Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

As one unprecedented year comes to an end and another begins, it’s a good time to reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced sales professionals around the globe to change their normal routines — and welcome necessary adaptations as we plan for success in the new year.

Although we miss some of the things we used to take for granted — business travel and the energy in a room during in-person sales meetings, for instance — we’ve welcomed the time we regained. On a personal level, the virtual structure has enabled us to gain greater work productivity and be home in the evenings for family life. Businesses have benefitted from the cost savings of not having to pay for travel expenses, providing learning and development (L&D) to more employees, and faster rollout of programs with none of the coordination time required for face-to-face meetings.

New research from ValueSelling Associates shows that business-to-business (B2B) buyers have also welcomed a change spurred by COVID-19, and they’d like it to stay: virtual selling. Sales teams focused on putting the buyer first should take note and plan their long-term strategies accordingly.

Armed with what we’ve learned in 2020 helps us determine what’s important to focus on in 2021. Here are some of the more important sales lessons we gathered from research and selling in the trenches over this past year.

The Show Must Go on

No matter what’s happening in the world, business revenue and growth goals haven’t changed. Sales quotas have not been reduced, and business transactions have not stopped. It is better to move your business forward than to procrastinate and plan to reschedule “when this is all over.”

With selling moving to a virtual model, sales training and L&D programs had to as well. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that “56% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible (at least partially) with remote work” and that 25 to 30% of workers in the U.S. will be working at home multiple days per week by the end of this year. The firm predicts that “the longer people are required to work at home, the greater the adoption we will see when the dust settles.”

Human-to-human Connections Through Digital Channels Are Vital

One year ago, I penned a guest post for a LinkedIn Sales blog arguing that “2020 is the Year of Human-to-Human Connection.” That title certainly hits differently now than it did then — but it’s still true. Connecting at a human level through digital means is not only required; it’s crucial. The most effective technologies enable your sales teams to be more human and make more human connections. At the end of the day, sales is about people and how they communicate. People buy from people, and the salesperson is a critical component of any frictionless buying experience.

Mastering communications skills such as listening, understanding, relating and engaging is more critical than ever in an increasingly virtual selling and learning environment. Following the advice shared in that blog — ask informed questions, employ empathy and elevate the conversation — will be helpful to upskill sales reps’ communication skills.

Buyers Want Virtual Selling to Stay

According to McKinsey & Company, “digital is the wave of the future” for B2B sales. As the majority of B2B selling interactions have gone remote, customers have been fans, with 70 to 80% saying they prefer this method of interaction, McKinsey reports. Among the top factors driving their preference for virtual sales are easier scheduling, travel cost savings and safety.

The LinkedIn State of Sales Report 2020 confirms that virtual selling has gone mainstream. “In this difficult environment,” LinkedIn reports, “sales organizations are embracing virtual selling, with LinkedIn data showing … that 81% of sales professionals are conducting more video conferencing with face-to-face meetings limited.”

As you plan for 2021, keep in mind that a virtual selling and buying process is here to stay. Even when the pandemic is over, we anticipate much more of a hybrid model, mixing more virtual interaction with limited in-person meetings. Keep in mind that the underlying fundamentals of sales haven’t changed. As a sales community, we need to be agile and flexible in adjusting to new techniques and tactics that align with evolving buyer preferences.

Training a Remote Sales Force

Our latest research with Training Industry, Inc. explores how high-growth companies respond to crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept many salespeople homebound, away from customers and prospects, requiring them to navigate a suddenly challenging economy and tighter purchasing budgets. While some companies experienced significant challenges and negative impacts, others had a banner year. Of course, business success during this crisis is due to multiple factors, including industry, but there are specific areas of sales focus that have helped some companies succeed.

What differentiates companies that grew in 2020? All companies are focused on closing deals, naturally, but the high-growth companies have additional, unique skill priorities. Notably, they are focused more on prospecting, negotiating, business acumen, empathy — and, especially, presenting in virtual settings.

In fact, the greatest difference we saw between high-growth and negative-growth companies when it came to prioritizing skills was virtual presentations. Almost half of high-growth companies are focusing on upskilling their salespeople to present virtually in a more effective way, while only 13% of negative-growth companies are doing so:

sales training 2021

As you take stock of 2020, realize that the virtual selling model will have a lasting impact for most businesses. Approach 2021 with a proactive plan to equip your team members with the skills they will need to sell remotely and adapt to change. Then, regardless of the economic environment, you’ll be ready for whatever comes.