Jonathan Hughes, Partner, Vantage Partners, and David Chapnick, Partner, Vantage Partners
Just when customer account teams and salespeople were beginning to grow accustomed to virtual-only sales and account management, a return to (some) face-to-face interactions is on the horizon. Customer-facing teams need to continue to up their virtual game, even as they learn how to optimize a balance of virtual and in-person engagement.
COVID-19 has accelerated a trend already underway toward increased virtual interactions between customers and their suppliers. As vaccines are distributed and we move beyond the most acute phase of the pandemic, most salespeople believe virtual selling is here to stay. According to research we conducted during the second half of 2020 (involving salespeople and sales executives at more than 100 B2B companies), just 31 percent of respondents said they expect to return to pre-pandemic levels of in-person sales activities (Figure1). A strong plurality expects to transition to a hybrid model that optimizes both in-person and virtual selling, while more than one in four expects virtual to become their primary means of interacting with customers.
This sentiment reflects trends already in motion when the pandemic began, highlighting a growing realization that virtual selling offers inherent advantages compared to a primary reliance on face-to-face sales. There are the obvious cost savings due to reduced travel expenses. Then there is the reality that a significant amount of travel time is non-productive, that time can now be redeployed to focus on productive sales and account management activities. Moreover, many salespeople we interviewed report that both they and their customer counterparts are often more focused, and more efficient, in virtual interactions than in face-to-face meetings.
At the same time the advantages of virtual selling are rising to the fore, so too are its challenges and limitations, as seen in Figure 2.
In the face of these challenges, only 22 percent of respondents say their transition to virtual selling has been “highly successful,” 74 percent say it’s been “somewhat successful.” Just 5 percent report no success at all (Figure 3).
These mixed results are not surprising. Many core sales and account management skills are the same, whether the environment is virtual or face-to-face, as reflected by nearly 60 percent of our survey respondents reporting “some” overlap of the skills and techniques required for virtual and in-person selling. The ability to uncover customer needs, develop solutions, communicate value propositions and negotiate effectively doesn’t vanish just because a salesperson can’t meet her customer face to face. However, respondents were twice as likely to say the skills overlap “hardly at all” as to say they overlap “a great deal,” highlighting the need for training to help salespeople better leverage the potential of virtual selling (Figure 4).
Of the salespeople who reported the least success transitioning to virtual selling, more than half cited a lack of customer comfort with these interactions as a major challenge (Figure 5). This data underscores a significant symmetry between the challenges of selling virtually and the challenges of buying virtually, specifically in a B2B context, as shown above in Figure 2.
Both buyers and sellers report that maintaining relationships in a virtual environment is much easier than establishing new relationships without the benefit of face-to-face interaction. Both sides similarly report that engaging in joint ideation and brainstorming to develop or configure customized solutions is much harder virtually than when done in the same room with a physical white board and flip charts. As one executive explained, “Buy and sell widgets virtually? Sure. We’ve been using e-auctions for 20 years. But when we need to buy next-generation yield management tools for a new 5 nanometer process fab? And we need extensive collaboration with potential suppliers to explore requirements and alternative technologies? Doing that virtually is difficult, to say the least.”
These challenges mirror those of working remotely inside organizations, including how to onboard new employees, how to maintain cultural cohesion without face-to-face contact and how to enable innovation without regular, unstructured interactions. When a data scientist runs into a software architect in the cafeteria, and a friend from Marketing wanders by and joins them, the conversation might yield valuable new insights. There are formidable barriers to scheduling enough Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings to replace all the mixing and mingling that happens when people share a common physical workspace.
A sales executive we interviewed noted the loss of frequent and informal interactions with customers and the serendipitous learning this produces: “You don’t want to be a pest. But at the same time, not being there on the ground means I can’t learn what I need to learn about my customer. Now I’m left trying to access the same information through more formal channels, and this often feels forced and awkward. Customers are more guarded on a Zoom than over coffee. Plus, many of my customer contacts are in the dark because they’re working remotely themselves.”
As the shift toward virtual selling accelerates, the salespeople who thrive in this new environment will be those who:
• Understand both the similarities and differences between in-person and virtual selling
• Know how to avoid common virtual selling pitfalls
• Are able to establish rapport and build trust with new customers in a virtual environment and cultivate and sustain a network of relationships without the benefit of in-person contact
• Can facilitate robust, interactive virtual discussions with multiple customer stakeholders, especially as required for joint ideation about complex solutions
• Learn how to take full advantage of virtual technologies to maximize interactivity and engagement during virtual interactions across the lifecycle of customer interactions
The future (of selling, of buying – of business generally) is certain to be more virtual than in the past. But people are physical creatures, and there will always be an important role for face-to-face engagement between buyers and sellers, and between customers and suppliers. The winners will be those who can not only do both, but who get the balance right and master seamless integration of virtual and in-person interaction.
Jonathan Hughes is a partner at Vantage Partners, where his practice focuses on business strategy and organizational transformation. He has 25+ years of experience working with clients to fundamentally transform their organizations, whether the goal is to pivot to a trajectory of renewed growth, radically reduce their cost structure, or reinvent culture. David Chapnick is a partner and leader in Vantage Partners’ Sales and Account Management, Training Services, and Strategic Alliance practices.