As was the norm for many industries prior to COVID-19, channel firms typically relied on on-site visits to meet with clients face to face. Today, however, partners have had to adopt virtual selling and consulting strategies.
While some channel companies have begun to partially return to offices, sales executives say they expect remote sales to remain as an important approach to selling services and garnering new clients, even after the pandemic. For some, virtual selling and consulting has demonstrated benefits, such as an ability to be more responsive to their customers.
Here is a look at how some firms have pivoted to remote sales, as well as tips you can incorporate into your own virtual selling strategy.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, leadership at MNJ Technologies, an MSP based in Buffalo Grove, Ill., was reshaping its sales strategy. “We went through a huge sales expansion and added 10-plus salespeople from December to March,” said Ben Niernberg, MNJ executive vice president.
“When COVID hit, all it did was further drive home the importance of [edge computing] and … connectivity, and how do we personally connect with each other in a virtual world,” he said. “The things we were doing were helping enable the things that now became a must. The band-aid got ripped off [of] remote working.”
MNJ implemented sales techniques for asking customers the right questions, he said. For example, salespeople learned to ask questions such as, What bandwidth do you have for your current location? What are your bandwidth requirements for certain apps like ERP?
Niernberg said other examples of questions include, What are the biggest problems you are trying to solve with technology? Where are you in your migration to a cloud-focused environment? What is your current security posture at the edge, and how protected are you?
These questions “elicit different responses than, ‘What firewall do you have?'” he explained. They help with assessment-based selling. “The way you ask the questions is different, but what you’re still trying to determine is” the customer’s current situation, the problems they are trying to solve and how technology could help solve those problems.
Shifting to virtual selling did not require use of any new tools, Niernberg noted. MNJ was already using Microsoft Teams, Cisco’s WebEx platform and Workplace by Facebook. “For us, it was a continuation of that, just at a hyperscale” for 55 salespeople.
Additionally, adapting to virtual sales engagements went relatively smoothly, because much of MNJ’s business was already conducted over the phone or via video conference, he said. However, for certain large deals, salespeople would typically drive or fly to customer sites.
MNJ mandated that if a call has more than two people, it must be a video conferencing call. “If customers pushed back, we said, ‘We want to do business on a personal level.'” This has enabled MNJ’s sales reps to be more hands-on with customers and forced them “to not rely on email.” Instead, sales reps are encouraged to “interact on a different level and use tech to more personally connect.”
One thing to bear in mind is video conferencing has its own etiquette, Niernberg said. “We were all dealing with bandwidth issues, so there [can be] latency and choppiness. There are general rules we reinforced on how to be present with [customers].”
When it comes to virtually selling to customers, if you have a compelling story and great insights, you can drive the conversation without meeting in person.
Patrick Bruce-LockhartVice president of sales for U.S. east, Softchoice
For example, MNJ told sales reps to abstain from looking at their phone while on a video conference call, ensure a good camera angle and use the mute function appropriately, he said. Additionally, MNJ asked sales reps to take copious written notes — by hand, not typed, “because [typing] oftentimes … appears like you’re emailing or texting other people.”
Niernberg said it is important to connect with customers on a personal level because everyone is struggling with the pandemic and social distancing in different ways. “We want [customers] to know we care about them — not just for their business.”
He also advised his salespeople to not be afraid to share their own struggles, such as, “‘Yeah, we had bandwidth issues, too,’ and, ‘I can’t stand my dog barking all day.’ Don’t be afraid to be exposed and let [customers] know we’re here to help each other.” At first, salespeople were a little hesitant about the more personal approach, he noted, “but once they tried it out, they found it to be 100% effective with customers.”
To help support sales processes further, MNJ uses a targeted account marketing program. The program includes strategic scripts that sales reps use to uncover information about prospects and generate leads. “Do you want [sales reps] cold calling or have them making four discovery calls instead?” Niernberg said.
MNJ uses Microsoft’s Power BI reporting tool to create reports by product, customer and sales territory “to give salespeople cross-sell opportunities and understand where there are growth spots.” Power BI also gives Niernberg insight into where a salesperson’s strengths and weaknesses are, based on their sales numbers. “That’s how you use analytics and data to drive results,” he said. “We’re just starting to see the fruits of those labors.”
MNJ’s virtual sales strategy is paying off. The company’s revenue is up 20% year over year. Leadership also receives feedback from customers that indicates the sales approach is working, Niernberg added.
