Your Virtual Edge

By Joe Collins, Senior Consultant

October 8, 2018

5.7 million. That’s how many sales professionals are currently in the U.S., according to a market-sizing survey done by InsideSales.com. Just over 47% of these salespeople are inside sales reps, while just under 53% are outside.

So, what’s the average sales call look like? Well, Inside salespeople have the word “inside” in their title, so of course all of their meetings with prospects and customers are remote. But even the “outside” sales reps of today are no strangers to “virtual” calls, as they spend more than 45% of their time selling remotely, an 89% increase from 2013, the last time InsideSales.com ran the survey.

For the non-math majors, that means that 75% of all sales meetings are now handled remotely. This shows you just how widespread virtual meetings, conducted by phone or web conference, have become.

Ok, virtual sales meetings are a big deal. The reality is this is a tough selling forum in which you must outperform your competition if you hope to gain traction today. Which begs the question: how effectively are salespeople actually handling these meetings today?

A Disconnect Between Belief and Action?

Given how integral remote calls have become to the sales workflow, it’s not surprising to find an appetite for improvement in this area. More than half of respondents to a Corporate Visions industry survey say optimizing messaging and content assets for the virtual selling environment is “extremely important.”

And, half of survey respondents think they do a good job tailoring their messages for these environments.

I’m loving the confidence. So more than half think it’s important and even more think they’re doing well. But is this confidence misplaced? It’s worth asking, because there’s evidence suggesting that many sellers aren’t using the approach they think will have the most positive impact on performance.

Let’s take interactive visual storytelling. In a virtual setting, 64% of sales professionals believe using interactive storytelling techniques would make a material, positive difference. And in this same study, the highest number of respondents rate it as the most effective approach for telling their story and moving prospects and customers to action. So, there must be a ton of people using such a powerful technique, right? Nope. Currently only 12% of respondents use interactive visual storytelling techniques in their virtual meetings.

What’s incredible about this data is it means that 27% believe they are using an ineffective sales approach, but just keep doing it.

So here’s the lay of the land, in summary:

  • -Most say tailoring for virtual is extremely important
  • -Most think they do a pretty good job of it
  • -Very few use interactive visual approaches
  • -Even though the highest percentage believe it’s most effective and the majority think it would make a material difference in the success of their meetings

There’s no shortage of thoughts and opinions on how to be most compelling in these meeting environments. But those, after all, are just thoughts and opinions. What does the research actually say?

The Test Simulation

We put a range of meeting approaches to the test in a research simulation with Dr. Nick Lee, a professor at the Warwick Business School in Coventry, U.K. For the study, we specifically wanted to test the effect of the different call approaches on attitude and recall, since there is a premium on being compelling and memorable in virtual sales meetings.

Conducted online, the simulation involved 800 participants who were randomly divided into four different test conditions—some more participatory and interactive than others. At a basic level, the conditions can be summarized as: 1) Listen Only; 2) Listen and Watch Only; 3) Listen, Watch and Take Notes; 4) Listen and Draw as Directed.

All participants were instructed to imagine themselves as executives at a food processing company who were hearing pitches from vendors who wanted to help them make the shift from large-batch to small-batch production to capitalize on growing demand for organic foods. Making that shift successfully requires more flexible processing techniques, as well as lower labor and materials costs.

The intent of the message in all conditions was to set up a face-to-face meeting with the participants and their fellow executives to discuss the purchase of an organic processing system to help them execute the strategy described above.

The message in each condition followed the Why Change story model—a message framework designed to break through status quo bias, create urgency, and make a compelling case for change. While the message was conveyed in different ways across the conditions, the substance of the message was the same in all of them.

For participants not in the Listen Only condition, the story that developed relied on simple, concrete images that emphasized the decline of large batch processing and the growth potential and upside of small batch processing. Per the visual below, which was used in the three participatory conditions, negative factors such as higher costs and excessive changes were drawn in red, while positive outcomes associated with the organic processing system, such as increased market share, revenues, and profit margin, were rendered in blue.

After experiencing the respective conditions, participants answered a series of numerically valued questions that were then combined to create a composite index for each assessed area. Lower numbers corresponded to less impact in a given area, while higher numbers corresponded to more positive effects.

The first area we wanted under focus was attitude and disposition measures, to measure the effect on critical measures such as uniqueness, how unusual or unexpected the call was, how compelling the call was, and how likely it was to produce a meeting. Across these areas, the Listen and Draw approach consistently performed the best. In each chart you will see a calculation showing by what percentage the other conditions under-performed the winning condition.

Most importantly, the Listen and Draw approach had the best aggregate score, by far, when you combined all attitudinal measures assessed in the simulation. Interestingly, the Listen Only condition holds its own against the others and significantly outperforms “Listen and Watch”—which generally performed poorly.

The study also assessed the recall and retell-ability of the various conditions—both key indicators of how remarkable and memorable the call was. In this case, the Listen, Watch, and Take Notes condition was a convincing winner across areas like confidence in recall, number of correct recalls, confidence in getting colleagues interested in a meeting, and confidence in retelling the story to colleagues. Meanwhile, the Listen Only conditions sinks to last place in all recall and retell-related questions.

Interestingly, in the simulation, you see essentially the same curve between the confidence in recall and the actual recall, with the Listen Only condition lagging far behind in both areas.

The big takeaway here: visual stories are vital to engaging your audience, increasing favorable attitudes toward you, and improving the ability of your prospects and customers to remember you after your meeting is through. Basically, the more participatory your approach, the more memorable and compelling you will be. This research is a mandate for you to get beyond passive when meeting with your prospects remotely, and to shun the less participatory and interactive approaches that reduce positive attitudes toward your message and make you less remarkable. Conventional wisdom might have held that “reducing” by keeping the call focused on the verbal conversation only was key to conducting productive meetings in a remote environment. But the research doesn’t bear that out. Rather, it shows that the less experiential the approach, the less positive impact you will have in the areas of greatest importance.

Salespeople have a huge opportunity to gain an edge in these crucially important selling environments. A Corporate Visions survey shows that 87% of salespeople don’t engage prospects or customs with visual storytelling techniques.

Sellers know they should be having these types of conversations. They know it would be more effective and the data confirms it. So, what’s your excuse? Sales is all about increasing your probability of winning. This is your chance to leap frog the competition and give yourself a competitive edge. There’s a lot of upside for you to become more memorable and differentiated in the virtual meeting environments you increasingly find yourselves in. The question is, are you ready to leverage your virtual edge?

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