Sales agility is key during this resurgent crisis

Posted on 3 Sep 2020 by The Manufacturer

Turning a crisis into an opportunity. Peter Colman explains how the current climate puts the accelerator pedal on the evolution of sales, emphasising that remote selling and e-commerce channels need to become a top priority for manufacturers.

Sales is a tough arena for manufacturers right now. Even with relaxed travel restrictions, ‘normal’ field sales will be inefficient for at least the next two years.

The expense and burdens of traveling will drive up costs, and just because a target customer is welcoming back employees onto their premises doesn’t mean visitors will be allowed onsite any time soon.

But there is a way to turn this crisis into an opportunity. For the majority of sales reps, our current climate is unchartered territory. Even with 10 years’ experience under the belt, a tenured rep would have narrowly missed the financial crisis of 2008.

Those that were around were likely with another manufacturer, selling different products. Hardly comparable to today, where lockdown and social distancing measures bring a new meaning to the word crisis.

I previously suggested that the way to not only survive but also thrive in this crisis is by mastering commercial agility. One of the key pillars discussed was sales agility and a recent survey by Simon-Kucher & Partners shows respondents identified this as their priority action item:

sales agility - a recent survey by Simon-Kucher & Partners shows respondents identified this as their priority action item

Remote and virtual solutions

At this point you might be wondering how sales can be agile when reps are either confined to their homes or their travel is severely restricted?

The answer is remote sales: implementing new tools, understanding the technicalities of remote product demos and proving return on investment, all in a virtual environment.

Also, on the ‘soft side’, salespeople must understand customer needs, build trust and work their way around decision makers without the advantages of a personal presence.

Pre-Coronavirus, the idea of remote sales was largely met with reluctance among manufacturers, and still some would prefer to cease sales activities and wait for the crisis to blow over rather than tackling all of the above.

It’s time to turn remote-selling concerns on their head though and start looking at this crisis as an opportunity.

So, let me share five truths behind the most common remote-selling myths:

Myth 1: Remote sales means the end of the field rep

It doesn’t. Think about the usual field-inside sales split – it’s based on the size and/or potential of the customer and the experience of the sales professional.

This won’t change. You still want your most experienced (key) account managers to focus on your largest corporate customers, especially with complex solutions. The responsibilities assigned to this role remain, albeit with a new way of working.

Forward thinking firms have already set up virtual win rooms to help coordinate these activities across various specialist sales roles, product management, pricing and commercial leadership to improve win rates.

These activities can also be extended into the customer environment to allow collaborative virtual working spaces.

Myth 2: Remote sales mean you can leave reps to their own devices

You can’t. Leaders need to demonstrate they have confidence in the strength of their company, their people and their offering to market, energising both middle management and their frontline sales teams while ensuring they are safe.

A remote workforce requires a frequent cadence of communication to ensure that an internal rumour mill doesn’t fill any vacuum. Town hall sessions, knowledge-sharing on successful outcomes and social events via video conferencing all keep spirits up and culture going.

Set up a Commercial Crisis Response Team, working across functions with daily meetings to keep aligned and detect issues, identify opportunities and regularly communicate.

Myth 3: Selling remotely weakens relationships

Actually, it can help build stronger ones. Visiting customers usually consumes 20-25% of field sales’ time, but travel restrictions mean sales can cover the same number of customers with fewer people.

Use this extra time to speak to key accounts and ease any concerns. Explain the steps you’re taking to ensure the continuity of supply for your offering; be that products, services or software.

And if supply does become constrained, emphasise that your customer’s status as a key account will be rewarded with preferential treatment.

Myth 4: A crisis means you have to dramatically cut prices

Please don’t. Value selling protects profitability, slashing prices does not. In the last crisis, many manufacturers panicked, trying to defend volume (units) by reducing prices. However, the drop in demand was not caused by pricing.

Even with price cuts, volumes still fell, making a huge dent in profitability and in some cases starting all-out price wars. Then, during the recovery, many surviving companies struggled to return to pre-crisis price levels.

In hindsight, they should have accepted inevitable volume drops and held their nerve on price. That’s why, when customer budgets are increasingly restricted and you’ve lost the charm of in-person sales, value-selling is fundamental to the pitch.

Cheap prices are not the be-all and end-all. Customers are looking for someone who understands their entire business in a COVID-19 environment. Not just why they should buy from you, but why they should buy at all right now.

Myth 5: Digital selling is for the long-term ‘wish list’

If there were ever a time to invest in e-commerce and reduce cost-to-serve, it’s now. We’ve already seen a trend towards fulfilling smaller orders through digital channels. The crisis will only accelerate this, and manufacturers need to be innovative in their approach.

Low consideration items in aftersales, such as spare parts and consumables, can be moved over to digital.

Think traditional sales and your biggest challenge is getting your rep to the customer. Think agile sales and you create new ways for customers to reach you.

The accelerator is pressed on the evolution of sales

Without a strategy for making money during COVID-19, it may well be that you don’t get to see what ‘after COVID-19’ looks like.

Your markets will look very different by then, not just in terms of what customers buy, but also in terms of behaviour and attitude to risk.

If customers expect to buy differently, then you should expect to sell differently, too.

Dr. Peter Colman, Partner and shareholder at Simon-Kucher & Partners

Peter leads the consultancy’s Technology, Industrials and B2B Services practices for the UK and Ireland.  He has 22 years’ experience in consulting and industry, including helping clients through two past crises (Dot-Com Bubble & Global Financial Crisis).  

He specialises in Commercial Excellence programmes to address strategy, pricing, sales & marketing, product management and digital transformation topics. Peter is a regular presenter at The Manufacturer’s Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit, has contributed numerous articles for the magazine and is a judge for The Manufacturer MX Awards.

Simon-Kucher & Partners, Strategy & Marketing Consultants

Simon-Kucher & Partners is a global consulting firm with more than 1,400 professionals in 39 offices worldwide focusing on TopLine Power®. Founded in 1985, the company has more than 30 years of experience providing strategy and marketing consulting and is regarded as the world’s leading pricing advisor.