The COVID-19 pandemic changes how sellers engage with customers, as they can no longer rely on traditional practices. Application leaders supporting sales should adopt new planning, guided selling, conversation intelligence, forecasting, digital commerce and pricing technologies.
Because sellers cannot meet face to face with customers, they need new tools to collect buying signals and customer intelligence in order to maximize outcomes on every single deal.
Buyer behavior has changed dramatically, making the common leading forecasting indicators ineffective. Sellers cannot rely on traditional sales forecasting methods, nor can they rely exclusively on AI-based predictive sales forecasting tools.
The COVID-19 outbreak challenges every assumption upon which your initial sales quota and compensation plans were based.
As B2B sales cycles lengthen, slow or disappear, sellers will need tools that maximize their chances on every single deal.
Rapidly fluctuating customer demand will necessitate selling via B2B digital commerce and pricing optimization systems.
As an application leader supporting CRM sales technology, you should:
Deploy AI-based conversational analytics, sales enablement and guided selling capabilities in order to help your sellers capture buying signals and sentiment that are lost using traditional selling methods.
Revamp your sales forecasting practices by introducing new tools for sales forecasting that include third-party data.
Create more realistic quotas by building and testing multiple quota and compensation scenarios via sales performance management (SPM) planning capabilities.
Ensure business continuity by encouraging customers to use your existing digital commerce site to service their day-to-day purchasing needs.
Strategic Planning Assumption(s)
On 20 March 2020, Gartner surveyed 47 chief sales officers (CSOs) about the impact that COVID-19 has had on their sales processes and customer demand. Most of the audience stated that there was no cause for immediate change in strategy. While this initial report is encouraging, Gartner has also found that the outbreak caught many Gartner clients flat-footed. Selling organizations that rely heavily on human-to-human interactions are the most unprepared, leaving them uncertain about the impact on their sales processes and revenue.
At the micro level, Gartner clients are uncertain about how their sellers will actually sell to customers in this new reality. They also find that they do not have reliable, forward-looking indicators to manage forecasts on mature sales deals. And at the macro level, Gartner clients find that the outbreak greatly imperils their revenue streams. In fact, 46% of surveyed CSOs reported seeing softening demand, and some near-term forecasts now vary by as much as 50% from the previous forecast baseline.
These concerns are not insignificant, and no amount of technology will ever remove all risk and uncertainty from sales cycles. But there are options for companies that are willing to revamp their sales processes; both internal operational processes as well as customer-facing engagement. Figure 1 below outlines our top technologies and processes to consider adding immediately.
Impacts and Recommendations
Before the pandemic, about 46% of a B2B sales rep’s time was spent either with a customer or at that customer’s work premises. This allowed for a level of interaction with buyers and decision makers that now seems to be a luxury. As these in-person visits are not appropriate during COVID-19 times, sellers will find it difficult to work and process their opportunities further in the sales cycle.
Without sitting next to a decision maker, sellers cannot gather:
Strong positive or negative sentiments, mostly demonstrated through decision makers’ faces.
Emotional indicators, expressed through body language or vocal intonation.
Buying signals, based on key topics surfaced in every conversation.
Resistance, which is normally identified through the introvertive and very quiet behavior of one of the decision makers.
These missing signals are disrupting the workflow and deal routine of B2B sellers. As a consequence, deals and opportunities:
Lacking this crucial face-to-face information, sellers do not have a true picture of a deal’s progress. But sellers do have an option for collecting these signals, provided that they adopt new forms of technology. Application leaders supporting sales organizations need to introduce tools that close these customer data and information gaps.
“Conversational engagement applications” refers to the use of messaging apps, speech-based assistants and chatbots to automate communication and create personalized customer experiences at scale. They enable long-running interactions with customers via text, chat-messaging apps using the most intuitive interface available — i.e., natural language. Conversational interactions are driven by words, whether in full sentences or in a menu. Unlike social media, they can support engaging, two-way interactions with private audiences.
Conversational analytics provides automated functions for monitoring, recording and analyzing the quality of telephone conversations with prospects. They use proprietary AI algorithms to analyze audio conversations for the purpose of delivering contextual, relevant insights into the quality of the interactions with prospects and customers.
With both forms of technology, sellers are able to understand their audiences better, faster and are enabled to collect more data for pursuing the best suitable sales activities. Conversational AI technologies are able to collect customer signals from video calls, phone calls, emails and chatbots. These technologies come with sentiment analysis and can alert sales reps in case negative sentiments have been detected.
Sales enablement solutions can provide great value to sellers, as they are enabled to address new ways of selling. Without face-to-face meetings, sellers will need to rely on alternative technologies to communicate with their prospects and to assess buyers’ commitment to deals.
Most sales enablement solutions for digital sales content management measure customer’s engagement on the content delivered to them. Data collected from these touchpoints helps sellers make data-driven decisions about moving their opportunities forward.
