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3 ways COVID-19 is accelerating the future of sales Blog Feature

July 15th, 2020 min read

“The COVID-19 outbreak is the latest reminder that sales organizations have unique challenges that arise during large-scale disruptions to business,” says Steve Herz, Senior Director Analyst, Gartner

“Handled appropriately, such crises — whether health pandemics, natural disasters, or other uncontrollable acts — represent tremendous downside risks, but good decisions made now can position the organization to thrive in the long term.”

A lot has changed in the past few months, with few exceptions — and that includes sales. 

With unprecedented speed and scale, the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak has upended the B2B salesforce across the world. 

It has presented extreme challenges, but it’s also creating an opportunity to transform. 

For example, in the short term, we’ve found sales leaders should embrace the new dynamics of virtual selling and lean on emerging technology.

This will help your sales team remain relevant in a rapidly shifting market while maintaining a competitive edge.

To survive and thrive over the long term, organizations may have to fundamentally reinvent the way their B2B salesforce interacts with customers.

The traditional ways of selling appear to be giving way to innovative approaches that will alter the way we communicate and do business—perhaps for the better.

But let’s get more specific. 

How exactly is the COVID-19 crisis shaping the future of sales as we know it today?

We’ve identified three key trends that were already in motion but are now being accelerated and what that means for you as a sales leader. 

Trend #1: Sales professionals need new and different skills to sell in a digital world. 

The vast majority of B2B companies have shifted their go-to-market (GTM) model during COVID-19 toward digital and remote selling. 

Fortunately, two-thirds of B2B decision-makers surveyed believe that their new model is as effective, if not more so than previous models. Looking ahead, B2B companies expect digital interactions to be two to three times more important to their customers than traditional sales interactions.

With this profound shift to digital, sales leaders need to be thoughtful about what skills their reps need to succeed in this digital remote reality. 

For example, reps who want to master the digital sales environment need hard and soft skills like:

What this means for sales leaders

Investing time and money building your team’s skills lets them know they are important and valued, while also priming them to succeed in the digitally driven recovery.

The bottom line is digital and remote selling is here to stay. You need to focus on developing your reps’ skills around digital technologies and help them adapt to the digital channels your customers and prospects are using.

For example, one critical area of focus is using data and insights to make better selling decisions. That could mean training your reps on how to more effectively leverage the data in your CRM for prioritizing leads and personalizing messaging.

Or you may decide to retrain your field sales reps to adopt inside sales roles so they can service your prospects and customers via your website’s chat feature or respond to messages on social media.

Trend #2: B2B buyer priorities are changing completely. 

In virtually all industries, COVID-19 has sparked a sharp and sudden drop in demand.

Government-mandated shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines across the globe have forced organizations to cut or stop spending and rapidly shift their focus to operating business remotely.

As a result, sales leaders and teams are feeling defeated and frustrated. 

In some cases, your customers' needs have dramatically shifted as they scramble to figure out their own new business model and revenue streams. 

Your customers are reprioritizing, rethinking, and re-strategizing how to optimize their online presence, create immediate value for their own customers, and what steps need to be taken to safely bring employees back to the office or set up a long-term solution for remote working.

Purchasing from you just may not be top of mind right now. 

What this means for sales leaders

Sales leaders must guide the sales team towards helping customers solve problems in both immediate and intermediate terms. 

How? 

By proactively reaching out with empathetic, custom messaging and making concerted efforts to transform customer needs into value-driven solutions.

In fact, a recent study discovered that organizations that dynamically align their sales processes to customers’ changing paths have 17.9% higher win rates and 11.8% more quota attainment rates.

Sales leaders must modify their priorities and adapt to an elongated sales cycle.

Prospects are just slower to make decisions right now, especially for big-ticket, non-essential purchases. 

Treat every targeted account — whether it be a former customer or a new prospect — like an early-stage opportunity, and deploy tactics to keep that opportunity relevant and your prospects interested until they are comfortable investing again. 

This could include thought-leadership events like webinars, custom content, creative direct mail that acknowledges the current environment, video case studies, and testimonials, and outbound calling.

In these changing times, meaningful customer interactions and insights are critical to surviving and thriving today and in the days ahead.

What was true pre-COVID-19 may not be true now. Your salespeople need to get to know your customers again. 

Opening the lines of communication in creative, value-driven ways will help you understand evolving needs so that when your customers are ready you’ve already re-positioned your solution to address both short and-long term goals.

Trend #3: B2B sales operations are going digital — reluctantly.

Many of the changes to business and sales operations, such as increased reliance on virtual selling, will continue well into the future. 

While most sales leaders accept the need for a move to increased use of digital channels, it’s not as simple as just “moving to digital.”

Sales representatives and managers often rely on instinct to execute sales strategies. Many often view tech tools that capture customer and account context—and increase visibility into the selling process—as roadblocks in their daily jobs. 

Research reveals that more than 80% of CSOs are not confident about the adoption of the various sales technologies that they have deployed.

What this means for sales leaders

The sharp rise in the use of digital channels means that companies need to be thoughtful not only about how to enable effective digital interactions with customers but also how to deploy their sales reps most efficiently. 

Sales organizations need to realign sales processes so that the sales force can replicate them at scale. 

For example, virtual sales require the same discipline and standardization as face-to-face sales. 

Sales leaders should set expectations on what the standard operating model should be in this new environment, literally spelling out what Monday to Friday should look like for reps—for example, how much time they should spend generating new leads and how much connecting with existing customers. 

Sales leaders can also help reps master the details of the virtual sales process through active coaching on topics like how best to use social platforms such as LinkedIn to generate leads, or how to use sales materials to follow up a virtual meeting in order to increase conversion rates.

Putting the right data-driven tools in your rep’s hands can help them capture a 360-degree view of your customers—and act fast and effectively on crucial opportunities. 

Preparing your sales team 

As a sales leader, you must lead the charge for innovation. You’re responsible for helping your sales team keep a pulse on trends and new technologies that will help you know what’s happening in the market as changes occur as well as staying close to your customers as their needs evolve.

All of the companies that you’re selling to are navigating this same environment of uncertainty and unpredictability you are. 

The solution that you sell might suddenly be a fit or maybe it won’t anymore. Your prospects might get acquired by other companies. Your prospect’s vendor might go out of business, creating a need for a new vendor (you!) to get on board with the prospect’s organization. 

All of your sales conversations need to lean into this spirit of dynamism and resilience. 

How can you help your customers’ businesses get stronger, leaner, more efficient, lower-cost, or lower-risk? How can you adapt your sales pitch to the unique concerns and challenges of this specific moment?

Be open to embracing new narratives, approaches, and terms. 

Reposition existing product and service offers to exceed your customers’ unmet needs in real-time. 

This requires continuous use of emerging customer data sources and technology that uncovers propensity-to-buy shifts. Never stop innovating, testing, and refining your approach as you go.

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