Virtual selling in business-to-business markets, often associated with inside sales, has carried a bit of a stigma within field-dominated sales organizations. Sales run through the phone, website or customer portal focused on the smallest opportunities and the long tail of lower-value accounts.
Covid-19 and subsequent office closures forced every sales team to use virtual channels in situations they never would have considered before the pandemic: complex buying cycles requiring careful orchestration by veteran sellers. While virtual selling has challenges, many commercial organizations are finding it works better than expected. And this dynamic has merely accelerated a long-term trend of B2B companies shifting their sales capacity from field-based to virtual models.
The flowering of virtual sales channels and tools flies in the face of four myths, as documented by Bain & Company’s recent survey, conducted with Dynata, of more than 300 B2B buyers and sellers in the US, UK and Canada.
Myth 1: Field sales reps sell primarily in person. Respondents reported that half of sales interactions already took place virtually, not in person, even before the pandemic. The top reasons cited are faster, more frequent communication and lower cost.
Myth 2: In-person selling is significantly more effective than virtual selling, particularly for complex products. Some three-quarters of buyers and more than half of sellers agreed, or were neutral, that virtual interactions are just as effective for complex products. Most customers, in most situations, simply don’t need or want an in-person interaction.
Myth 3: Only small deals or accounts are appropriate for virtual sales. One-third of respondents have bought or sold products priced over $500,000. Company size has no bearing on the willingness to use virtual channels.
Myth 4: Shifts to virtual selling during the pandemic will revert after the health crisis abates. About 80% of respondents believe there will be a sustained increase in virtual interactions.
Done right, virtual selling offers several advantages. It provides customers with a better experience, because digital self-serve options handle many simple interactions, while sales representatives working virtually are more responsive to requests for help or expertise. Virtual channels can raise productivity and lower selling costs, due to less time and expense for travel. And win rates rise and sales cycles shorten with well-orchestrated virtual channels.
One major telecommunications provider in Scandinavia, for example, has migrated B2B sales to virtual channels, using marketing automation to create leads and installing an online self-service portal. After the first year of this migration, the new model increased revenues by 5% and reduced SG&A costs by 10%, at the same level of customer service. It cut the time to deliver a quote from two days to 30 minutes, all while sharply improving the telecom provider’s overall customer loyalty score.
At a global technology giant, the shift to more virtual sales has allowed the company to target a segment differently (and more effectively)—tens of thousands of medium-sized companies. Similarly, in the wake of Covid-19, an information management company is moving its middle-market sales reps inside and adding marketing support and sales development reps to generate more leads in this customer segment.
Reimagining Sales Coverage
Getting virtual sales right involves far more than using digital tools. You have to deploy the right people and other sources through the right channels at different points in the buying process. This implies that you understand the experience and information your customers need at each step, which channel they want to engage in and which tools provide the best support.
Building a successful virtual sales engine also may require shifting the mindset of the sales staff. In our survey, 55% of respondents said field reps would be demoralized or quit if asked to change to a primarily virtual model, while only 25% said they would be excited.
Moreover, customer buying preferences vary widely, so a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. In healthcare, for instance, data from Bain’s 2020 survey of doctors shows that general surgeons and neurosurgeons are more likely to prefer to engage with sales reps virtually once a vaccine is available, compared with other surgical specialties such as orthopedic and cardiac.
Moving to virtual sales entails a fundamental rethinking of coverage. Sales leaders need to decide where to snap the line for virtual channels along the spectrum of small to middle-market to enterprise to global account tiers. They will have to determine the mix of inside vs. field vs. digital sales channels, the roles and activities within each and the requisite marketing support.
Take the role of a product sales specialists or technical sales engineer. In a traditional model, specialists typically are joined at the hip to account executives. Now the role might be aligned more to sales opportunities rather than specific accounts.
For instance, more than a decade ago, Cisco Systems installed an on-demand portal that has a wiki knowledge base, virtual product demos and an expert locator. If a specialist cannot answer a customer’s question, he or she no long resorts to broad email blasts, but instead can locate the best resource quickly. The portal sharply raised the productivity of Cisco’s specialists and reduced their travel expenses. Another global enterprise technology company has used its experience during the pandemic to implement a virtual specialist-on-demand model that better matches specialist capacity and expertise to the opportunities in the pipeline.
An effective virtual sales model also requires retooling of sales support and management methods:
Behavioral insights – Sporadically passing down received wisdom on effective sales behaviors won’t cut it in the new model. The best sales teams develop personalized insights into behaviors, using machine learning processing of customer interaction data. Zoom, the video communications firm, uses software to analyze call data in order to identify winning communication styles and inform training.
Digital whisperers – Quarterly ride-alongs with the boss become digital and more frequent. Qualia, a real estate company, uses software that allows sales managers to listen in and “whisper” feedback.
Different hires – Finding talented virtual sellers relies less on headhunters and assessment for “fit” and more on digital fluency. A wider range of personality types can flourish in virtual sales, so the recruitment pool is larger than for field sales.
On-demand collateral – Sales content delivered by marketing and sales enablement groups shifts to more engaging content such as customer testimonial videos, easy-to-use demos and captivating virtual pitches. Sisense, a business intelligence software company, built a central digital shop for sales and marketing demos and other content, which reps can tailor to each customer.
The salient question now becomes, what cannot be sold virtually? For a major new prospective account, or a complex sales cycle with multiple influencers a, it may still make sense to hold a collaborative workshop on site. But as recovery from the pandemic and economic recession keeps getting pushed back, B2B commercial leaders should assume that everything can be sold virtually, then design a model that accommodates the specific opportunities that demand a face-to-face visit.
Mark Kovac and David Deming are partners and Sushant Khandelwal is an associate partner with Bain & Company. Kovac leads the firm’s B2B Commercial Excellence practice.