Five Gaps You Need to Fill to Make Your Numbers in 2021

After 9 months of crisis management and experimentation, we’ve learned virtual selling can work. As we enter 2021, most B2B buyers are doing all aspects of the customer journey – from demos to negotiations to customer support – in a remote and virtual setting. Sales reps are expected to hit their quota’s despite cuts to travel and event spending. And the practice of recording, analyzing, and tracking videoconferencing calls has become a staple of effective sales management.

But it’s important to remember the virtual selling model is a work in progress. The vast majority of revenue teams are still in the “messy middle” between “triaging” a virtual sales effort in the early days of the pandemic and true digital transformation. 

Over the last two months I’ve had the privilege of speaking at a number of sales kick off meetings to prepare sales teams for growth in the coming year.  I’m impressed by the ability of these revenue teams to adapt to a rapidly changing environment in the last 9 months. On balance, most of the teams I spoke with have been able to sustain growth despite the headwinds, budget cutbacks, and isolation of 2020.

But these conversations have also raised some “red flags” that suggest their revenue plans will be at substantial risk unless their leaders continue to evolve to a virtual selling model.

As we enter 2021 – some of the “cracks” in the virtual selling status quo are visible to any observant executive. “Zoom fatigue” is a scientific reality. The increased cadence of virtual selling has buyers and sellers burnt out and disengaged according to research by Robert Half.  Attendance and engagement in virtual events is dropping as the novelty wears off. And anyone with school age children can see the difference between an online education via videoconferencing and a true classroom experience.

But the problems go deeper than that. After speaking at a dozen sales kick off meetings with hundreds of sales reps in the last 60 days, we’re hearing the signals of sales forces struggling to adapt and differentiate their approaches in ways essential to effective selling today. Specifically, we see sales reps and the teams that support them highlight the same five obstacles to selling in a virtual environment:

  • Relationship development: Its harder to identify, build and maintain relationships in virtual settings without the intangible “magic” and non-verbal communication that comes from face-to-face interaction. Attendees rated developing and retaining customer relationships in the absence of face-to-face engagement as a top challenge in every session.
  • Executing the Account Plan: Preparing for virtual sales calls is challenging because it’s difficult to engage and access all the influencers, stakeholders, and decision-makers in the buying unit virtually. This was rated the most challenging aspect of building stronger customer engagement virtually according to our survey of 622 sales reps and support personnel.
  • Preparing for meetings:  It’s often difficult to assemble the right subject matter experts needed to answer the broader set of product, ROI, validation, service, and use-case questions as fast as “new school” buyers want. 71% of reps rated clarifying who will be on each call and preparing for their questions as the most critical aspect to managing virtual sales opportunities.
  • Conducting compelling sales calls:  Anticipating customer needs and interests – and tailoring personalized content to address them – is a bigger challenge because reps have limited visibility into more complex decision-making processes.
  • Advancing the Sale: It’s harder to create an advance from prospect to lead to call to proposal in an endless daisy chain of low impact virtual meetings and interactions. Our surveys consistently found conducting successful meetings that move the sales process forward as one of the most challenging elements of virtual selling.

These five warning signs suggest sales teams are struggling with the fundamentals of relationship building, account planning and advancing the sale. In some cases, these struggles have been caused by the inability of “old school sellers” to adapt fast enough to 100% virtual selling. For others, these underlying problems always existed but have now been magnified by the greater transparency of digital and data-driven selling.

In either case, these “red flags” should serve as a warning that what worked in 2020 in the early days of remote selling may not be enough to make your numbers in 2021. Managers need to continue to push the pace of virtual transformation to avoid a drop off in performance as buyers’ expectations continue to evolve.

It’s important to remember the journey to virtual selling remains a work in progress. There’s a difference between “triaging” a virtual sales effort in the early days of the pandemic and transforming your sales approach for the long term. Even though 81% of growth leaders are using the pandemic as an opportunity to redefine the customer experience in digital and virtual channels – most of these efforts are in early innings.  It’s realistic to expect revenue teams will have to wait 12-24 months for these investments to bear fruit. In the meantime, they have to generate growth with what they have today.

