After close to 15 years in the industry, it’s rare I encounter an entirely new type of sale. But I did recently experience a first when I was involved in a major international B2B sale that went from first contact to contract without any real-world interaction between the key parties. And there have been plenty of smaller sales like that.
I don’t necessarily consider this the shape of things to come – at least not immediately – because most senior decision makers are so used to some degree of face-to-face interaction during complex sales involving multiple stakeholders that it just doesn’t feel right - yet. But, it does underline that a virtual selling is having a significant impact on the industry.
Virtual selling can help in moving the process along by enabling parties involved to deal with micro issues as they arise. There will be times when face-to-face meetings simply aren’t practical, whether because of diary constraints or parties based in far different places, and virtual platforms can prevent delays in activity.
However, virtual selling isn’t without risks for salespeople. The seductive novelty of new technologies can lead to selling teams becoming technology-led, shaping their behaviour around what technology allows, rather than because those behaviours are conducive to successful selling.
In the virtual world, traditional selling skills, such as listening carefully and asking intelligent questions to uncover customer issues, are in fact more important than ever, helping to compensate for a decline in the quality of in-person cues.
There are sensible precautions a skilled salesperson can take when selling virtually. Just as during an in-person meeting it wouldn’t be good practice to rattle through 30 slides without any attempt at real dialogue with prospective customers, so this should be avoided in virtual forums.
Addressing just a single person with an off-topic remark during a group discussion is distracting in the real world, and likewise in the virtual environment. But if the technology allows bi-lateral conversations with colleagues within a wider group discussion in such a way as nobody else notices, might it be a sensible option? My sense is – and we’ve no particular research in this area to back this up yet – that one should handle with care, and use the facility for quick clarification and agreement of tactics, but not for strategic considerations or detailed conferring, because doing so takes focus away from the real object of the meeting – the customers and what they are saying.
As well as applying the same skills and behaviours important in real-world selling to virtual environments, salespeople will need to recognise the extent to which virtual selling can exacerbate mistakes commonly made in real-world interactions.
Truly successful selling should be more of a ‘pull’ than a ‘push’ interaction. In the real world, the unskilled salesperson often spends too much time listing the features of their offer, rather than asking consultative questions and listening carefully to gain an understanding of the prospective customers’ problems. That’s a trap salespeople are even more likely to fall into on virtual platforms, without the same behavioural cues to suggest someone else wants to speak; or where people are more likely to speak simply to prevent a period of silence on the call.
Instead, giving the customer plenty of room to speak so that they can fully outline business problems they are facing is vital for effective, persuasive selling, in which the conversation is centred on the problems and potential solutions of the prospective customer and them alone. That means allowing the would-be customer to talk until they have given their fullest possible answer – easy to do in person, relatively straightforward on a call, but more difficult on a multi-stakeholder conference call.
As technology improves and video conferencing advances to the extent that key stakeholders on the other side of the world feel like they are in the same room, the behaviours and best practice examples of real-world selling will be more easily applied in the virtual space. In the meantime, sensible use of virtual platforms offers significant opportunities. Sales teams must ensure they – not the technology – are in the driving seat when it comes to getting the most from these platforms.
By David Freedman, Associate Director, Huthwaite International, they manage training projects across 6 continents in local languages.