The pandemic was hard on sales teams — how do we move forward from here?

Heather McLean by Heather McLean on May 24, 2021
Try for free

This is part of a multi-article series exploring how you can help your sales team cope with an unpredictable pandemic recovery period.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted all areas of modern human life. All too often, its effects were nothing short of devastating, whether in terms of its death toll or the havoc it wreaked on the global economy. Companies of all kinds, across all industries, had to adapt to the new normal or get left behind by it — sales teams in particular.

Although signs of a more "normal" post-pandemic society are clear on the horizon in many parts of the world, there are still lessons to be learned from what the crisis did to so many different inside and outside sales teams. In this blog post, we'll delve into some of the immediate consequences, look at early adjustments that organizations made and consider what these changes may mean for sales teams in the years to come.

Readjustment of hiring and expansion plans

By comparison to the doldrums that job-seekers went through during the Great Recession that followed the 2008 global financial crisis, the pandemic hasn't caused long-term layoffs and hiring freezes — at least not across the board.

For example, job losses were massive in hospitality and leisure, according to Business Insider. But layoffs in the professional services sector (i.e. of sales reps and others) were not a large industry-wide drop-off. Losses varied wildly between organizations, some minimal, others significant. Companies that were already digitally transformed to function effectively with a remote workforce had a leg up on those not yet as advanced. In some cases, companies that maintained their sales teams allowed reps to handle new responsibilities outside of the deal-making realm.

Hiring initiatives may have been uneven — causing the job market to first favor job-seekers, then abruptly whiplash to employers and just as suddenly go back to candidates — but expansion plans in 2020 were almost all in stasis.

Change in new job listings on Linkedin throughout the pandemic.

Change in new job listings on Linkedin throughout the pandemic.

Source: CNN Business

In retrospect, this was likely the best approach. If your organization weathered the storm of 2020 and came out in decent shape, delaying growth initiatives probably didn't cause your window of opportunity to pass by.

Shifts in channel and buyer preferences

Among the organizations that were able to keep doing business in spite of all of the pandemic's many pressures and limitations, revenue generation stayed on an even keel for the most part. The biggest shifts for sales teams were in the ways that sales were proposed, negotiated and agreed upon: B2B customers in particular were happy to shift away from in-person sales meetings and adopt video conferencing tools like Zoom or Skype as their primary medium. A significant share of these buyers also used digital self-service tools, such as automated chatbots and other processes that didn't require direct human interaction.

According to research from McKinsey and Company, it's not only customers who've grown to appreciate this. More than 75% of buyers and sellers prefer remote human engagement or self-service to face-to-face conversation, primarily citing the ease and cost savings of not needing to travel.

In a vacuum, this isn't necessarily a problem – but it's not without side effects. As customers grow more accustomed to digital interactions, the quality of necessary calls (quarterly or bi-monthly check-ins with high-value customers, for example) may slowly deteriorate. In fact, the RAIN Group Center for Sales Research surveyed 528 sellers in Q2 of 2020, and found that 88% of them had difficulty building relationships with buyers through virtual channels. Even if the relationships aren't ultimately endangered, the difference in calls can make large-scale analysis more difficult due to skewed response curves.

The question of capacity

In the early days of the fully remote sales environment, you may have thought it meant reps automatically had a greater capacity: to take more calls, bring in more business.

But this isn't always the case. Working from home can involve any number of sudden interruptions, especially for reps with children, so calls that would've needed 30 minutes or less in the office might be closer to 45 at home. Going forward, sales team leaders will have to look at reps' remote capacity on a case-by-case basis rather than trying to get it down to a formula of some kind.

Some outside sales reps have struggled to adapt to their new digital reality and are itching to get back into the field. As they make that transition, either on a full-time or hybrid basis, new workload calculations will be required, particularly if some leads and customer still choose to deal with their rep through digital-first channels.

Looking to the future

It's hard to say exactly how the ongoing evolution of the sales profession will progress. While many reps believe work-from-home frameworks have made things easier, others have struggled with the sudden change and isolation. Outside reps, who were used to building relationships face-to-face, are likely to begin limited travel in the near future, though concerns about returning to pre-pandemic spending (e.g., by expensing rental cars and lodging regularly again) may initially spook the C-suite.

Sales teams' best bets will be to use a balanced approach that incorporates the best of traditional selling with the digitized methods that have become the norm in the post-pandemic world.

Heather McLean Written by

Heather McLean

Manager Heather is eSpatial's Customer Communications Manager. With a background in journalism and communications, she specializes in making technical topics more approachable. Her articles dig deep into how businesses can use mapping software to achieve their goals.

Read more from Heather McLean