As distributors respond to COVID-19, they are noticing the limitations of traditional recessionary responses such as cost reduction and working capital preservation. These responses may not be optimal due to the inherent constraint of this recession: social distancing. This constraint directly affects face-to-face sales. Transitioning sales teams to work successfully in this new environment is key to revenue recovery.

Operating in a Vacuum of Information

One of the most significant issues for salespeople as they move to a remote selling model is the sudden lack of field data. In face-to-face scenarios, they could collect valuable information while visiting customers on-site. Whether that site is a restaurant, job location or facility, the salesperson could check the customer’s stock for competitor products and assess inventory levels. This type of data collection is more difficult, even impossible, in phone or video calls with customers.

These new conditions mean they have to operate in a vacuum without those face-to-face insights, so how can you support them with other data and resources? What resources did your sales teams use in the past to supplement such data? Did you provide them with reports that reflected customer purchase history? And what else can you provide?

New Competencies for the Next Normal

Our book, Sales and Marketing Optimization, published by NAW, lists 10 key decisions distributors must make when designing, developing and managing sales teams. (Refer to the ”sales and marketing processes” section of the framework.) In our research, we analyzed distributors’ crisis responses across verticals to identify evolving trends. We identified four effective competencies for addressing the new challenges affecting sales forces as they move to virtual sales models:

  1. Customer invitation or access (developing skills using virtual tools)
  2. Customer interaction (approaching customers with greater empathy)
  3. Customer insight (applying analytics in conversations)
  4. Customer influence (adapting value propositions to meet evolving customer buying behavior)

Let’s take a closer look at each of these actions through an example of an industrial distributor.

One industrial distributor retrained sales teams, applying these four competencies at 16 of its branch locations. To apply customer invitation, the distributor had its IT team create sales-specific training that would account for the varying technical maturity among its sales force. This training helped establish a high level of comfort with new virtual tools for connecting with customers remotely. It also equipped salespeople to request and receive plant data from the customer via scanning and sharing.

To support effective customer interactions at this time, sales leaders prioritized empathy training. Anxiety is high among the general public as this health crisis endures, so they could assume that this was true for their customers. To help address this anxiety, the human resources team developed a critical checklist and training videos for its sales force related to empathy. Such materials and training improved awareness for sales teams in terms of the crisis’s impact on their customers so they could sensitively manage interactions.

Finally, customer insight and customer influence are two competencies that tend to go hand-in-hand. It is important to supply your sales teams with a manageable amount of customer data so they’re not overwhelmed. This distributor already had a customer stratification strategy in place. Its key tool for applying that strategy is the “customer X-ray” playbook. This tool simplifies and divides customer KPIs into four categories: penetration, cost-to-serve, margin and customer volume. It uses purchase history to provide customer-specific sales suggestions for salespeople to use in their conversations with customers. Such a model has many advantages in a remote sales strategy. These insights can fill that gap left by a lack of field data and give salespeople tools to have more productive, efficient and influential sales calls.

To broaden the sales teams’ familiarity with and use of analytics, the sales vice president and sales analytics team created two trainings: one to teach sales managers the value of customer analytics in customer influence and another to teach salespeople how to apply the X-ray playbook. ActVantage had used advanced analytics to generate customer X-rays and predictive sales recommendations for the distributor, and this training helped the sales teams understand how to apply those tools.

How could you apply these four competencies to adapt your sales model and transition your teams to remote selling? Together, our industry has the potential to evolve and grow with this “next normal.” Adapting sales strategies so that teams remain strong and capable under new conditions is key to an expedient, successful recovery for any distributor.