So, what can sales leaders do right now to “bridge” this divide between virtual sales triage and true transformation? 

The first thing is to step back and look at the complete picture to minimize the liabilities and accentuate the advantages of the situation. The shift to “4D” selling networks that are distributed, digital, diverse, and dynamic has its pros and cons. Firms that capitalize on their assets and minimize their liabilities will obviously fare better in 2021. 

On the liability side of the ledger – the loss of sales visits, “live eyeballs” and events definitely hurts “old school” sellers.  And the struggle to create compelling reasons to call and engaging meetings in the absence of live events, “whiteboarding”, and non-verbal communication is real. The five warning signs we’re hearing from revenue teams are a reaction to these underlying forces.

But there are new assets on the balance sheet that sales leaders can exploit in the near term, and longer term. The reduction in travel time and the blurring of geographic, functional, and role-based boundaries gives sales leaders more degrees of freedom to better allocate subject matter experts from across the company on sales calls. These selling assets can be deployed with speed and precision if organizations take advantage of the customer engagement data and AI enabled tools now available to them.

And companies that reinvest their travel and real estate dollars in content, tools and training will see advantages. 82% of growth leaders are increasing their investment in sales and marketing content to adapt to the pandemic-induced recession and shifts to remote selling will.  And reconfiguration of sales real estate and T&E can free up enough money to double or triple sales training and technology budgets. So, having the skills, content, and technology to deliver a superior customer experience in virtual channels is within reach.

The second thing to do is redesign their sales model to reflect underlying changes in go to market and better take advantage of these resource, data, and technology assets.

  1. Territory design – Geography, account, function, and role play a smaller role in virtual selling. So traditional coverage and territory design approaches have to change.  Digital selling allows managers to digital release these constraints.  This allows them to redesign the selling model to better focus sales, product, industry, and account experts based on opportunity potential and actions (meetings) that grow lifetime value.  We’ve created a simple virtual selling “design compass” to help sales leaders navigate these trade-offs as the redesign their selling architecture.
  2. Data-driven targeting and segmentation – Targeting, segmentation, and resource allocation is much more data-driven.  Targeting and territory design needs to reflect that if you are going to exploit this advantage in 2021.  Sales planning needs to use intelligence about buyer intent, churn signals, RFP activity, buyer preference, decision-making clusters to determine who attends a call and which accounts and actions are prioritized.  Managers that increase the use of these tools as a way to match and converging experts, skills, and content on an opportunity – instead of rigid geographic and organizational constructs – will see better selling yields. 
  3. Reengineer the selling workflow to increase your speed – The ability to marshal diverse resources quickly and convergence on opportunities in real time is a bigger factor as the cadence of selling accelerates and visibility into customer engagement grows.  This makes real time skill and expertise routing and matching a critical success factor now. The data and tools to do this effectively exist now.  It’s the willingness of leadership to reengineering workflows across sales, marketing and service boundaries that is the gating factor.  This will allow you to operationalize “microsegments” that better reflect unique customer opportunity and need, as well as scale Account Based Marketing programs to thousands of accounts instead of just a few dozen.
  4. Reconfigure the technology portfolio to align with the selling workflow – The next generation of growth leaders will distinguish themselves by how they get their sales technologies to work together to support their processes and create value. They’ll stitch together the building blocks in their legacy technology stacks into technology ecosystems that capitalize on the most obvious opportunities to grow sales, profit, and firm value. Specifically, we see growth leaders actively “knitting together” the various pieces of their technology portfolios to build Digital Selling Platforms that automate, simplify, and speed up selling by addressing the major hot spots in the selling process.
  5. Update your sales playbook to address the five red flags. If you sales teams are struggling with the fundamentals of relationship building, account planning and advancing the sale it’s probably time to update your sales playbooks. Most companies we talk to are developing creative new sales plays in the post-COVID-19 environment for finding new customers, deepening relationships with current customers, and adding new products/services to expand wallet share.

You can learn more about how to redesign your selling model today to get 50% higher engagement, speed of response and productivity from your sales reps with the assets you have, while you wait for your digital transformation efforts to bear fruit.

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