The coronavirus pandemic has forced billions of people worldwide to remain at home – displacing selling teams and accelerating the adoption of virtual selling channels.  Few organizations were prepared for this scale of employee dispersion. 

98% of sales leaders report their businesses will be disrupted by the pandemic by over five sales quarters as they adapt to uncertainty, changing buyer behavior, and new ways of working according to research by the Revenue Enablement Institute.  Sales productivity has dropped by 20% since the pandemic started as executives struggle to adapt to managing and measuring remote salespeople, call center representatives, and customer support agents.  And most executives believe the changes brought on by the pandemic will transform the way they sell forever.

Sales leaders are now being forced to quickly adapt their commercial models to this new buying reality by:

  • Transitioning from “old school” face-to-face selling to virtual selling approaches better suited to the demands of “new school” buyers who prefer to work through digital channels;
  • Building “digital first” sales infrastructure to support remote selling at scale;
  • And getting much more leverage, visibility, customer engagement, and speed from technology.

“The global spread of the coronavirus is the tipping point for virtual selling, which represents the commercial model of the future,” reports Michael Smith, a Managing Director at Blue Ridge Partners who has helped over 100 businesses improve their selling performance. “Looking past the pandemic, the coronavirus response has pushed most sales organizations past the point of no return where the adoption rate of remote selling channels and “new school” digital buying practices will transform selling as we know it. This will redefine the commercial model by accelerating the cadence of sales, forcing higher levels of digital engagement, and introducing entirely new sales management practices.”.

Bob Kelly, Chairman of the Sales Management Association (SMA) which co-sponsored the Remote Sales Productivity Report, anticipates the pressure to respond to the coronavirus will finally give sales leaders the shove they need to become adaptable, technology-enabled, and learning agile. “The response to the coronavirus crisis has created a “shoving point” that will force sales managers to truly rely on technology or be left behind. That shove will send many reeling. But I ultimately believe most sales forces, or their managers will rise to the challenge and adapt to challenging markets, re organize with heightened purpose, and remake their organizations in a more remote selling model.”

Unfortunately, sales leaders have limited time or resources to make this transition. This raises the stakes on the difficult resource allocation and investment decisions they must make in the coming year. With planning for the 2021 fiscal year just months away, the vast majority (98%) of organizations will have no additional funds to make these changes. In fact, two thirds have had to cut their sales budgets in response to shrinking demand.  At the same time, the decisions they make on where to cut, invest, and refocus sales resources will disproportionately define their future profitability and competitiveness in the new buying reality.

To help growth leaders make the smartest possible choices, the Revenue Enablement Institute and the SMA conducted a survey of sales leaders. The findings of this study are published in the Remote Sales Productivity Report, which outlines five actions sales leaders can take to both improve remote sales team productivity today and set the stage for selling effectively in the recovery.

1. Speed: Accelerate the speed of communication, lead flow and response. Three quarters of the sales leaders surveyed in the report identified adapting to changing customer expectations and demand for responsiveness as their top sales productivity challenge. To lead effectively in a remote setting, managers must find ways to accelerate the speed of communication to provide the entire selling team with fast, transparent, and inclusive information about all client activity and engagement. This gives remote salespeople purpose and direction, and it allows managers to delegate authority without giving up control and accountability to support quick actions and decision-making by front line sales employees.

Michael Smith echoes the importance of accelerating the cadence of communications to get sales teams to focus on a tight set of execution priorities and address rising customer expectations for fast and complete communications. “With the advent of digital buying, clients have become increasingly unwilling to wait for answers, information, and advice,” reports Smith, who has coached a dozen leadership teams on ways to adapt effectively to remote selling in the last several months. “The shift to remote work will only accelerate this trend. Your customers are going to expect answers in minutes or hours not days or weeks.” 

