The current business environment impacted by the coronavirus has created significant challenges for B2B sales teams. We interviewed sales leaders to understand how their teams are being affected and what steps are being taken to address these issues. Telephone interviews were conducted with 10 sales leaders, or business leaders with clear visibility to sales operations. Interviews were generally one hour in length and included manufacturing companies and distributors.
The last 2-3 months have been very dynamic. We’re seeing changes in customer engagement over time. March was a low point as sales teams first became travel restricted and were moving offices into their homes. This marked a significant change for those sales teams who traditionally worked from company offices. Those who worked from the field had to adjust to travel restrictions.
Many companies experienced sales lows in March with slight upticks in April while others saw continued declines in April. Sales approaches in March were focused on relationship building and account maintenance. A sales person could be considered “tone deaf” in March if they applied a full court press for a sale while buyers were focused on virus related issues. As businesses are reopening in May we are seeing a little more interest in talking business and some improvement in sale cycles.
The impact on sales varies by type of business and industries served. While many companies are experiencing 30% to 40% drops in sales, some are maintaining sales or even seeing slight growth in certain business segments. Generally, businesses serving the medical market are outperforming industrial focused firms. One manufacturer received a large order to produce rubber bellows used in medical ventilators which buoyed sales significantly.
The following summarizes key points from the interviews.
SALES TEAM IMPACT
The greatest impact to sales teams is the inability to meet customers and prospects in person. Sales teams struggled to make contacts as buyers were focused elsewhere. Further, the quarantine has had an effect on those sales professionals who are outgoing and energized by human interaction. In one case, a sales leader expressed a mental health concern over a normally outgoing field rep who is struggling with the isolation of being at home.
Keeping sales reps enthusiastic is a challenge as sales goals now appear unobtainable making it difficult for sales leaders to motivate their teams. Some companies have stepped up promotions in order to help sales volume but it is too early to tell if they will have an impact in the near term.
There is now a strong emphasis on selling fundamentals. Getting back to the basics of blocking and tackling seems to be the short term strategy. Here are some examples.
One company has directed the sales team to contact every customer regardless of size as part of an effort to keep existing business. Protecting business is key at this time. The last thing you need is to lose accounts that are already below their normal order rate. Some firms have found new business as competing suppliers drop the ball over the last two months. We see many teams focus almost exclusively on their largest accounts. Now is a good time to build relationships with medium and small accounts. First, stop any bleeding, and then, position yourself for the recovery.
With the lack of in-person meetings, sales teams have turned to telephone calls and video conferencing. Most managers interviewed believe that video conferencing will permanently increase in use. We tend to agree. However, we see the need to improve the effectiveness of video in a selling environment. Approaching video calls with the same approach for in-person calls may not get results. We believe there is a lot of work to be done to create an optimized approach to using video for sales calls. Here are just some of the issues we see.
We believe that there is much that can be improved in video sales calling. It may very well become a competitive advantage to the company that can optimize its use. Consider how many more calls can be made when travel is reduced. Getting your customers accustomed to using video now will likely carry over when the economy fully resumes.
A NEW SELLING MODEL
Several of the sales leaders are pivoting from a reliance on their sales team to deliver new business to using more marketing to support the early sales stages. Companies are investing in digital marketing to help in the early stages of sales development to deliver qualified prospects to sales teams. This model has been evolving for some time as buyers rely on online content to qualify prospective suppliers. It is estimated that 80% of the purchase decision is made before your prospect connects with your sales rep. Some of those interviewed are pivoting toward a new model that leverages digital marketing to aid in new business development.
The sales/marketing model is based on four stages of selling.
Many companies have historically relied on the sales team to manage all four stages. But only a small percentage of all sales people can effectively manage the process alone. This is why so many sales leaders complain about not having enough “hunters”. Allowing marketing to support the first two stages keep sales focused on closing business. The model below shows how it works. Digital marketing, (websites, social media, digital ads, etc.) drives leads and allows prospects to self-qualify. Sales teams finish the sale.
HOW THE FUTURE WILL PERMANENTLY CHANGE
The pandemic has caused sales teams to change how they conduct business very rapidly. While much of pre-pandemic practices will remain, many new ones will be permanently embraced. Here is a summary of what we believe will likely remain.
The selling environment is changing more significantly than any time in our lives. Those that can pivot to new strategies and tactics to take advantage of the changes will thrive. This is a time of opportunity. Listen carefully to what your customers need right now and adjust quickly. Find new ways to serve your accounts. Keep customer relationships as a priority and shore up selling fundamentals.
And finally, here is a summarizing comment from a VP of Sales at an Ohio based manufacturing company.
The relentless pursuit of taking care of customers will never fall victim to a pandemic. It’s more important than ever for sales people to be present, in constant contact and listening to their customers. They will find new ways to get deals done, and can use those success and replicate them to help others. Sales leaders primary job is to create a self-sufficient sales force and coach and guide their team towards the win. At least that’s what I’ve done and will continue to do. Taking care of them, as the article states will be their primary concern during this time. They, like customers, will remember who was there for them and who found creative ways to make things happen. Be the solution, not the problem.