The inevitable change: Post-COVID-19 Sales Roles

Gregory Swanson

May 20, 2020

Since the end of March, we have had the same discussion several times. The discussion keys in on two questions:

  • How do we sell when in-person selling is not possible?
  • Will the function of in-person selling change after the COVID-19 crisis is over?

There are different opinions on answering these questions. To get to our answer, we need to look at the trends before and during the COVID-19 crisis.

What was happening before the COVID-19 crisis?

We have been going through a transition in B2B selling for over a decade. Part of the drive to change comes from customers' acceptance of new technology. The change is also driven by the expanded roles of digital marketing and inside sales.

  • Customers were already moving away from in-person sales meetings.
  • Inside sales positions were growing at a faster rate than field sales.
  • Customers researching buying decisions online before speaking with a salesperson.
  • Capabilities and tools that enabled synchronized tracking of interaction events in many platforms. These tools and capabilities enabled better analytics and predictability of customer intent.
  • Despite the increased capabilities, many sales teams rejected marketing-generated leads.
  • In-person sales, inside sales, and digital marketing were often siloed from each other.
Pre-Covid Roles

COVID-19 caused an immediate pivot in sales teams

Government lockdowns forced the immediate transition of field sales into inside sales. Teams that had a distributed sales force had an easier time adapting. Many salespeople were already working from their home office or were mobile. But centralized sales teams often needed to become more mobile and set up at home.

Surveys with procurement respondents, since the beginning of the crisis, pointed to a longer-term sales approach issue. Easy, in-person access to customers will be difficult for the foreseeable future. Even as the lockdowns end, many customers will continue to work from home. Home-based customer decision-makers will greatly reduce on-site sales visits. Additionally, trade shows will likely not be a topic until after the pandemic crisis is past. Considering less in-person contact, sales teams will need to re-think their approach. Our view of the current state of sales, during the crisis, is:

  • Customer visits will likely not return to their normal level.
  • Continuation of the pivot from in-person sales to either inside sales or "digital" sales.
  • Notable mistakes made by salespeople in their use of social media to mass prospect. This is one example that retraining and retooling salespeople are topics.
  • Customers complaining about "Skype fatigue" or being "Zoomed out".
  • Some sales teams reaching out to digital marketing for help.
  • More reliance on inbound marketing.
Changing roles during the COVID-19 crisis

Post COVID-19 sales

Both customers and sellers have expressed more caution in changing strategic relationships. Customers are very concerned about supply chain suppliers and existing sources. Sellers express concern about long-standing relationships. Thus, we will keep Strategic Account Management out of this assessment.

The transition of the sales role

The transition of the traditional sales role is inevitable. The pandemic crisis will only speed up the change. Some companies are already moving field salespeople to more of an office-based salesperson.

  • All digital trends accelerate and become common practice.
  • Field, inside sales, and digital marketing will "un-silo" and become more collaborative.
  • Reduced sales visits. Yet, when sales visits occur, customer expectations of valuable information will increase. In-person selling becomes a delivery of customer value. If the salesperson is not delivering value, the customer will find it counter-productive.
  • New skills needed to "orchestrate" channels at every stage of the customer relationship. Customer focus will be to make buying easier.
  • Sales will become more dependent on digital channels. More dependency on digital channels places pressure on Digital Marketing to get closer to the customer and sales.
  • Data analytics will get out of its silo and become more mainstream for sales teams.
  • In-person sellers will have less face-time with customers. Less face-time will result in the role changing to a hybrid field/inside model.
Post Covid-19 leads to customer orchestration

The traditional role of a salesperson will change. Companies should assess the situation and consider a pivot early. Companies should install a more situation-adapted approach. The new sales approach should include combining aspects of digital marketing and data science. In-person sales should check how they add value to the customer. The traditional salesperson should be able to be effective both in-person and through digital channels.


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