One year ago, everything changed. In the blink of an eye, our personal lives, careers, and livelihoods were significantly altered as business reinvented itself, and the entire workforce shifted to remote. For many sales teams, the change was especially difficult. Sales has always been dependent on personal interaction, buyers and sellers looking each other in the eye, shaking hands, and building relationships. Suddenly, sales professionals had to adapt a lifetime of practices geared to tradeshows, conference rooms, and golf courses to engaging over computers. Now, a year after lockdown, let’s look back at how the pandemic disrupted sales teams and left a permanent mark on how we do business.
Uncertainty: One of the biggest challenges was the uncertainty. While sales teams have always navigated through difficult economic times, most were unprepared for the enormity of the changes. This was compounded by the trickle of information received from the competing interests at the federal, state, and local levels. Questions seemed silly. How long do pandemics last? Should we adopt a wait-and-see approach or, if we wait, will there be anything left to see? As the situation changed by the day, forecasting was impossible. Now, the best organizations know resiliency isn’t just responding to the changes one can predict.
Tabled Budgets: The next great challenge for sales professionals was how to sell when organizations are not buying. Suddenly, countless sellers found their deals on hold as buyers scrambled to distinguish essential from nonessential purchases. While one’s ability to express empathy has always been a valued attribute in sales, this took on a whole new meaning as silver-tongued salespeople, never at a loss for words, struggled to offer comfort. Of course, necessity proved the mother of invention as sellers learned what it really means to be a trusted advisor.
Reduced Quota: During the pandemic, one of the first questions sales pros asked was how much do we have to sell? In truth, their managers wondered the same thing. In unprecedented times, how does an organization set targets and calculate achievement, especially while watching their sellers fight so valiantly against increasingly dire odds? Clearly, managers needed to look beyond numbers. More and more, when gauging effectiveness, managers saw the intangible qualities of their team members, the ones with a growth mindset who can best adapt and think outside the box.
Harder to Reach People: Every sales professional knows the trick to successful selling starts with the right contacts. Depending on the size of the organization, this can be an arduous task. During the pandemic, however, it became herculean. As organizations shuffled and reshuffled their teams, with countless oscillating between the office and remote, directories became obsolete. Suddenly, not only was your main contact no longer the right contact, but they weren’t with the organization anymore. This only got worse with decision makers. Despite the difficulty, the best sellers saw this as an opportunity to establish new contacts and expand their networks.
The Tech Struggle Is Real: Though it was once fun to joke about the generational differences of sales teams, such as how millennials far outpace boomers and Generation X with technology, after the pandemic, tech struggles are no laughing matter. In the office, surrounded by experienced co-workers, tech failures are easy to fix; however, when working remotely, it can be the source of genuine frustration. Sales organizations will not soon forget the difficulties they faced with unreliable internet or adjusting to virtual, and the best organizations will now think twice before putting tech upgrades on hold.
Your Best Virtual Life: In addition to dealing with tech failures, sellers also had to adjust their processes and procedures to get the most from remote work. For many, this was easier said than done. It’s one thing to log on to Zoom, Teams, Webex or any teleconferencing platform, but it’s another thing to take advantage of the features they provide, such as shared screen and breakout rooms, and apply them to selling. For many sales pros, working from home also meant staging a semi-professional home office and adapting to distractions and background noise, including screaming children, barking dogs, and endless Disney movies.
Coaching and Support: Just as sellers had to change their ways, managers had to find new methods to coach and support remote teams. Spontaneous gatherings in one’s office or a conference room gave way to scheduled “events” with a host of delays and tech issues. As with virtual selling, many of the interactions we took for granted in face-to-face communication became more challenging, such as reading the body language of remote reps. Simple signs of encouragement, fist bumps and high fives, do not have the same effect in virtual as they did in person and, without the conscious effort of forethought, criticism can seem harsh in an isolated remote work environment.
While it’s too early to sound an all clear, the signs are encouraging that the worst is behind us. Still, sales organizations must heed the lessons of the pandemic, like taking nothing for granted and building contingencies into contingencies for the things you cannot predict. One thing we can be sure of is virtual isn’t going away. The savings in cost and time means it will remain with us as organizations adopt hybrid models of selling. Therefore, in addition to keeping technology current, sales leaders must ensure their teams master the tools of virtual as organizations proactively emphasize the coaching and training their teams need to be ready for anything.
For more information on being prepared for virtual selling, download our new white paper How to Build a Top-Performing Virtual Sales Team.