B2B Buyer Preferences Study: How Effective Are Sales Reps in a Virtual Environment?


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The more things change …

My last column talked about the many changes wrought by Covid, primarily from in-person to virtual sales calls, and the implications this had for sellers and sales enablement. Without revisiting the entire column, the short version is sellers and their managers were nearly congruent in their assessment of how permanent these changes would be but differed in how effective sellers were in conducting virtual sales meetings.

Since then, Sales Mastery, in conjunction with Korn Ferry, has completed their second Buyer Preference Study and the jury is in about how effective buyers feel reps are in a virtual environment. And the verdict is…

How effective sellers are in connecting with buyers, that is, communicating empathy during virtual presentations, more buyers disagree (32%) than agree (27%) that reps do so effectively. However, you can see that the numbers flip when evaluating how effective reps are at facilitating virtual meetings (29% vs. 21%) and selling in a virtual environment (33% vs. 21%).

The bottom 2 metrics are even more encouraging. 31% of buyers responding agreed reps were effective at structuring virtual meetings, against 18% disagreeing; and 37% agreed that sellers “presented professionally” versus 13% who disagreed.

Overall, it turns out sales managers were more in line with buyers’ assessments, even if slightly more critical, than sellers. 29% of managers disagreed their reps were effective at selling in a virtual setting while 30% agreed. The reps’ numbers were 14% and 44%, respectively, clearly a rosier rating.

As with so many other sales-related “measures,” these are subjective judgments. There are no standard definitions/metrics for sales effectiveness, other than eventual outcomes (won/lost/no decision). This doesn’t mean there cannot be objective measures, only that there rarely are.

For example, effective at structuring a meeting—virtual or otherwise. Although people routinely say they are attending a meeting, mostly they are simply gathering with others for a discussion. The difference? Meetings have an agenda, objective, agreed-upon follow-up actions, and agreement on the next meeting date, if needed. There are many, many more gatherings each day missing one or more of these organizing/meeting components.

How effectively reps demonstrate empathy or facilitate a virtual meeting can similarly be defined. Did the rep ask questions to confirm their understanding of the buyer’s situation? Had they earned the right to probe how the buyer(s) felt, what concerns they had, what challenges they were confronting? If so, did they also really listen to the responses, practice moments of silence to allow the buyer to expand on their initial answer, and reflect on what they heard?

These are basic sales skills just as throwing, hitting, and catching are basic baseball skills. But just as there exists a HUGE difference between high school, college, minor league, and major league players’ abilities to execute these basics, so too can there be levels of execution between individual sellers. Yes, they may have all been put through/exposed to the same sales training programs, but have they integrated these specific skills into their day-to-day practices?

This is where coaching comes into play. Reinforcing training, focusing on improvement, providing feedback, not simply throwing money at a program, and hoping for the best. When standards are defined, the subjective impressions will take a back seat to objective measures. As we are so fond of quoting Edwards Deming, father of the quality movement, “Without data you’re just another person with an opinion.”

Standards provide a basis for measurement and, thus, data. It’s not hard to tell whether an agenda was sent out in advance of a meeting/scheduled call. The question is: Did you? Do you do this regularly/consistently? And do we have a painless, unobtrusive system for tracking? Your CRM system should allow you to track and analyze something this straightforward without requiring the rep to do anything more than utilizing the system (maybe even with an appropriate template), and not have to do one bit of data entry.

Gong, Chorus, Salesforce and other programs now allow calls to be recorded, transcribed, tagged, talk time measured and much more. These provide objective, accurate, consistent, individualized, and relevant data for meaningful coaching. If you’re unfamiliar with such programs and/or interested in one of our online briefings, see our Call Coaching video here.

What Else?

The study also showed that many of the changes that have been adopted during Covid will likely remain after the crisis has passed. The majority of buyers (61%) and sellers (62%) thought all/many/most of the changes would be permanent. More buyers (7%) thought the changes would all be temporary than sellers (1.4%).

It seems irrefutable that a good portion of changes will become part of the New Normal. As much as people complain of Zoom meeting fatigue, there can be no question that it’s more efficient—and economical—than in-person meetings, even when local. At the same time that CFOs are gleefully adding up the savings in reduced travel and entertainment expenses, these may soon be tempered the first time a competitor’s willingness to travel and meet in person causes a large, visible, and much-anticipated deal to be lost.

Companies have already begun to walk back their policies on permanent WFH policies. Google and Salesforce have both recently said they will want their people back in the office when it is safe to do so. Whether this means 5 days/week, or something less, will be worked out over time—and individually by each company.

But Zoom sessions can and will still be conducted from the office setting; the only thing missing will be barking dogs or kids working at the table behind you.

Regardless of where/how sales calls are conducted, it is important to see which selling behaviors buyers say positively impact their final decision to buy.

The No. 1 question buyers have had for the past 50 years and continue to have in 2021 remains: What do you know about me and my business?

It is striking to see this still outdistance every other positive selling behavior and, yet sellers continue to try to take shortcuts by focusing on their products/services, rather than digging in and understanding the buyer and the buyer’s business.

Demonstrating ROI/value, actively listening, and providing expertise/perspective essentially tie for the next most positive behaviors.

As much as Covid has forced changes in how/where buyers and sellers interact, the actual work of selling remains largely unchanged. As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Yes, there have been significant and, in the view of many, irreversible changes in selling this past year. Still, if you want a roadmap to sales success, the behaviors highlighted above and defining standards to objectively measure how well and consistently your reps exhibit these behaviors would be a great place to start.

Barry Trailer
Barry has been involved in complex B2B sales for over 30 years and is intrigued with how it's changed/changing and what this means to Sales as a Profession (SaaP). Salesware, the analytics company he co-founded, was acquired by Goldmine Software in 2000 and his next company, CSO Insights with Jim Dickie, was acquired by Miller Heiman Group in 2015. He has twice been published by, and been a keynote for, Harvard Business Review, and is author of Sales Mastery, a novel.


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