs discovery meeting” with a new potential customer, it is disproportionally challenging to build trust, have a conversation about complex needs, and demonstrate a differentiated value proposition, compared to a seller with established relationships and understanding of the situation and needs.

Sellers who have the possibility to do so should focus attention and resources on trying to expand business with existing customers, whether that means introducing new products or services, selling into new business units or geographies.

2. Focus development resources on equipping salespeople with skills & tools required to engage virtually with customers. 

The experienced sales leader knows the importance of quality in sales interactions. They also know that quality is secondary to meeting activity.

Less sales activity means fewer sales opportunities, means slimmer sales pipeline, and ultimately poorer performance.

The inability for salespeople to physically meet with has shown to be a huge challenge to uphold face time with existing and especially potential customers.

The drop-in meeting activity is a major threat and challenge for sales organizations.

In a small survey conducted in late 2020, salespeople’s general answer to why the drop in meeting activity exists. The answer generally was that there was a clear lack of interest from buyers in virtual meetings.

While this might be true, another way to look at that is that the seller cannot come up with a good enough reason why the buyer should spend time with the seller.

Where many traditional B2B field sellers could previously stop by or book a “check-in” meeting, the new virtual world leaves less space for interactions with vague purpose or intention.

Sixty minutes of “coffee meeting” with unclear purpose and take-away on MS Teams is a long meeting. Booking a virtual meeting without any outspoken purpose or reason is a difficult endeavor. It is our experience that many b2b field sellers face difficulties filling their calendars for that reason. Booking no-purpose meetings are no longer an option in a virtual selling world, and often “good reasons for booking virtual meetings” is the missing piece holding back sales from meeting expectations on meeting activity.

Recommendation: In the short run, have your sales force focus their resources on expanding business from existing clients and train your salespeople to succeed with boking, preparing, and executing virtual sales meetings by equipping them with meaningful “reasons for reaching out” that adds value to the buyer’s situation. Good reasons for a meeting could be sharing relevant insights, an invitation to a relevant webinar, perspective on addressing current industry challenges, etc.

For the long-term, redesign your commercial model to accommodate for a more virtual world

For sales leaders who anticipate virtual selling will become more than a temporary fix to current meeting restrictions, it is essential to start designing the blueprint for the future sales organisation and planning on how to get there.

At the highest level, there are 5 key questions sales leaders need to assess the impact of new digital & virtual buying behaviour against:

1. Resource & capability requirements

2. Organisational structure

3. Relationship to marketing

4. Supporting technology

5. Culture

1. Key questions for new resource & capability requirements

(a) Which sales interactions & accounts are best managed digitally vs. virtually vs. face-to-face?

While negotiations on large complex multi-stakeholder deals may still be best managed through face-to-face meetings with the customer, initial introductions or quarterly status calls with smaller accounts may be a better fit for virtual engagement.

The first step is to define your future way of selling, by mapping out your customer interactions and customer types and making decisions on how you best serve these in a more digital & virtual future, with eyes on the potential cost benefit of lowering face-to-face meetings. 

(b)  What roles, responsibilities & capabilities are required?

A March 2020 Kvadrant Consulting survey of commercial leaders in B2B showed “lack of people with right capabilities” as the #1 barrier to success with more virtual selling. 

As you define a new way of selling, new areas of responsibility and capability requirements arise for the people operating in that system. 

The first step is to define which roles and capabilities are required to succeed with a new way of selling and match these requirements against your current organisation, to identify key areas for development. 

(c) What is the “capacity” of each role for managing interactions & accounts and how many do we need?

While the capacity for customer interactions of a 100% field-seller may have be 2-5 visits per day, shifting towards greater use of virtual interactions greatly increases that number. 

It means the average capacity for meetings goes up in the salesforce which may impact the total number of salespeople needed. 

First estimate the interaction requirements of different roles in the salesforce and match with total capacity to identify if there is (a) potential to do more or (b) potential to trim the salesforce.

 2. Key questions for a new organisational structure

(a) How should we organise the salesforce around selling virtually?