2.Tools: Give your sales teams the basic tools they need to effectively sell remotely. This sounds fundamental, but less than 6% of enterprise work forces were formally equipped for telecommuting at the start of the year. Newly displaced sellers lack the basic tools to operate effectively in a remote environment – unified communications, network access hardware, collaboration platforms, and sales enablement tools.  This is changing fast as organizations realize the commercial model has hit an inflection point – and face-to-face selling, travel and events are going to become a smaller part of the mix.  Like Y2K and similar disruptive events – the pandemic is forcing companies to upgrade their infrastructure to equip their remote sales reps with the bandwidth, flexibility, and capability to deliver superior customer experiences while reducing costs. As an illustration, AT&T experienced a 400% increase in the use of online collaboration tools from home and business users and a sharp rise in video traffic over mobile networks since the crisis began. This foreshadows the growing importance of digital and video collaboration in remote selling. “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,” forecasts Mo Katibeh, the CMO of AT&T.

3.Visibility: Get better visibility into buyer and seller activity to stop flying blind. Visibility is an urgent issue for the simple reason you can’t manage what you can’t measure, and you can’t measure what you can’t see. In fact, the study found that getting better visibility into seller activity, customer engagement, forecast commitments, and pipeline health were identified as the top 4 ways to better manage remote sales productivity.  Unfortunately, the lack of visibility is the “Achilles heel” of remote selling productivity.  “To make the greatest use of scarce time we must equip sellers with better information about where the buyer is positioned in the buying cycle and meet them there with the information, content, and plays the buyer needs much faster,” reports Michael Smith. This means getting better control over the customer engagement and buyer activity data they already have.  Greater visibility is now essential in a post Covid-19 marketplace.  It gives sales managers the information they need to better manage, measure, coach and empower remote revenue teams at the edge of the organizations with the information they need to engage customers and make the right decisions faster.

4.Hyper-focus: Double down on pipeline and relationship building.  Uncertainty about demand is regarded as the biggest risk to the revenue plan by sales leaders. According to the research, only one in five customers you call  will be in market to buy in the short term. Sellers anticipate a 77% decrease in customer retention, 42% drop in cross sell and upsell opportunity, and an 18% drop in new business acquisition. And most don’t anticipate demand will rebound until the end of 2021. So, surviving today and succeeding in the next normal will require extremely productive and focused relationship and pipeline building for the third and fourth quarter. Every organization needs to double down and move forward – whether they can exploit advantages in the post-Covid economy, defend customer relationships, or pivot to become part of the solution. “Sales leaders need to be much more disciplined and focused in how they respond to the crisis,” warns Michael Smith. “You  cannot afford to waste precious sales time on the wrong leads, customers and prospects in this environment. Sellers need to focus their limited time on opportunities that can close, and sustaining relationships with key customers and the most valuable prospects. Achieving this hyper-focus will require information that supports trusted advisor interactions and much more scientific management of accounts. For example, this means using sales AI to better qualify leads based on data about customer engagement and recommend specific actions required to convert those opportunities to sales. This is going to force sales operations to shift the focus of their sales technology stacks and systems from reporting on workflow to driving workflow.”

5. Run new sales plays: Create a new playbook for virtual selling.  The dramatic pivot to remote selling will bring the growing disconnect  between tried and true “old school” field selling practices and “new school” digital buying to a flash point. Sales managers and sales effectiveness leaders will have their work cut out for them over the next several months, according to Bob Kelly. “They will be forced to adapt their organizations to unaccustomed modes of selling, learning, and collaborating,” predicts Kelly. “Sales managers will have to redesign sales process and selling messages, restructure sales roles, replace suddenly obsolete activity models, incentives, and territory assignments. They will retrain the salespeople who must make sense of these changes, then retrain them again as fluid strategies evolve.”

Michael Smith agrees that sales leaders need to write a new playbook for virtual selling based on experience helping over 100 businesses improve their selling performance.  “Veteran/traditional field sellers will not be immediately comfortable with virtual selling as the tools of the trade  change.  Many will struggle to quickly shift from face-to-face relationship building and advice over time, to using digital communication channels and virtual, video and collaboration platforms to deliver answers to new school digital clients in the moment,” according to Smith. “This will force 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 setting new expectations for video presentation skills, a faster operating cadence, more personalized content, and team selling.

You can learn more about how sales leaders are adapting to the new buying reality and these five ways to increase the productivity and competitiveness of your remote sales team in the new report: Five Keys to Leading, Enabling, and Managing Highly Effective Remote Selling Teams.

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