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Virtual selling channels are now fundamental to selling success in a market where remote selling is the “new normal” as the coronavirus pandemic has forced over 4 Billion consumers, customers,  employees, and salespeople to stay at home.

Lost in the rush to enable remote selling, is the fact that virtual selling channels offer growth-oriented companies the potential to transform sales performance and accelerate growth.

Properly designed and equipped, virtual selling channels can dramatically improve the coverage, control, and cost effectiveness of your sales channels while offering buyers the speed of response and experiences they demand.

From a technology perspective, the pressure to adapt to this new buying reality will accelerate the adoption of existing but grossly under-utilized technologies that offer the potential to multiply seller performance. These include algorithmic selling, sales enablement, 5G communications, DTC channels, and even augmented reality.

From a commercial model standpoint – virtual sales models are far more than a trend, and certainly more than field sales reps on zoom.  Your organization can double customer engagement, productivity and speed at lower costs by enabling your remote selling teams with seven key capabilities.

Tactically, sales leaders must properly equip their virtual reps with fundamental digital infrastructure  – bandwidth, hardware, network access, and sales enablement tools – that they will need to operate remotely. 

Mo Katibeh, the CMO of AT&T anticipates the response to the coronavirus pandemic will bring about fundamental and long-lasting changes to the mix and composition of network traffic over corporate and consumer communications networks, and the infrastructure that underlies them. “Like Y2K and similar disruptive events – the cost and complexity of moving over 220 million employees, students, and customers to home-based work will force corporations and institutions to upgrade their communications infrastructure,” shares Katibeh.  “Network performance is becoming more tightly linked to employee performance as the economy becomes more virtual and more customers engage in digital and virtual channels. Moving to a more modern unified communications infrastructure can lead to lower costs, dramatically increase bandwidth, more flexibility, and capability to deliver superior customer experiences in the post-COVID environment.” As evidence of this, the use of online collaboration tools from home and business users has risen 400% in the last three weeks, and video now makes up over half of mobility network traffic but represents over 50% of network bandwidth – according to recent AT&T network usage statistics.

Strategically, a virtual selling infrastructure gives B2B sellers the opportunity to differentiate the buying journey with video and virtual experiences that substitute for face to face test drives, solution configuration, physical design and visual experiences. A virtual infrastructure can also dramatically extend sales coverage beyond the traditional bounds of geographic, territory, and functional constraints. 

According to Saurabh Goorha, a senior Fellow at Wharton and an expert in virtual selling, the shift to remote selling will force these organizations to work harder to adopt sales enablement, 5G communications, DTC channels, and even augmented reality at scale.  “Purely virtual immersive technologies and AR/VR devices have traditionally been used for experiential products (e.g. travel & leisure) but they are increasingly relevant for sale of utilitarian products,” reports Goorha.  For example, the architecture and interior design industry are using eDesign services which allow sales reps to give virtual in-home consultations and walk-through 3D spaces with pre-sale selections of furniture & furnishings, leading to faster sale and satisfaction. Similarly, higher education recruitment is undergoing a transformational shift by offering virtual tours of college campuses and personalized landing pages for prospective students that drive higher engagement and conversion.”

Gaining visibility into sales activity is a fundamental challenge with remote selling for the simple reason you can’t manage what you can’t measure, and you can’t measure what you can’t see. Remote selling requires fast communication between revenue team members. And “horizontal” information flow across sales, service and product silos is particularly important to serving modern buyers.

