According to Pew data, only 5% of sales and related professionals in the U.S. had access to telework arrangements in 2019. Now, of course, many more salespeople are working remotely due to the coronavirus, as businesses, states and even nations have closed their doors and sent everyone to work from home.

For business-to-business (B2B) salespeople, this state of things is presenting challenges they’ve never faced before. Whether it’s having a virtual sales meeting with a baby on their lap, pitching to a whole team of buyers on an online call or helping clients meet unprecedented needs, remote sales is a whole new ball game. In fact, some sales professionals may not feel like they’re even in the same ballpark anymore.

The Challenge of Selling From a Distance

Many salespeople have never worked from home before — and, like most of us, they certainly have never worked from home during a pandemic, surrounded by family members, some of whom may be ill. This scenario presents challenges for us all, but there are some unique challenges to consider when it comes to your sales team.

First of all, sales professionals must conduct their customer conversations remotely, many for the first time. A recent survey by Corporate Visions, a sales and marketing content and training company, asked 550 sales professionals (all of whom reported that they are now working remotely) about their feelings regarding remote selling. Almost 70% of them said that selling virtually is not as effective as selling in person, pointing to some of the same challenges that face other remote workers, such as limited interactions, distractibility and “passive presentations.”

It’s not just the distractibility of customers that sales teams need to worry about; sales professionals also must evaluate their time management and motivation skills, say Jennifer Brandl, regional vice president of content sales for Cornerstone OnDemand, and Julie Thomas, president and chief executive officer of ValueSelling Associates.

In addition, Thomas says that many sales professionals mistakenly assume that no one wants to buy right now and aren’t contacting clients and prospects. This assumption is understandable; as Andrea Grodnitzky, chief marketing officer of Richardson, says, “Many customers recoil from the idea of being sold to when they are struggling to keep their businesses afloat.”

Richard Barkey, founder and CEO of Imparta, notes that sales professionals are facing all of these challenges in a completely different buying context than they’ve ever seen before. “It’s harder than ever to cut through the noise to create new opportunities,” he says. With budget cuts, slower decisions being made by people higher up in the organization and based on new criteria, and new risks, buyers are cautious, and sales professionals are unsure of how to respond.

Sales professionals must figure out what role they play in this new sales story, Grodnitzky says, but in many cases, they are struggling just to maintain their relationships in an economic environment “where the breadth of customer needs is widening.” The key, she says, is staying flexible and looking for ways to add value to their customer’s current problems, even if it means addressing “the customer’s personal needs with the same intensity that they used to address their business needs.

The Skills Your Team Needs

Sales professionals are using technology for all aspects of the sales process now, says Barkey. Effective technology use is more critical than ever, as are “having a strong online presence … the ability to build rapport and trust in a virtual medium, and [the ability] to engage fully with customers using the full suite of tools.”

Perhaps relatedly, Brandl says that some of the most popular courses among Cornerstone OnDemand clients right now are on “those universal skills that make all of us better in person or virtually,” including conversational skills, active listening, building trust and giving presentations.

On that note, Tim Riesterer, chief strategy and research officer at Corporate Visions, points out that on a virtual sales call, sales professionals’ “personal presence is reduced to a tiny image on a computer screen.” As a result, their presentation slides “do more of the heavy lifting” — and he believes most are not up to the task.

Helping salespeople develop this presence is “critical for engaging customers in meaningful discussions while holding their attention,” says Grodnitzky. Once they’ve captured their audience’s attention, sales professionals need virtual facilitation skills. In that vein, Riesterer points to the importance of storytelling skills, and Thomas says that since “they can’t rely on nonverbal communication,” sales professionals must “master communication in new ways,” including written communication and active listening.

Relationships on the Team and With Clients

For Andre Black, vice president of products at Allego, it comes down, as it always does in sales, to relationships. Sales reps “should feel comfortable using remote tools to connect with colleagues, bounce ideas off of one another and reinforce the strategies that help the team to succeed.” They should also become more comfortable interacting in more personal and even vulnerable ways, he adds, “like sending video messages instead of emails and holding live video meetings instead of voice-only calls — even if they’re in casual clothes.”

And when it comes to building customer relationships, empathy, while always important in sales, is now critical. Sales professionals and the managers coaching them must “humanize the sales approach more than they have in the past,” Grodnitzky says. By empathizing with the customer, salespeople will be able to “bring insight into the customer’s new situation,” which Barkey says is more important than ever.

The messages they used last year will not work this year, Barkey adds. As we start to plan for life after COVID-19, he’s seeing sales teams “focusing on what happens on the rebound: What are we doing now to prepare for a shift in the current normal, even if we don’t go straight back to how things were? How can we help customers to plan ahead … and how can we create lasting bonds now that will help our customers to survive but also put us in a more favorable position when this is all over?”

Now is certainly a challenging time to be a B2B salesperson. Fortunately, sales training and coaching can help. Next week, we’ll explore how.

Click here for part 2 of this series, “Enabling Remote Sales Teams: How Training and Coaching Can Help.”