The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the relationship between distributors and customers. Distributors’ sales processes have changed as travel and onsite visits have become all but impossible. Customer behavior has shifted within this new environment too. The combination of these factors means that distributors now face a unique and challenging puzzle: They must figure out how to make personalized sales without actually having personal contact with customers.

Distributors that solve this problem will enjoy substantial and lasting rewards. Businesses that can effectively sell at a distance will be able to outperform competitors during COVID-19. Plus, once the health crisis subsides, these distributors can use those same selling skills to decrease travel costs while contacting more customers. Now is the time for distributors to create a remote sales strategy that will promote immediate and sustained growth.

Creating a profitable remote sales force begins with outside sales reps. These reps maintain valuable relationships with customers and use their hard-earned skills to make sales. For example, a great outside rep might visually examine a customer’s inventory to figure out what they have in stock, what they need to re-order and what the customer is buying from competitors when they could be buying from you. These kinds of skills are invaluable, and allow outside reps to generate lots of revenue through relatively little customer contact.

However, when something like COVID-19 forces employees out of the field, reps are no longer able to make these kinds of sales. You could give these reps a phone and tell them to start making telesales, but that won’t really fix the problem. These reps need to understand their customers to make sales, and they can’t do that with only a phone. They also need an AI-powered data platform.

AI sales tools are able to do much of the work that great outside reps do. AI features can track customer purchasing patterns to figure out when customers are due to reorder, analyze buying profiles to uncover hidden opportunities and promote profitable up-sells and cross-sells as customers shop. It is true that AI platforms and accomplished outside reps use different methodologies — AI processes customer data while reps rely on experience and interpersonal communication — but the results can be remarkably similar.

Once outside reps are equipped with AI sales tools, they regain the ability to make highly personalized sales. And more of them. With these tools, reps don’t have to travel from site to site to understand customers and make sales. They can do it all from their homes or offices. This dramatically reduces travel expenses and travel time, freeing up reps to spend more time with more customers.

Supporting outside reps with AI tools and a hybridized sales model is a win–win: Companies that adopt this model will be able to gain more revenue per rep, and each rep may even be able to earn a higher annual salary, even while charging a lower commission. Additionally, companies will be able to spend less on reps, as the average cost of AI software is far less than normal travel expenses.

Distributors don’t need to make permanent changes now. However, they do need to start experimenting with remote selling options for outside reps. Many will find that AI-supported hybrid reps are a timeless solution that can drive revenue during COVID-19 and well after. So what are you waiting for?