For virtual channels to be effective, you must find ways to inform the entire selling team with fast, transparent, and inclusive information about all client activity and engagement. This allows managers to delegate authority to the edge of the organization to support quick actions and decision-making by remote sales employees, without giving up control and accountability.  For example, DHL used advanced customer engagement analytics and sales AI to create relevant data, insights and measures of customer engagement quality for their selling teams. “Analytics and AI give us unprecedented visibility into the opportunities and provides actionable next steps for our sales executives to sell with the buyers perspective, helping customers be more successful,” according to Ton Verleg, the VP of Global Sales Development at DHL,  

Advanced analytics and sales AI can better allocate seller time and multiply seller effectiveness by qualifying opportunities based on buyer intent, prioritizing accounts, and recommending the right content, plays and actions with the best chance of success.  “It’s clear AI works in sales,” according to Leonard Lodish, Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of Business. “The trick has been to get sales and marketing leaders to try it and see it through to successful long-term value creation. The shift to virtual selling models will actually accelerate adoption of sales AI. Because sales leaders are finding it’s difficult to manage, measure, and coach remote sales forces they cannot see. Or evaluate sales meetings they cannot attend. This will force many businesses to experiment more with advanced analytics as a way to measure, manage and improve the performance of virtual sales reps.”

The perception of how to use AI in sales is very different from the reality. The perception is that sales AI involves very complex and advanced applications – like real time language analysis. In fact, these are beyond most firm’s capability from a data and organizational maturity standpoint. The reality is Sales AI doesn’t have to be advanced to be impactful in the short term. There’s a broad continuum of applications of AI in the selling model ranging from relatively simple to very complex. There are many high impact and simple to implement sale AI applications most organizations can be taking advantage of today. Organizations are dramatically improving sales performance by using algorithms to help with the  basics of account and lead prioritization and qualification, recommending the content or sales action that will lead to success, and reallocating sales resources to the places they can have the most impact.”

In the short term, some of the most practical and impactful ways data-driven algorithms can help sales leaders  better empower, manage, measure and coach their remote revenue teams include:

  • Opportunity prioritization based on buyer intent and engagement
  • Recommending next best sales actions
  • Selling time optimization
  • Sales coverage realignment across geographies, accounts and business lines
  • Talent assessment and optimization

Assessing customer sentiment, intent and building trust in the absence of non-verbal cues and body language are another way AI can enhance virtual channel impact, according to Saurabh Goorha, Senior Fellow at The Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative. Based on his research, he sees a growing role for psycho-linguistics models to measure effectiveness and credibility of people interactions in virtual communications.  “In traditional in-person sales interactions, non-verbal “leakage cues” can hinder the sales communication process leading to suboptimal impact for motivated sellers,” according to Goorha. “Virtual settings allow the seller to selectively present information about themselves, and the absence of traditional non-verbal cues, such as gestures or broken eye contact, leads to a phenomenon called “motivational enhancement effect”. The motivated sellers may be more likely to engage in strategic communication behaviors that maximize credibility and effectiveness of their pitch in virtual sales channels.”

Any organization can leverage sales enablement technology as a “force multiplier” to expand seller capacity by first freeing up face time, then ensuring a more reliable stream of customer engagement and activity information, and finally realizing the full potential of the sales technology stack. Tactically by automating planning, content selection and CRM reporting tasks, reps  can free up 10-30% of sales time for engaging customers. Strategically, sales automation and enablement can multiply the returns on existing selling assets – such as CRM – by eliminating the historic obstacles to realizing their potential.

Bob Kelly, the Chairman of the Sales Management Organization, points out that like Sales AI, sales automation implementations don’t have to be complex or advanced to be extremely impactful and profitable in the short term.  “Three decades after CRM’s advent, our research shows that most firms CRM implementations are characterized by lower than acceptable ROI, unsatisfactory user adoption, and lots of unrealized potential. Sales automation can unlock that untapped value potential of CRM simply by knocking down the top obstacles to adoption, which include ease of data input, assistance managing the pipeline, ease of use, and creating a single source of sales force information.”

Jeff  McKittrick, the VP of Sales Business Capabilities at Hitachi Vantara echoes Kelly’s common sense. “In my experience, sales effectiveness and productivity can be increased two-fold or even more by giving sales reps the right tool, information, and content at the right time, and giving managers the insights they need to make better resource allocation decisions and sales performance metrics,” shares McKittrick, who has over 15 years’ experience leading sales enablement and Digital Selling Platform implementations.  “The trick has always been management’s commitment to leveraging sales automation technology in the selling process by providing the right incentives, culture, and user experience to get salespeople to use these tools. In the absence of these factors, adoption of sales automation is under 20% at many organizations even after putting five to ten tools in the sales technology stack. So, salespeople continue to spend their time searching for information which takes critical selling time away from engaging customers.