At the highest level, organize the salesforce in three ways around virtual selling:

a. Fully virtual: 100% of buyer interactions managed virtually & digitally through an inside salesforce, as typically employed by SaaS companies

b. Sellers using virtual engagement: Same salesforce, but with sellers using a mix of digital, virtual & face-to-face interactions to drive sales and build customer relationships

c. Mixed model: Inside sales team with responsibility for specific sales interactions and customer groups and traditional “field-sellers” with responsibility for others.

While the go-to-move for many commercial leaders in 2020 has been to equip the existing sales force to succeed virtually (option b), most sales organisations are moving towards a mixed model setup (option b) as the use of Inside Sales teams grows in B2B organisations.

(b) How do we do it in a global setup?

While most B2B sales organisations are structured around geographies (sales areas, territories, countries etc.), virtually selling are not bound to the same restrictions.

As sales organisations shift towards greater use of virtual selling the potential for gathering inside sales people covering multiple markets & languages grows. Rather than having an inside sales centre in each european country, there is one “centre of excellence” covering them all, with the benefits that comes from this (efficiency, cost saving, building excellence etc.)

 3. Key questions for a new relationship with marketing

(a) What new dependencies do we have on marketing? 

As seller interactions move to virtual & digital channels, sales move further into the domain traditionally occupied by marketing (digital customer engagement) and start growing greater dependencies on their commercial colleagues in the marketing department.

– For buyer signals: Sales people not “dropping by” anymore to capture intents to buy. Marketing need to setup tracking on digital behaviour

– For lead generation & mgmt.: Giving inside sales people a “reason to call” qualified leads.

– For new types of content: Sales presentations fit for shorter virtual interactions

The first step is to define new dependencies on – and requirements for marketing, to to succeed with a new way of selling

 4. Key questions for new supporting technology 

(a) What updates are needed to our customer facing technology layer?

The majority of sales organisations shifted their sales interactions to online meeting platforms such as Teams or Zoom, but in reality the space for digital and virtual customer interactions is much greater.

Chat, video messaging and newer channels such as VR are gaining traction as ways to interact with customers and buyers.

First survey your customers to understand the ways they would like to engage with your virtualy and digitally and in which interations they prefer one or the other.

(b) What updates are needed to our sales people’s “cockpit”?

Most CRM systems are set up for field sellers as a tool to be used occasionally for data storage, reporting & deal management.

However, as sellers move to work more virtually, the CRM system becomes a critical working platform in which they will spend the majority of their time and the platform needs to be set up accordingly.

Prioritize making CRM a working tool fit for remote selling, rather than a platform for data storage and reporting.

(c) What updates are needed to the backend of your sales tech-stack?

As interactions move from face-to-face to digital and virtual the opportunities to capture relevant data and gain important insights greatly improve

The ability to capture data from customer interactions (i.e. what happens in sales meetings) is of special interest and with a layer of analysis has the potential to yield great improvements to sales effectiveness 

When is it best to discuss pricing? How should we handle objections? Who from the customer’s side should be on different types of deals to get the deal through? 

Decide which questions you want answers to and start collecting the relevant data (now that you can because the interactions are virtual). 

 5. Key questions for your sales culture

(a) Which elements of our current sales culture may be holding us back?

The hero of many sales organisations is the one who “goes out into the world” and comes back with the largest price.

As a result, many sales organisations are held back in their transition towards greater use of virtual engagement, because selling from “inside the office” is percieved as less important than going out to hunt.

Your sales culture matters because it guides the sales force in their day-to-day behaviour and as a sales leader you have to ensure that you are promoting a culture that can embrace a new way of selling that doesn’t always mean going out to visit the customer.

List down the key aspects of your sales culture (and be honest) and identify the parts that may prevent you from getting the new behaviour you are looking for.

Start the transformation now

Virtual selling, as an integrated and permanent part of your sales & marketing engine, is here to stay and sales leaders need to start designing the future and planning for it. 

While securing sales in the short-term is critical, so is safeguarding the business for the long-term changes that are happening right now.

The transformation starts with the commercial leadership team asking and answering the fundamental questions around how you sell, the way you organize around it and what is required to make it a success. 

About the author
Picture of Thomas Boerve
Thomas Boerve
Thomas has 15+ years of experience as a management consultant. He specializes in high complexity B2B sales and marketing and has led numerous global commercial transformation projects.