He said he believes virtual selling will continue to be relevant in a post-coronavirus environment. Whereas technology had previously led people to often disconnect from customers by relying on email and text chats, “COVID forced us to reconnect through tech,” Niernberg said.
There are a few key things sales reps need to learn to do in order to successfully sell or consult in a virtual setting, but the most important ones are to listen with empathy and be authentic, said Billy Franz, director of inside sales and channel at SADA Systems, a Los Angeles-based business and technology consulting firm.
“Just because we are all confined to one-and-a half-inch video conference tiles formatted in a ‘Brady Bunch’ layout doesn’t mean you should change your approach or ingenuity,” Franz said. “In fact, play to your strengths and be genuine. Stay true to yourself and your sales process.”
His other piece of advice is to “serve, don’t sell. Customers can sense if you are trying to capitalize on their dire circumstances. Instead, offer the help they seek — not the solution that lines your wallet.”
Franz said salespeople and consultants must become comfortable with collaborative tools and using chat and video conference features before they can have success in virtual selling. “Once you have [that], almost everything else falls into place.”
SADA has taken advantage of on-demand sales training and videos, he said. “We use Coursera, YouTube and even Google Classroom to ensure our reps have a portal of constant up-to-date training and content to stay educated.”
SADA’s sales reps use G Suite, along with Google Voice, Chat and Meet, he said. “Tools like Dialpad, ZoomInfo, DocuSign and our favorite weapon, ConnectAndSell, have all allowed us to scale and broaden our reach while enabling collaboration through this work-from-anywhere transition.”
Since the pandemic began, SADA has expanded its usage of Google Chat and Google Meet. “At the same time, I’ve actually tried to reduce the amount of video conferencing for my team to avoid fatigue,” Franz said. “Google Chat has helped address this so the team can connect quickly with internal resources, and my team was already using the G Suite productivity suite of tools.”
Franz runs virtual meetings similarly to how he did them in person but more efficiently by staying on task and adhering to the specific time allotment.
“I usually come in with an agenda, set clear guidelines, record notes, assign/accept deliverables and executables, recap, email the recap, and set the stage for follow-ups or next steps,” he said.
Sales automation is a must for any company, he stressed. “Simple, standard operating procedures can reduce complexities and simplify a sales process, which, in turn, leads to sales reps selling more and less time focused on miniscule tasks.”
Like Niernberg, Franz said he believes virtual selling will continue to reap benefits in a post-COVID-19 environment. “Whether they like it or not, companies have to embrace digital transformation to not only stay competitive, but [because] it’s necessary given the amount of cost savings and increased productivity to be had, especially with remote teams,” he said. “Virtual selling is here to stay in some capacity. Hop on board and get comfortable with change.”
Because Toronto-based managed services and consulting provider Softchoice helps customers implement and adopt remote work technologies, using those tools internally has helped “drive our point,” said Patrick Bruce-Lockhart, vice president of sales for U.S. east.
Softchoice’s inside sales team has always sold virtually, so not much has changed during the pandemic, he said. Leadership has introduced training on “the accelerated customer journey” so that sales teams could hit key points very early on in the conversation to keep customers interested, he said.
“When it comes to virtually selling to customers, if you have a compelling story and great insights, you can drive the conversation without meeting in person,” Bruce-Lockhart said. “You can also leverage the most specialized resources regardless of geography to ensure customer success.”
Softchoice developed additional messaging to share with customers around working remotely and held feedback sessions to train sales teams to be more understanding of the heightened set of challenges. Outbound reps have been trained to be on video 100% of the time and to be flexible to a customer’s schedule. “We train them to be overly prepared for each customer engagement and make each touchpoint count,” Bruce-Lockhart explained.
Softchoice has not added any new technologies to enable virtual selling, he noted. “We are focusing and coaching more on the tools we leverage with customers, like Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, Google Hangouts … and how to help our customers enable the right tools to drive great meetings with their teams.”
Virtual meetings prepare sales professionals to become sharper and more in tune with customers’ needs, Bruce-Lockhart added. The virtual sales model also offers time and location flexibility and helps save on travel costs.
“In the end, [virtual selling] is just a different means … to accomplish the same result: How do we connect and add value and care for each other and be the difference for each other?” MNJ’s Niernberg said.