As the world begins to recalibrate after more than a year of shutdown, many of us are left with questions about the future state of selling. What will be the lasting impact of 2020 and the rise of virtual selling?
With that in mind, I wanted to examine and unpack the aspects of virtual selling that are here to stay. Everyone seems to have differing opinions about the level to which we will “return to normal,” continue to sell virtually, or adapt to a hybrid selling model.
The reality is that the world, and the world of selling, have changed forever. I sat down with John Cerqueira, ASLAN Regional Vice President, to learn about what he is seeing on the frontlines of selling as we progress into the next chapter of 2021. We discussed emerging market dynamics, our changing sales process, how marketing has filled a void and the importance of team selling.
Changes in the Marketplace
As we approach the “end of the tunnel” and look at where we’re headed, we’re seeing lasting effects on every level within the sales world. From the granular level of one-on-one interactions to high level shifts in the market itself.
When we look at how the market has evolved and changed, John Cerqueira sees those shifts in two dimensions:
- Everyone is feeling the effects of deferred demand.
- Market-based optimism from organizations, i.e. our clients.
At the onset of the pandemic, no one knew what the extent or scope of the global situation would be. Every industry was affected. The ground was shifting beneath us. The dynamic of demand changed because of this uncertainty. Almost everyone fell back on “wait and see” mode. Companies began to save cash, put short-term projects on hold, halt spending, cut overhead, furlough employees, re-adjusting their go-to-market strategy.
For our company, a provider of sales training, we’re now seeing clients that want to optimize the salesforce they have retained. To deploy training initiatives to make their salespeople even more effective and efficient in the new world of selling.
As I think about where the marketplace was back in 2020, I’m reminded of a line from a colleague of mine back in the day. He told me, “Some customers are just going to take an aggressive plan of inaction.”
And now, as we come out on the other side, we are seeing the effects of the pent-up, deferred demand. If you’ve made it this far, there is light now at the end of the tunnel. People are spending again, the market seems to be rebalancing. In our world, as companies begin to onboard and grow their sales forces again, we’re seeing greater demand for our solution.
Shifts in the Sales and Marketing Process
Like the shifts in the market itself, we’ve also experienced and made adjustments to our process of connecting with prospects and helping them navigate the decision-making process, on both the sales and marketing fronts.
The pre-virtual approach was an Other-CenteredⓇ, customer-centric approach based on the customer’s needs and what we had to offer. That decision-making process was longer, factoring in the coordination of in-person meetings, scheduling, travel time, etc. We really leaned into that, encouraging the investment of time to thoroughly vet a small number of solution providers and make the best decision for the business.
With the onset of virtual selling, we found that when customers asked for help or were looking to solve a problem, there was a higher sense of urgency and desire to act quickly. And without the bottleneck created by travel and scheduling, customers who would previously have vetted three solution providers were now vetting twice that number of potential partners. This required us to adjust our sales process to those changing needs and conditions.
We found ourselves working more quickly, working with evaluators, or giving out information we may not have in the past. In a virtual world, Other-Centered selling looks different. It was a bit uncomfortable to condense our sales process, because we like spending time with customers, being thorough, discovering needs. But we had to adjust our approach to ensure it was still benefiting the customer. The most important thing is helping them solve their problem. So we adapted and evolved to ensure that we were meeting their current needs (faster turnaround for example), adding value throughout the entire sales process, and even adjusting how we offered our solution (for example, in pieces instead of all-at-once).
Selling has become more of a context play, a collaboration.
As for the marketing approach, we had to get better at zeroing in on which prospects met our specific demographic (i.e. industries that benefit most from sales training) and psychographic (the organization’s philosophical or cultural alignment with our solution) markers.
We had to qualify differently, making sure prospects were true candidates that could benefit from our Other-Centered Selling solution. At the top of the funnel, marketing had to adjust to connect our sales teams with those prospects who are most likely to adopt and benefit from our services.
Part of accomplishing this included adopting the “They Ask, You Answer” marketing philosophy. The basis of the approach is simple:
Over the past decade, a shift occurred in selling. Customers began doing their own research into solution providers, well before talking to a sales rep. The idea is to become a resource for your customers. Find out, research, and clearly understand what your potential customers want to know. What do they care about? Then, answer their questions. With your marketing assets and materials, provide the intel they want. Make it easy for them to find the information they’re looking for, before they come into contact with your sales team.
Then when they do speak with a sales rep, that individual can help guide them through the process based on their specific business needs and goals.
Sales reps are a critical part of helping marketing understand what those customer questions are. In this way, sales and marketing can truly work together to increase revenue and serve more customers.
Here’s one quick example of how we incorporated this practice at ASLAN. Last year, I wrote a blog outlining the Top Virtual Sales Training Companies. My thought process was this: if you’re researching sales training, then you will be researching a handful of companies. Instead of ignoring this reality, I wanted to become a resource for my potential customers. Of course, I want to be considered as a partner, but the goal is to make sure my customer makes the best decision for their business. It may help my customer to have all that information in one place. So, based on my research and industry experience, I came up with a list of the top sales training providers and published it on our website. That blog has done incredibly well and been referenced by many of our customers as a wonderful Other-Centered resource.
Marketing Response to Changing Customer Needs
We also had to adjust our response to customer needs from a marketing perspective. For example, we had to rethink how we “packaged” our solution. A great way to illustrate this is with a Word Picture (something we teach in all our sales training classes).
Think about a four-course prix-fixe menu at your favorite restaurant. Normally, the customer would receive an appetizer, a soup or salad, an entree, and a dessert.
However, your customer may not need, or want, the full 3 or 4 course meal. Right now, they may just need the appetizer. Immediately.
So instead, we took an “à la carte” approach.
We did an effective job of adjusting to the changing demands, offering the
“appetizer” and encouraging the customer to come back later on for the rest of the “meal.” We had to adjust not only our selling process, but how we offered our solution.
To put it into the context of our world, we developed and offered a unique Virtual Selling Skills workshop that could be delivered independently from, or in addition to, our usual Other-Centered Selling workshops. This offer was extremely well-received by our customers and truly designed for their immediate needs.
Companies that work with sales and marketing to adapt to changing conditions have found, and will continue to find, success in serving their customers.