How Your Reps Can Make Calls without Visiting Customers
As of this writing, the coronavirius (COVID-19) is infecting an increasing number of people around the world. We grieve over the human toll this virus takes. With a mortality rate that appears to be about 3% (at the moment) and focused primarily on the elderly and infirm, this pandemic does not create life-threatening risks for most business professionals.
However, out of an abundance of caution, a growing number of businesses are taking steps to limit in-person contact and are canceling events like seminars, conferences and trade shows. In other cases, businesses are asking an increasing number of employees to work from home. The travel industry – airlines, hotels, rental cars, etc. – is already feeling the effects and taking steps to offer customers more flexibility while at the same time freezing hiring and cutting back on other expenses.
Additionally, the broader market is responding with fear – how badly may this pandemic affect GDP? Unemployment? Productivity? As a result, the stock market has been steadily declining and some business leaders feel this situation could trigger a recession.
And yet, business operations must continue. Leaders must motivate their organizations to adapt to the circumstances, develop and implement contingency plans and keep their workers both safe and productive at a time when achieving both is more difficult than usual. “The show must go on,” to borrow an old show business adage.
The Challenge for Sales Leaders
Sales professionals know that sales goals tend to be immovable objects. In other words, once they’re established, it’s incredibly difficult to get CEOs to back away from them. Many sales organizations know they aren’t going to get relief just because there’s a global pandemic – so they have to find a way to make plans anyway.
But new obstacles are appearing:
- An increasing number of major corporations are asking white collar workers (like purchasing agents) to work from home.
- Some customers won’t be in the office for you to call on
- Many companies are also cancelling all in-person meetings.
- This could be extended to include visits from sales reps
How can sales leaders drive productivity during a pandemic? And how can your reps make sales calls when they can’t make sales calls?
Pivoting Outside In
It’s easy to say, “We’ll have our sales reps use the phone instead of making calls in person.” The problem is that making this actually work – using it to drive sales numbers – is more difficult than it appears.
Let’s consider an account manager named Julie. Julie is a good, successful sales rep who manages an important territory for you. You don’t have to worry about Julie – you know she’s out there making calls and taking care of customers.
Suddenly, Julie can’t call on a third of her customers thanks to a pandemic. We all believe it’s temporary but the recommendations from health experts are fairly draconian. Will this last a week? A month? The rest of the year? No one knows.
But Julie’s still got the same sales goal (just like you do) but her world just got more complicated. She can still see some of her customers but her windshield time will go up since she will have to drive farther on average between calls.
Additionally, she needs to find the time and resources to make phone calls to one third of her customers who are suddenly unavailable. But this represents some challenges:
- Uncertainty about who’s available. The list of customers she can call on vs. those she can’t keep changing. How does she know? It will be hard enough to be productive making calls with the increased drive times – the last thing Julie needs is to show up at an account to be surprised that no one’s there or they won’t let her in.
- Switch to mobile phone dependency. Since this is a fast-moving problem, many “work from home” employees will need to use their cell phones to work – companies won’t have time and equipment to set up home offices for everyone. Does Julie have all her customers’ cell numbers?
- Need for technology tools. Julie will need to use her cell phone, too. This isn’t a big deal except that she probably isn’t using it all day at a desk. For her comfort and productivity, she needs a headset or portable speaker phone.
New demands for data. Managing accounts on the phone is much different than doing it in person. For example, experienced telesales reps know that most phone calls end with a commitment to follow up electronically – typically by email. At the end of the call, the rep often sends the customer:
- Product information
- A quote
- Historical transaction data
- A follow up meeting invitation
Julie will need to have various documents available by PDF and may need help getting information off your ERP if she’s working from home. Can she access it remotely? Is there a contact she can call to get pricing, product data, a past invoice, etc.?
Turning Outside Reps into Inside Successes
Based on our many years of working with inside and outside sales forces, we recommend that distributors get ready to take the following steps to ensure their sales reps can sell effectively even if they can’t make sales calls:
Mobile Matters More than Ever
Ask Account Managers to ensure they have mobile phone numbers for their customers. Given the circumstances, customers are likely more willing than usual to share this information, particularly if they’re working from home.
Call Planning Takes Priority
Reinforce the need for sales reps to schedule calls in advance and not “just stop by.” We all know this is a best practice but all of us know reps who aren’t diligent about this. Many top sales reps spend one morning or afternoon per week scheduling calls and prospecting as a matter of course. This would be a good time to reinforce that behavior
Strong Forecast for Webcasts
This is also a good time to perfect your webcast meeting enablement. Using a webcast system such as Zoom will still allow a more personal meeting with live interaction and video. Many of our clients have used this option for their inside salespeople to create a more personal connection with their customers.
