The sales profession drastically changed overnight when the Covid-19 pandemic came, forcing those in it to move into the virtual environment and use videoconferencing tools.
A McKinsey study of life insurance agents in the US showed that sales conversations conducted face-to-face in May dropped to 5 percent from a base of 90 percent in January. This means 95 percent of these moved to a virtual setting. In another McKinsey study, more than 90 percent of busines-to-business (B2B) sales organizations globally have transitioned to a virtual sales model during the pandemic.
But the transition to virtual selling is not easy. Another McKinsey study conducted during the pandemic revealed that more than half of insurance agents in Germany experienced an over 40 percent decrease in new business. In the US, 50 percent of insurance agents said remotely building new customer relationships was the biggest challenge.
Despite these grim signals, there is still a sizable number of organizations that are maintaining or even increasing spending, at least for now, according to the management consulting firm. “That is especially true for large B2B companies, 53 percent of which expect to increase or maintain [spending] over the next two weeks (April 8 to 21, 2020).”
The problem is, not all sellers are able to effectively shift to virtual selling. According to our survey of salespersons, challenges include difficulty in establishing a connection with buyers, inability to see body language, gaining attention and keeping engagement, and limited interaction resulting in a less personal touch.
To be effective in virtual selling, the same principles in face-to-face selling still apply, although there is a difference in execution. Selling virtually requires the seller “to orchestrate a sensory experience that is rich, attention-grabbing, rationally engaging and takes buyers on an emotional journey that ends with a decision in the seller’s favor,” says Mike Schultz’s groundbreaking book Virtual Selling.
One major difference between face-to-face and virtual selling is preparation. Virtual selling involves mastering the new medium. This includes the conversation setup, which involves having the right bandwidth and videocall link, among others; the choice of platform; video and lighting setups; background; the position of the head and face in the video; and color contrast.
These may seem too mundane to think about, but one must make sure all these follow best practices to make the conversation with a customer or potential client as rich as possible.
Another nuance in virtual selling is how to build rapport and trust with potential customers. There are four principles involved: cultivating empathy, showing authenticity, finding similarities and shared experiences with the other person. We cultivate empathy by asking the right questions and listening intently; we show authenticity by using a real background that reflects your personality, rather than a digital one; we find similarities by mirroring the online behavior of the customer; and we develop a shared experience by using collaboration tools to find solutions with the customer.
Collaborating with the customer virtually is probably the most significant difference in this regard. By using online tools such as virtual whiteboarding, screensharing, PowerPoint and spreadsheet sharing, sellers can collaborate with clients to uncovers needs, prepare and review contract and presentations, and present and discuss business cases.
Another major difference is the seller making and communicating the case to change from the old reality to the new normal. This involves painting a picture of the new reality for the buyer: where he or she is right now and where he or she wants to be.
Individuals and businesses want to move on from an environment that is currently difficult and slow to that capitalizes on opportunities amid the pandemic. It is therefore the job of the seller to drive change with the buyer by maximizing his or her desire for it, make it as painless and simple as possible, and boosting his or her belief that what you sell will work. This is the most crucial part of virtual selling: crafting the value of the item offered and effectively communicating to and convincing the buyer.
Virtual selling will continue to be the new normal while face-to-face selling will become an option. Virtual selling is here to stay. Those who master this will be ahead of the rest.
It is timely, then, that Hungry Workhorse has developed the Virtual Consultative Selling program for sellers to develop and hone their skills. Interested sales organizations may reach me by email.
The author is the chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is a fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation and country pepresentative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia. He teaches strategic management in the MBA program of De La Salle University. The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.