Being more remarkable in virtual sales meetings


In our last column in this space, we recalled the Bell phone system’s catchy commercial slogan, “Long distance. It’s the next best thing to being there.” It left me wondering whether that sentiment rings true now that inside and outside sales reps are spending more time connecting with prospects and customers remotely versus face-to-face.

A U.S.-based market-sizing study done by found that, of the 5.7 million sales professionals in the country, more than 47 percent were inside salespeople. But that doesn’t mean remote meetings are only relevant to them. In fact, the same survey found that more than 45 percent of outside sales reps’ time is spent selling remotely — a big jump from just years before when they ran a similar study.

A little math and you could say that 75 percent of all sales calls are virtual. This requires us to ask, are reps making the impact they need to in these virtual environments?

There are numerous opinions about how to succeed in remote meetings. What there isn’t much of is research — until now. The study covered below, done in collaboration with the International Journal of Sales Transformation and Dr. Nick Lee, a professor at Warwick Business School, was developed to answer one pivotal question: How can you be the most remarkable and memorable in phone or web conference selling environments?

There are a few schools of thought that I covered in my previous article — and that we have now put to the test. I’ll review those approaches here:

  • Verbal only – Try to “reduce friction” by keeping the conversation verbal only and not directing prospects and customers to web links, apps or other visual storytelling aids for fear of reducing their willingness to participate
  • Web link with PowerPoint – Ask prospects and customers to go to a web link to show them some form of traditional PowerPoint presentation deck to help tell your story
  • Dynamic visual storytelling – Use interactive visual storytelling over the web, in the form of virtual demonstrations of your solution, use dynamic visual builds in PowerPoint, or even have the salesperson “hand-draw” simple images using a whiteboard app
  • Active customer participation – Ask prospects and customers to grab a piece of paper and pen and hand-draw certain concepts described by the seller that help illustrate your core message—moving them from passive observer to active participant

The research simulation

The simulation, conducted online, put four messaging conditions to the test in a non-face-to-face selling environment — some more participatory and interactive than others. At a basic level, the conditions were:

  • Listen-only
  • Listen and watch only
  • Listen, watch and take notes
  • Listen and draw as directed

Participants (800 in total) were divided randomly into the four conditions and instructed to imagine themselves as executives at a food processing company. 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 capitalize on growing demand for organic foods. They would achieve this by making the shift from large-batch to small-batch production, which requires more flexible processing techniques and lower labor and material costs.

For participants not in the listen-only condition, the visual story that developed relied on simple, concrete images that emphasized the decline of large-batch processing and the growth potential of small-batch processing. In the three participatory conditions, the visual that unfolded played up negative factors, such as higher costs and excessive changes, by drawing them in red. Meanwhile, positive outcomes associated with the organic processing system like increased market share, revenues and profit margin were rendered in blue.

The results: attitude/disposition measures

The first area we wanted to focus on was attitude and disposition measures, to measure the effect on critical measures such as uniqueness, trusted advisor status, 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. Interestingly, the listen only approach held its own against the others and consistently outperformed the listen and watch approach, which regularly finished last by a wide margin.

Recall/retell measures

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, and confidence in retelling the story to colleagues. In fact, 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 study shows that salespeople need to get contacts beyond passive on their phone or web-based calls. To stand out in these environments, reps need more than a verbal-only approach, which leads to less engagement and recall of your message.

This is going to require some significant behavior changes. A Corporate Visions survey found that 87 percent of reps engage prospects or customers with visuals either rarely or not at all on their calls. That means the overwhelming majority of reps aren’t using the engagement techniques that research shows to be most effective at securing meetings and advancing deals. It also means 87 percent of reps have a major opportunity to differentiate themselves.  

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