Revenues for industries that rely on face-to-face interaction have taken a major hit from the global COVID-19 pandemic. Expenditure on nonessentials has been dramatically cut in favor of maintaining business continuity, making the relationship management aspect of sales more important than ever.
The potential for an economic depression aside, mandated social distancing has forced us to adapt to fully remote sales strategies, bypassing in-person meetings. But what happens after COVID-19? How will in-person sales meetings evolve once we're no longer forced to be isolated?
Where will meetings take place after COVID-19?
With this crisis-driven shift to remote work, there's a lot of debate about whether we will see a considerable increase in support for flexible work arrangements, which would greatly reduce the reliance on corporate real estate. With the potential for a dramatic decrease in dedicated office spaces, in-person sales meetings will need to adapt to accommodate alternative meeting locations.
If you don't have a dedicated office when this is all over, here's where you can expect to meet your clients:
- Pop-up offices in hotels
- Coffee shops and restaurants
- Meeting rooms in coworking spaces
- Community meeting spaces
If you're used to meeting clients in private offices, these alternative settings may take some getting used to. While there's bound to be a few outliers, it's unlikely that your clients who have shifted to working from home will want you to come to their homes for a first meeting.
Short-term cost sensitivity
A McKinsey & Company report estimates that the virus-suppression efforts in Europe and the United States are likely to lead to a greater decline in economic activity during a single quarter than the total loss of income experienced during the Great Depression.
During the transition from our current state of emergency to a semblance of normalcy, we can expect cost sensitivity to be a common objection as businesses focus their spending on critical needs to maintain long-term business continuity. Cost sensitivity will continue to decrease the prospects willing to meet in person with the intent to purchase. You and your sales staff will need to maintain strong relationships with your customers to understand their changing priorities in the aftermath.
A sharp decline in travel
Thanks to virtual meeting technology, expensive travel arrangements for field reps were on the decline well before COVID-19. That said, following the pandemic, businesses that regularly used field reps to sell their products are going to limit their travel expenses as much as they can.
These are the most significant travel changes we can expect to see:
Remote work: The same technology investments that have enabled remote work are going to play a part in how business is conducted going forward. Now that more of your potential customers have invested in video conferencing technology, you can reliably involve them in virtual experiences where they can directly interact with you.
Increased localization: Businesses with a history of purchasing globally produced products will show increasingly local buying habits. Cost sensitivity, a desire to reduce reliance on international markets, and concerns regarding the environmental impacts of international travel when suitable virtual alternatives are available are all going to advance this trend significantly following COVID-19.
Essential travel: Your sales travel will usually be reserved for the later stages of the sales cycle, with early prospecting relying more on digital technology and virtual experiences. In our post-pandemic world, we can expect most travel expenses to be reserved for the crucial sales stages that can't be easily replicated with a virtual experience.
The fall of conferences
In-person conferences won't necessarily go away completely, but we can certainly expect a big change in their prevalence. An early indicator of this came when O'Reilly Media shut down its in-person conferences forever, which included laying off all of its related staff.
With all the planning and coordination involved in conferences, event coordinators who intend to continue offering in-person conferences will not begin scheduling events until they're certain that their target date is safe from COVID-19 restrictions. Event coordinators simply cannot afford to carefully plan the time-sensitive portions of large-scale events if there's any risk that they'll be canceled or postponed.
While virtual conferences are certainly a viable option, the main benefit of conferences is the unplanned, casually social in-person meetings. How can this be recreated? While online communities partly fill that gap, we can expect that local meetups and smaller-scale conferences will step up to fill the void of large in-person conferences.
A shift to virtual experiences
Speaking of reduced travel and increased virtual experiences, let's think about how your current sales strategies have evolved during COVID-19. If you've invested in new processes and technologies in an effort to maintain business continuity, surely you don't expect to completely forgo the new skills and infrastructure you've integrated once the dust settles.
The demand for social distance to slow the spread of the virus has forced field reps to shift to fully remote sales strategies. Digital sales and marketing techniques such as webinars, virtual meetings, and telephone calls currently overshadow conferences and in-person meetings as companies prioritize their expenses for critical functions.
How will the magic of in-person meetings be supplemented by virtual experiences in the wake of this pandemic?
Extended reality (XR)
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies are becoming more affordable. Simple AR apps can use your customer's tablet or smartphone to give them an interactive visual reference of your offerings.
Going further than this, stand-alone VR technologies that do not require end users to have a dedicated PC, such as Oculus Quest, will be an excellent resource for sales teams to provide guided virtual tours. If your products rely on immersion to land the sale, you could lend headsets to customers that showcase your products with custom VR applications to replicate in-person experiences.
The equipment and round-trip shipping will be far more affordable than international travel, providing a viable alternative to replicate the magic of in-person meetings using virtual options.
Adapting physical product demos
Some products simply can't be properly demonstrated with a strictly virtual experience. With the stronger emphasis on virtual experiences following COVID-19, virtual meetings will need to be carefully coordinated to ensure that prospects have physical samples in their hands leading up to the meeting.
Is the handshake dead?
In the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, many conferences demanded that attendees refrain from shaking hands in an effort to reduce vectors for transmission. This has led many to wonder how social greetings will be influenced following COVID-19.
While the pandemic has changed the way we interact physically with others right now, once we return to a state of normalcy, we can expect that the greetings we were accustomed to will largely remain as they were, with a small portion of people shifting to alternative greetings such as bowing, fist bumps and namaste-inspired gestures.
That said, when the time comes, pay attention to any new social norms that pop up. Are people more physically distant than they used to be? Are they eager to return to normal? You'll need to adapt your approach as you would in any new situation – with keen observation, mirroring and empathy.
How do you think in-person sales meetings will evolve after COVID-19? We can be certain that there will be long-term implications of the current economic suppression, investments in new infrastructure and the rise of remote workers. While in-person meetings are not going anywhere, we can reasonably expect increased virtualization and emerging technologies to forever alter how we approach sales.