“The coronavirus pandemic has changed this dynamic,” continues McKittrick. “The pressure to drive sales in virtual channels should be a tipping point where the value of sales automation can be fully realized because sales teams need every minute of time as they double down to protect customer relationships, adapt to dynamic market opportunities and increase customer engagement to drive sales in a challenging economy.”

Virtual sales reps will need to become faster and better at finding and recommending “channel ready” content that meets buyers’ high expectations for relevance, personalization, visualization and collaboration in a remote setting situation.

“To meet the needs of modern buyers,  virtual sales reps will need to rely more heavily on digital communication channels and virtual, video and collaboration platforms to deliver in minutes or hours what traditional sellers often take days or weeks to deliver,” according to Mike Smith, Managing Director of Blue Ridge Partners, who is coaching dozens of organizations through the fundamentals of shifting to a virtual sales model. “This will force many sales organizations to update or create new sales playbooks to be specific about what is expected of everyone in their new virtual sales roles – including activity expectations, scripts, time allocation. This will ensure field sellers are comfortable with video skills and the presentations, videos, demos, and content they will need to be effective in digital channels and on video calls.

Personalized and immersive video and AR content will become more important as online buyers place a premium on the quality and context of content. “The immersive and digital nature of the content needed to fuel virtual channels creates greater potential for better engagement and conversion because it can be more readily personalized to client needs and mapped to the consumer journey graph using AI and Machine Learning models,” according to Saurabh Goorha.

The best way to see, manage, and coach remote employees is to build measures and incentives on a foundation of customer engagement and buyer activity data.

The most effective way to measure seller performance, according to Steve Lucas, the CEO of iCIMs, is for sales leaders to develop a universal customer engagement quality score that defines engagement excellence to all the stakeholders on the revenue teams. Lucas recommends that top management should “define as an organization what a 10 out of 10 looks like in terms of customer advocacy, quality of interaction, content sharing, and other relationship health metrics. And then use advanced analytics to build composite metrics that quantify and track customer engagement quality on a customer and account level

It is possible with available sales technology for sales managers to construct measurements and incentives based on granular customer engagement and seller activity data that give quantifiable measures of account health, opportunity quality, prospect potential, and seller performance.

Measuring activity and engagement makes practical sense for managers who cannot meet sales reps face to face.  It’s difficult to manage outcomes, but it’s possible to manage behavior and activity.  And linear waterfall metrics don’t accurately reflect the new buying reality, and can be divisive, dysfunctional and subject to gaming.

One of the biggest ways virtual selling can boost sales performance is it gives sales managers much more flexibility to redefine the role of the sales rep in ways that better address rising buyer expectations for fast and complete access to expertise, support, information and advice. Jeff  McKittrick emphasizes that the absence of physical limitations allows you to expand coverage beyond traditional geographic, territory and functional constraints and put the best resources in the best spot to advance a deal. “Expertise within a sales organization is often siloed and not broadly available or leveraged across teams,” states McKittrick. “In traditional selling models, these experts are accessed via inefficient methods like email lists and various messaging apps within an organization.  When an expert provides the answer to a question, it is usually provided only to the person who asked the question vs. a central, searchable repository where it can be leveraged by the entire organization.  Digital selling platforms can break down these walls by taking advantage of technologies that facilitate information sharing and provide more of a “Google-like” experience to finding experts and information in specific context to a company’s technology and solutions.” 

The experts at the Revenue Enablement Institute can show you how to design a high performing virtual selling channel and help you quickly arm your revenue teams with the data, analytics and activity-based measurements they need to perform at a higher level than face to face selling.  To learn more and see a virtual selling channel in action go to www.revenueenablement.sg-host.com.

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