Sales Leaders: Adapting to Covid-19

Dec 17, 2020 Uncategorised

Sales Leaders: Adapting to Covid-19

by Peter Byrne or Shane Downer

Ireland has partially emerged from a second lockdown, and uncertainty reigns over Brexit and how a Deal or No Deal will impact.  But as COVID-19 vaccines start to be rolled-out, there is hope that the business environment may bounce back sooner than originally thought.  So, when we asked sales leaders “Have recent events impacted your SALES PLANNING for 2021”, it is no surprise that 95% of SALES LEADERS gave a definitive YES answer to this question. 

What has changed? Well – planning cycles are shorter and plans are more frequently reviewed. Visibility on markets and sales pipelines have weakened. Interestingly, this is not only applicable to companies negatively challenged by the current environment, but also those who have experienced growth. Those who have weathered the pandemic are concerned about supply chain capacity and ability to supply their customers

For the digitally focussed sales organisation, lead generation is garnering more focus. The number of inbound leads has grown, however the conversion rates have decreased.  This may indicate an increase in the volume of website visits which appear to be generating a poorer quality of lead. Therefore, additional focus needs to be on quality lead generation and qualification. From a planning perspective this is resulting in more focus and investment in lead generation. 

Significantly there is focus from all respondents on New Business, New Markets, Retention and Upselling. This is balanced by the need to be more diligent with how business is done with a focus on customers that are financially viable.

26% of respondents are planning to grow their sales headcount in 2021

Despite all the doom and gloom 26% of respondents are planning to grow their sales headcount in 2021. A significant majority of companies are also focussing on staff retention and morale. This is very positive and draws a clear line between the impact of the financial crisis of 2010 when many took the opportunity to reduce their sales organisations and rebuild when ready.

When asked “Have recent events impacted your ability to COMMUNICATE with your team?” 50% said YES, but believed communication had improved. Frustrations were noted with the loss of face to face meetings and too many communication fora, but frequency of communication has increased as has quality and efficiency.  This is noted by some as due to improved preparationfor remote meetings and calls.  A clear positive outcome of recent events has been an increased focus on the purpose and quality of communication with the team. 

CUSTOMER communication has obviously been impacted. Interestingly there are positives and negatives to be taken from this.  Some are taking this as an opportunity to reduce the level of interaction with salespeople. For others, customers have stopped interacting as their own businesses have been forced to close during recent lockdowns. However, most customers who have been able to continue trading have adapted to remote meetings and calls. Some positive impacts of this are, interactions becoming more needs and priority focussed and in certain cases remote meetings are replacing email communication with positive effects. Interactions with a customer may be reduced but the quality of the interaction has improved, as have outcomes. Notwithstanding this, there is still a clear impact on the ability to initiate, build and maintain relationships which is impacting the ability to conduct business in certain sectors. In a B2B context this is a concern as it is feared potential and early stage new business customers may use remote communication to keep suppliers at arm’s length.

78% of respondents indicated that some change in the sales process is required

It is unsurprising that 78% of respondents indicated that some change in the sales process is required.  Although the number of respondents indicating a change in the customer acquisition process was less – at 48% – this represents a very sizeable shift.

Changes being considered include:

  • Redeployment of sales resource;
  • Recruitment of additional sales resource; and
  • Increased focus on digital sales process.

20% were acutely conscious of the importance of championing customers’ needs back through the supply chain, going the extra mile to support and look after customers interests, including smoothing orders and merchandising to cope with knock-on effects of the pandemic and Brexit concerns.

These initiatives are supported by a general recognition of the need for investment and development of staff across sales functions.  Over 33% of respondents indicated skills gaps in respect of requirements to deliver the 2021 sales budget.  As a result, for some development will be clearly focused on building sales team’s ability to prospect and interact effectively with customers remotely. In addition to this respondent’s also commented on the need to look after their teams after a bruising year.

Over 33% of respondents indicated skills gaps

As we emerge from a challenging 2020, focus has shifted to 2021 and sales leaders are now setting targets for the new year.  These range from “survival” and shoring-up existing business to establishing new sales channels. Additional sectoral focus involves – and is dependent on – the re-emergence of the hospitality sectors.  

Rather than rely on defence and re-entrenchment, many respondents are clearly focused on finding new paths as we emerge from COVID-19.  An impressive agenda is also emerging with organisations seeking positive change. Examples include:

  • Innovation and new business: Launching new products / channels / markets.
  • Deepening customer engagement
  • Building and renewing sales teams

2020 has highlighted the ability of many organisations and their people to adapt.  To find methods and solutions which have helped to acquire new and support existing customers; to go the extra mile and find ways and flexibility to meet their customers changing circumstances.  

That resilience and adaptability will need to continue through 2021.  Sales leaders will have to cope with their team’s COVID-19 related fatigue, while continuing to grow digital skills and customer engagement capability.  Those that can achieve such renewal, will likely be able to position their businesses for a brighter – and more robust – future.

For more information on the authors click here to visit the LinkedIn profiles for Peter Byrne or Shane Downer.