How to sell in the age of social distancing

Some of the most successful salespeople thrive on face-to-face interactions to secure their next deal or to get in front of a new client. Being outgoing and sociable are among the traits of good salespeople.

But since mid-March, the vast majority of companies have had to ask employees to work from home in response to government restrictions put in place to halt the spread of the coronavirus. So have sales professionals been able to adapt to this new way of working and secure remote sales?

“Our sales team are social creatures, without a doubt,” says James Cobb, sales and marketing director at Inspired Villages, which provides retirement accommodation. “They sit down with customers and… talk.”

At international business development consultancy Intralink, it took some salespeople longer to get used to the “new normal”, according to chief executive Greg Sutch. This was particularly the case for the “archetypal salesperson who is always out doing the face-to-face meetings”, as well as the younger, charismatic salesperson who requires mentoring, he says.

But Sutch also observes that in recent years, the face-to-face part of the job had already begun to decline in importance as digital came to the fore.

He recalls: “When I was in Asia ten-plus years ago, going out drinking with your client, or your prospective client, was absolutely essential if you wanted to seal the deal. You had to develop that face-to-face rapport. I think it’s partly generational, but I don’t think that is necessarily essential anymore.”

Personalised meetings through video technology

Like so many professions, top salespeople have come to rely on technology to do business remotely. Video conferencing technology, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, has helped them maintain pre-crisis levels of interaction with existing clients. It has also proven a successful tool through which to present to prospective customers.

“Proximity and frequency are key in sales,” says Nicole Haman, digital global sales director at RTL AdConnect, which connects advertisers to new channels and markets.

She explains that video communication has brought them even closer to their clients and made it possible to personalise their sales approach. “We continued to keep a high level of interaction with our clients, which has been appreciated by them,” Haman adds.

While video calls have been effective for remote sales teams, for both closing a deal and establishing new prospects and customers, the technology has its limitations.

Body language can be hard to read and interpret on video, particularly if one caller has an unreliable internet connection or there are interruptions from family members or pets in the background. And just because sales professionals are used to communicating face to face or presenting to large groups, this does not mean they are good on camera.

The key to being a successful salesperson is empathy. Empathy for clients and the pressures they feel is more important than ever

“It can be difficult to get your passion and energy for your product across on a call, and sometimes it can be tricky to build rapport with potential partners, especially if you have not met before in person,” says Melissa Snover, founder and chief executive of Nourished, which offers personalised nutrition products.

But, as Snover points out: “A good salesperson should be eager to accept new challenges, be able to adapt to different environments and effectively connect with their clients under pressure, and so should still be able to find opportunities for growth during this pandemic.”

Closing a deal remotely

One of the traits of good salespeople is understanding clients’ needs, something that can only be gleaned from listening.

“I always think the key to being a successful salesperson is empathy,” says Kate Barker, director of business development at digital advertising and innovation company R/GA London. “Empathy for clients and the pressures they feel is more important than ever.”

Selling social distancing stats

She applied this to the first Zoom pitch R/GA did just days into the lockdown when everyone was probably feeling their most vulnerable. The company won the pitch partly because they positioned themselves as a partner, rather than coming across as trying to get a sale over the line.

Arun Mani, president of business software provider Freshworks Europe, agrees that empathy must be a core part of the new remote sales strategy, “getting closer to existing clients, listening to their concerns and being on hand more than ever”.

New tricks adopted by sales professionals

Research conducted by Freshworks found 60 per cent of 62 UK sales leaders are confident their teams are ready to switch to a more permanent form of remote sales. Many of the uses of technology and sales techniques, which have emerged during the pandemic, have proved successful and are here to stay.

Cobb at Inspired Villages explains that before the lockdown they filmed some virtual tours of the retirement villages “to show customers what it’s like, even though they can’t go there”. He has changed his view on virtual tours, which he now believes are a useful tool, and his company will continue virtual tours as “a first viewing, still encouraging people to then come and visit the villages”.

Dean Skidmore, managing director of IDHL Group, says the company has incorporated video emails into the sales process, which helps to “humanise” remote sales.

He adds: “This isn’t something we were doing pre-lockdown; it’s a process that has been driven by the pandemic. However, it’s something we plan to continue with.”

The need to work from home has helped bring out another of the traits of good salespeople –resourcefulness – which should ensure sales professionals thrive even in the most challenging circumstances.