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  • Writer's pictureHarjeet Cheema

Socially Distant Sales Pipelines

This blogging page always prompts me to 'pick a catchy title' so I picked this title as it’s quite apt at the moment. Given the slowdown of business to almost a complete standstill with the arrival of COVID 19 in the last few months, I thought I'd attempt to analyse and hypothesise some of the changes in sales.

I’ve seen companies pursue aggressive marketing during this time, arguing (in the most ‘empathetic’ way) why their product or service is more important than ever, doubling down on their pipelines. Some companies may believe that there should be no impact on their pipelines given they work in a B2B space and thus their prospects should continue their respective buying journeys.

I think the situation is much more nuanced. The word unprecedented has been thrown about a lot, and in most marketing material I come across recently, however, there seems to be little understanding of its meaning.

This shut down is …well…something that’s never happened before. Therefore, this will have an impact on sales pipelines. In the first phase, most companies were probably focused on acting in a completely different operational basis. Yes, homeworking has been around a long time, but how many organisations have even been tipping a 50:50 home/office working ratio?

There’s a lot do to switch an entire company to home working, from ensuring the tech stack can cope with the everyone being remote, to the more subtle cultural nuances of every relationship in the business going from face to face communication in a professional setting to a largely remote, text-based one, interspersed with (more) virtual meetings. Individuals also had to adjust to working from home and operationalise their home environments, added complexity coming with homeschooling children, to finding a convenient time and least risky way to buy your groceries.

I think it’s fair to say everyone has been re-organising their business in the first instance and so implementing new products and services is likely to be on hold no matter how beneficial the service may be.

I think what’s next is when companies start viewing the horizon, however at the moment given the choppiness of the waters, the horizon is difficult to view or subject to multiple course corrections. Obvious upgrades like having good video conferencing or messaging services are an easy decision to make. They were needed yesterday. What is needed beyond that requires some analysis and given the choppiness of the waters, it’s difficult to see which way the wind will blow. Yes, your customer isn’t in travel or retail, but their customers may be. As ever the salespeople that win out are the ones that have the ability to view their services from their prospects perspective and understand the challenges their prospect's business is facing at the moment.

What about the medium to longer-term changes we may see in sales? The obvious one is a transition to more home-based working. Sales, however, has always had an option beyond home or office-based which is critical here though. That is client/prospect site working/visiting. Most companies I’ve been at have leaned either one way or another in terms of conducting meetings either virtually or face to face, and I’ve experienced both. I’ve had bosses that have deemed face to face to be a waste of time and virtual meetings to be stacked back to back as the best way. Equally, I’ve had bosses who’ve said that they don’t want to see me in the office at all i.e. seeing as many prospects as possible.

My personal preference and style has always been face to face. I felt I could read the situation better, my own conversational style suited being in the same room. There is a performative and emotive element to the storytelling in sales which greatly benefits from being in the same room as a person. Trust building is crucial to sales and as cliched as it sounds, a trusty handshake, eye contact, and confident smile all add to what is ultimately a human experience.

Travel being a waste of time is also a complete non-sequitur for me if it's planned and used well. Post-meeting travel always provided a great opportunity to de-brief with my colleagues that had also attended the meeting to further discuss are differing perspectives and offering new insight into avenues to pursue in a subsequent dialogue with the prospect.

However, getting a face to face meeting was always more of an ask then virtual. Prospects themselves these days lean towards virtual and given the invasive nature of sales some would prefer to keep a distance. I’d always ask, and I’d take the acceptance of face to face as a positive, and a sign of seriousness (although not a strict measure). I’ve done deals with those I’ve never met, but more often than not, with face to face.

The upcoming challenge is twofold. How will company/building visitor policies change in the coming year? I imagine salespeople are low on the priority to physically come into a building. Secondly, will your prospect even be in their office? It may very likely that they are working from home. The final point is another obvious one, your prospect is unlikely to be one person.

So, imagine a scenario where you are doing a big pitch to 3-4 stakeholders in the same room to help drive consensus to close out a deal. That’s one I feel comfortable with. However it’s much more likely you’ll now be doing this on a video conferencing facility, probably with round 6-8 people including your side all listening in, and asking questions. We all know despite it being 2020 there are still challenges with communicating over video conferencing. How do you keep the audience captivated? How do you make it interactive? How do you prevent bandwidth cutting out key points that need repeating? How do you stop people talking over each other? How much better does your content need to be in this scenario? The tech adds a layer which takes away an element of control for the salesperson and it will need to mitigate accordingly in the future.

It’s harder to get a read on people in a video conferencing facility. A significant amount of your energy goes on facilitating the technology, rather than interacting freely, listening, and responding to questions, picking up signals all the while.

There are potential benefits also. Provided permission is granted is you may have the ability to record the session and thus replay it to your heart's content. You could pick up significantly more information from a prospect this way rather than scratching notes down quickly and comparing 3 versions of truth with your colleagues after. Potentially enriching CRM’s this way, leading to better analytic tools, which in turn all sorts of potential benefits down the line. This could provide an opportunity for training for salespeople and improvement over time also. An opportunity to self-reflect or with a coach. What could I have done better? What question would have better opened up the conversation better? And so on.

Maybe a heavy virtual approach will increase competition too. As a buyer, I’m much more inclined to listen in on a call 5-6 times from different vendors (whilst doing ‘more important’ work) then do 6 face to face meetings.

Technology is an enabler but also provides distractions. I know I’m more likely to glance at my phone, quickly respond to an e-mail whilst on a conference call, two things I’d not dream of doing in the same room as someone. Not all stakeholders will be vested to the same degree on a buying call and so winning over the distracted will be a bigger challenge. Content will have to be focused and tailored so that everyone can follow and stay invested throughout. You may have to segment meetings or conduct them separately so that stakeholders can understand the impacts of your service to their area in a specific and nuanced way.

There is a performative element to sales that I mentioned with respect to meetings but it applies to working in the office also. Being in the same office with the sales team tends to create a raucous environment, especially in the case of inside sales. I can think of a top sales director I used to work with who loved the loudness of the inside sales team, he wanted that boisterous highly energetic environment as he felt it was a soft measure of coming business down the line.

When I was ‘on the phones’, so much of the energy came from being with my colleagues. It’s a tough environment, lots of rejection. Hearing your colleague getting a meeting, spurred you on, either through a shared joy or more likely competitiveness. Hearing their pitches improved your own. Having a chat or laugh after a bad call spurred you one to make another. High levels of activity are important in sales, and people being cocooned in their own environment will require tremendous amounts of focus to ‘keep going’. At all levels, sales is a pressurised environment where everyone has a pretty visible number on their head, I always found being close to my colleagues a great pressure valve and learning opportunity.

Will marketing take more of a share of the buying journey again? Marketing has crept up the buying journey over the last few years and virtual/home working may accelerate this further. As I’ve mentioned above, content delivered virtually to 5-6 stakeholders will need to be captivating, interactive, and tailored to all. Meetings are hard to get and you only get one chance. The partnership between marketing and sales to deliver this in the best way possible is more important than ever.

These are just some of the trends I am hypothesizing. It’s not necessarily ‘harder’, perhaps just different. Sales has been shifting and evolving over the last few years anyway, this is just another element. Ultimately companies will still need to grow, adapt, reduce risk, or cut cost out of their business irrespective of the waters. If you’re able to help them then you will always have a chance of winning out.

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