Why In-Person Sales Matters
The virtualization of work isn't a new idea. As long ago as the 1980s, companies talked about telecommuting as an option for certain job functions that could be performed away from the office. Of course, the option wasn't available for some jobs, such as assembly line work or construction or vehicle operation. In the 1990s and 2000s, as broadband expanded and began its inexorable creep into more and more homes, a relatively small number of employees began to work from home a few days a week.
In the two decades that followed, corporations around the world experimented with the idea of large-scale and long-term work-at-home programs. The results surprised them: In most cases, productivity and employee satisfaction were higher than ever, and company real estate costs, and the costs associated with having real estate, were down. Then, in 2020, COVID-19 converted work-at-home from an interesting trial solution into an economic necessity. Overnight, work became virtual, as millions of employees were forced to become television stars, broadcasting from their home office studios.
Ultimately, work is evolving — both in terms of the task, and how the task is done. That, however, is not true for all job titles. For some of them, including the domain of professional sales, ‘remote’ is not a viable long-term option.
Can You Build Trust and Credibility Remotely?
Selling is defined as "the exchange of one thing of value for something of equal value" — but that sale only occurs when trust is involved. That trust doesn’t come easily. It requires a foundation that stems from ongoing professional credibility on the part of the salesperson. Credibility, from the Latin word credo, 'I believe,' doesn’t happen because a vendor offers the lowest price for a desired product or service. That’s a fleeting transaction that leaves behind no long-term value. Credibility is sustained when every engagement between customer and salesperson reinforces the value that the salesperson brings to the relationship.
As we cautiously edge toward a post-pandemic world, businesses are reevaluating what work looks like: where and how it will be done, what tools will be required to do it well, and how much of it can and should be done virtually. And while we have collectively learned that remote work can in fact be extremely effective, that’s not a universal truth — nor should it be.
We have seen executives decide to embrace large-scale virtual work in their businesses, and while they do so for all the right reasons — lower operating costs, better use of employee time, flexibility, employee safety, satisfaction and retention — the results are not always what they expect. In fact, certain types of work and employee activities have proven to be less effective in a remote setting. They include strategy, planning, brainstorming, collaboration, on-boarding of new hires, propagation of values and culture, and the development of new relationships. What these all have in common is the need for a deeper connection between people. They are not task-oriented. They require a higher level of interaction, trust, and body language to be effective.
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Why High Risk Sales Requires the In Person Experience
A significant amount of selling has always been done remotely. Telephone sales, for example, have been a successful model for years. This technique can be extremely effective when used in situations where the product or service being sold is relatively low cost and low risk but often yields high volume. The individual sales do not merit the time and attention required to create a lasting relationship with the buyer, because the buyer has little in the way of large-scale decision-making authority for their organization. These types of sales are highly transactional and are not typically based on relationship-building.
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On the other hand, for more complex or potentially higher risk opportunities, trust and credibility are a critical foundation to the buying decision and therefore, a stronger personal relationship with the customer is necessary. Examples include scenarios where:
- Your solution supports your customers goals, priorities and outcomes. You must demonstrate your understanding of their business.
- You’re making recommendations, and those recommendations will be partially evaluated based on your reputation and the level of confidence the customer has in you.
- The solution is not fully understood by the customer. Part of their decision to buy is based on their confidence in you and your company.
- The customer suspects there could be challenges during implementation and part of their decision to buy is based on their belief that you and your company will be fair and easy to work with if and when an issue arises.
- You are dealing with a new customer and want to make a memorable and lasting impression.
- There is pre-existing hostility with the client, and your goal is to change that.
- The product or service being sold is expensive and/or complex and requires some degree of handholding to ensure that the customer is comfortable.
- You want to demonstrate your commitment to and strengthen your relationship with the customer by meeting in-person to share insights with them and answer any questions they might have.
- Product differentiation is relatively low, resulting in a compelling need to rise above the competitive noise in other ways.
In addition, the most compelling reason to engage in-person with prospects and customers is that all buying decisions have a strong emotional component. Relationships are the emotional connection between the buyer and seller that enables business. Without trust, credibility or an in-place relationship, buyers will not engage in any sort of non-commodity sale.
One mistake that organizations make is to semi-arbitrarily draw a line across their accounts base based on number of employees, and declare that any company below that line — say, 250 employees or less — will be handled through telephone sales only, while any company above the line — 250 or more — receives in-person treatment. This arbitrary, quantitative approach is a bad practice for two reasons:
- It fails to consider the fact that many small businesses are more complex and have deeper, more nuanced technology needs than their size would indicate.
- It positions the seller as a vendor, rather than as a thought-leader and eventually, trusted advisor. This places them at a serious disadvantage, particularly if competitors take advantage of the silence left when a company decides to abandon in-person customer contact.
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The Choice Between In-Person and Virtual Is Clear
Sales professionals have gained a new tool during the pandemic. Virtual sessions expand the number of calls per day and the geography that can be covered. Customers are comfortable using these tools, which can, in some cases, accelerate sales. In others, customers use them as a barrier to restrict access. As with all things in life, there is rarely a ‘one size that fits all’ solution. In-person selling should not be replaced by virtual tools. That’s a net-zero outcome at best, and in most cases, it trades a more effective selling tool for a less effective one.
Sales organizations must put their focus on strategy, planning, value creation, differentiation and helping their customers achieve their goals. When those tasks come first, it will become obvious when customer engagements should be virtual or in-person.
About the Author
Dr. Steven Shepard is the founder of the Shepard Communications Group in Williston, Vt.