What has traditionally been seen as an in-person, relationship-based part of business is being tested online. While some businesses have been slowly experimenting with virtual selling, the pandemic halted in-person cordiality and made deal-making over video conferencing and chat tools a necessity.
Even when stay-at-home orders lift, many signs suggest virtual selling will have a more prominent place in sales organizations, analysts say.
Companies that previously embraced this way of doing business saw representatives spend less time on non-selling activities, and sales leaders saw an average 20% lift in commercial results, Mary Shea, principal analyst serving business-to-business marketing and sales professionals, wrote in a November report from Forrester.
“Acquiring these tools also puts marketers and sellers in a better position to collaborate and align so that data, rather than emotion, fuels internal discussions and decision-making,” she said at the time.
Forrester found that sales representatives using virtual selling technology were spending 28% less time on data entry into customer relationship management systems and 23% less time on other low-value repetitive tasks.
“Sales is a human contact sport,” said Irina Soriano, head of enablement at sales enablement platform Seismic. “We have to be very meaningful in how we’re interacting. Everything being virtual speeds up a lot of things—removing the travel and getting together. How quickly can we close deals and move them past the finish line?”
Already, LinkedIn has seen an uptick in users researching sales topics in LinkedIn Learning between February and March and between March and April. In those time periods, time spent learning about “Inside Sales” more than doubled for each segment; “Social Selling” more than doubled and then rose 46%; and Sales Navigator increased 40% and 55%, respectively.
“Sales is hard, and it’s even harder in the midst of such tremendous uncertainty. The ‘face of sales’ looks a lot different than it did even a few months ago. Instead of face-to-face interactions, sellers are looking for more ways to virtually build and maintain new and existing relationships,” LinkedIn Sales Solutions head of product Lindsey Edwards said in the latest quarterly update to LinkedIn Sales Navigator.
But the additional opportunities to connect online don’t necessarily translate to better business interactions, and sometimes result in a “pretty significant gap between what buyers want and organizations’ ability to deliver,” Shea said.
Soriano agreed. “It doesn’t necessarily mean this has gotten easier. It requires even more effort. It is a big effort and focus to customize general sales outreach, along with a significant increase in direct outreach through social media, particularly LinkedIn.”
New features from LinkedIn hope to address that loss, like its new Smart Links enhancements, which enable Sales Navigator users to more easily package and share content without leaving the platform.
Smart Links can be created from within InMail and accessed via mobile devices. Users receive alerts when someone engages with the content they shared, and activity can be logged directly into CRM systems Microsoft Dynamics 365 Sales or Salesforce.
Updates focused on collaboration include the ability to create a contact record in Microsoft Dynamics 365 Sales directly via Sales Navigator lead pages or lead lists, as well as the consolidation of notes and comments into notes shared via lists, lead pages and account pages, making information easier to locate.
Users can decide whether those notes are private or to give colleagues access by making them public.
Finally, the new Alerts panel for Sales Navigator enables users to interact with buyers directly within the platform, such as by liking, commenting on or sharing their LinkedIn posts.
Rob Knop, CEO of sales training, coaching and consulting firm Assist You Today, stressed the importance of maintaining existing connections, saying in an interview, “Forget hunting: Go out and get that lead closed today—I don’t think a lot of people are being super successful trying to close sales that way. Think of it as farming: planting seeds now, sowing down the line. Current relationships will be most of the business. You’re not going to get a lot of net new business.”
The efficiency enabled by tools and systems like Sales Navigator is important for another reason—one Shea referred to as “the elephant in the room.”
She pointed out that layoffs are already happening on the sales side, and more are inevitable, saying that survivors are going to have to take on more accounts and more territories, so efficiency and maximizing their productivity will be of upmost importance.
Will the momentum that virtual selling is currently seeing continue if and when salespeople are allowed back on the road? “There is no going back to normal,” Shea said. “All of these trends that were smoldering around the digitization of the buyer-seller experience have now exploded. This is a very good time for sales enablement centers and selling organizations to revisit how they’re organizing and enabling their sales teams.”
She continued, “Folks do not want four, five or six different meetings in-person. The psychological effect of Covid-19 is transformational. Sales leaders will start to organize differently, around buying motive and preferences, instead of region and travel or no travel.”
Knop agreed, adding, “A lot of the things people are doing will stick, and this will accelerate digital transformations at a lot of companies. When this is all over, companies will realize that they don’t need to have their sales teams on the road 24/7 anymore.”
However, he cautioned that some companies may let one failure derail this movement. “This might be short-term: Companies might revert as soon as they lose one big client,” he said. “If companies are patient with it long-term, it’s a much better route for productivity and much more cost effective. Companies will attribute past success to face-to-face, blast emails and cold calling. Figuring out how to talk to people without being face-to-face is a huge area that’s been minutely tapped right now.”