Bring in Supplier Reinforcements — Virtually
Use your manufacturers’ sales reps more. Consider having joint conference calls with them and your customers to discuss new products or product alternatives. This will also help to strengthen your vendor relationships with customers.
Paper is Pointless; Prepare PDFs
Ask your marketing department to prepare PDFs of all marketing materials as quickly as possible. These materials should then be distributed to sales reps via your network, Dropbox or USB drives.
Keep the Orders Flowing
Ensure that every account manager has access to the ERP or has a designated contact (like a customer service rep) they can reach quickly to process orders or answers to customer questions.
Ask Reps and Customers to Welcome the Web
A good website will also go a long way to enabling salespeople to access products, inventory, and other key data they will need access to. If E-Commerce is enabled, they may even be able to place an order for a customer. Best practice is to ensure customers are aware of using the website when they need something. This is why it is important that sales teams are actively talking about the benefits of using the website now.
Process Quotes Quickly
Allowing the upload of an Excel spreadsheet on the website for quoting purposes will also be an advantage. This will allow the support teams to process the quote rather than having the quote go through the sales rep.
Meet Face to Face, Virtually
Online web chat is another good tool for salespeople and customers to communicate with each other or to contact the customer service team. This will entail ensuring staffing levels can be maintained, so additional customer service staff may need to be trained.
Texting is another good way to enable communication with customers and support teams. Emphasizing texting will also reinforce the importance of obtaining mobile phone numbers.
Turn Windshield Time into Work at Home Time
Suggest that account managers work from home (or from the office) on Mondays and Fridays while making sales calls on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Many customers are too busy to see reps on Mondays anyway – and working from home will give reps a chance to call and confirm appointments for the next three days. Friday is the most common vacation/sick day, so it’s another good day to stay off the road.
Location, Location, Location – Do Your Reps Have One?
Work with reps to identify the resources they will need while not on the road. Do they have a home office? Do they need a workstation in a branch or headquarters location?
Help Your Reps Listen Up
Have your IT department suggest a headset or speakerphone for reps to use. This may seem like a detail, but it makes a big difference in the quality of the call for both the customer and your rep.
Distribute Customer Data
Provide your reps with easy to use customer data. This is where a good, mobile-enabled CRM system is ideal. Best practice on a good day is to ensure salespeople maintain all of their contacts in the CRM system, and that they are diligent about keeping the information updated. If CRM is not available, provide them a list of their accounts, in alphabetical order, complete with contact information – especially phone numbers. If your reps have a basic understanding of Excel, a spreadsheet with fields marked for notes might be very helpful.
Share Your Excellent Prospects
Consider providing a second list of high-value prospects. Most sales organizations want to prospect more effectively, and this is a good way to put those potential customers in front of your salespeople.
Check in to Check Up
Follow up with your reps daily to see how customer behavior is trending – are more customers working remotely? Are reps able to reach them anyway? Do they need support or resources?
Leading Through a Crisis
Many sales reps will struggle with the shift from making personal sales calls to working over the phone. Outside sales positions usually pay more and are perceived as more prestigious in most distributors.
But some outside reps will be in for a shock when they face the unique challenges of selling over the phone. They’ll be using different selling and communication skills and will find the job much more demanding of their technology capabilities. Some of your reps may find themselves frustrated with the process and with themselves.
The more you help your account managers through this process, the more effective they’ll be in their temporary roles as hybrid outside/inside sales reps. Proactively providing them the tools and resources and then communicating with them daily to check-in, supporting them and listening to their experiences will help them succeed.
This crisis will pass, and your sales reps will be on the road again when it’s over. They’ll be more effective for their time working with a phone and computer. It will also help them appreciate their normal routines. But in any case, you don’t want to emerge from this crisis realizing you didn’t take actions that would have protected sales during a challenging time.
Best wishes for good health and strong sales.
Ian Heller is the Founder and Chief Strategist for Distribution Strategy Group. He has more than 30 years of experience executing marketing and e-business strategy in the wholesale distribution industry, starting as a truck unloader at a Grainger branch while in college. He’s since held executive roles at GE Capital, Corporate Express, Newark Electronics and HD Supply. Ian has written and spoken extensively on the impact of digital disruption on distributors, and would love to start that conversation with you, your team or group. Reach out today at email@example.com.