Video-coaching capabilities will enable collaboration and remote-practice capabilities to ensure sellers are prepared to reach out to prospects appropriately. Sales engagement platforms may be able to provide all three aspects of enablement (content, training and coaching) or will provide open API connections to complementary solutions that do (see ). Look to sales enablement tools to speed the process of enabling sellers to better reach out to prospects with messages that will help them make sense of all the turmoil. These tools will also help to build trust so that when the prospect is ready to move forward, they’ll do so with your organization.
Revisit your CRM sales technology strategy, search for customer data gaps because of missing in-person meetings and interactions with your customers.
Assess conversational-engagement-analytics technologies for filling in customer buying signals using the vendors listed in the
Evaluate vendors on their ability to use unstructured machine learning techniques to maintain a wide library of semantic associations, particularly colloquial expressions.
Select vendors on their ability to automatically parse and tag audio conversations for key topics.
Be pragmatic about the strengths and limits of these solutions; automated sentiment analysis is still an emerging capability.
Utilize sales enablement technology (content, training and coaching) to help sellers with new ways to communicate with prospects and customers to continue moving business forward. For more information on vendors in this category see the
As noted in the Introduction section, chief sales officers currently do not see a need to change their sales strategy, but they do admit that their forecasts show a lot of variability, ranging from +25% improvement to −50% reductions. This variability is not surprising as humans are naturally poor planners especially in times of crisis, we become irrational and blind to logical reasoning.
Now more than ever sales organizations are faced with the imperative to assess their forecasts and adjust for the economic impacts of COVID-19. Best-of-breed forecasting solutions that use predictive modeling techniques can serve a unique purpose to ensure higher accuracy but only if they are layered with third-party data signals.
Organizations that rely on predictive forecasting tools which do not incorporate third-party data signals for market intelligence into their models will be useless for revenue targeting. This is because they solely depend on historical data to feed predictive models, leading to distorted “business as usual” projections.
Predictive forecasting solutions that incorporate third-party market data have the uncanny ability to consider the current economic situation in their forecast adjustments. The current crisis has brought about severe anxiety and unease for many people and businesses, which present the perfect opportunity to embed decision-making capabilities that marry first and third-party data, not just intuition and historical data alone.
If sales organizations stay the course and continue to rely on intuition or only historical data, they face not only severe misses in their forecast planning assumptions (because of the instability in the global market), but also on a significant opportunity to turn the corner once the situation resolves itself.
Do not attempt to forecast solely based on intuition, particularly at this time when sellers’ logical system is hijacked by anxiety.
If you are considering using predictive sales forecasting solutions, focus on solutions that integrate with third-party data signals. For examples of technology providers of third-party data, see
Predictive sales forecasting tools require customization. Only consider tools that allow platform customization, with categorical weights assigned to specific data sources, which will afford you the ability to increase the importance of third-party data for identifying market signals.
If you do not yet have a forecasting process, then start with basic sales forecasting tools. For options, investigate the forecasting system-of-record recommendations outlined in the first impact in
A tremendous amount of effort was expended to create compensation plans, quotas and territories for sales organizations for 2020. With the onslaught of COVID-19, much of that work needs to be reevaluated. As noted earlier, CSOs surveyed by Gartner on 20 March 2020 are taking a cautious approach, but they are also realistic.
Most respondents stated that they are considering giving sellers quota relief, releasing them from previous quota targets. They also believe that they need to have a strategy for quickly changing sales quota and incentive compensation plans, engaging in multilayered scenario planning activities.
Now is the time to evaluate and implement sales performance management (SPM) tools. SPM solutions will provide you the ability to create multiple modeling scenarios with quota planning functionality. These scenarios will provide a collaborative environment to work with financial planning and analysis (FP&A) to understand the adjusted budget and bring both the budget and sales forecast in line to create attainable quotas for sellers until the economy begins to recover.
These quota scenarios should be run in conjunction with compensation plan models to understand the accrual forecast for commission expense and to consider all possible options to keep the seller “whole” through this period of time. This could include, reduced quotas, termination of the plan for an entirely new plan, inclusion of sales performance incentive funds (SPIFs) or bonuses for other things the seller normally isn’t involved with such as cross-sell or upsell activities or even short-term guarantees. Be careful considering this last one as you want to maintain the motivation of the sellers to keep working business and attempting to close deals.
SPM solutions provide the tools needed to perform these multiple-model scenarios and provide a means to compare and choose the best option for the company. The No. 1 benefit achieved, according to a recent survey of customer references for the is that 78% of customers who implemented an SPM solution were able to increase operational efficiency.
Create more realistic quotas by building and testing multiple quota and compensation scenarios using SPM planning capabilities (see ).
Create compensation planning scenarios, using SPM solutions, to account for the change in quotas and changes in metrics or thresholds to keep sellers “fed” for the short term.
Gartner has spoken with hundreds of clients in the past few years that have stated, in some variation, “Our sellers refuse to follow a standard sales process. They think they already know what to sell. They won’t accept anything that slows them down.”
This is an understandable sentiment, but circumstances have changed. With business conditions currently being so unpredictable, sellers will find that their traditional sales techniques and methods no longer work. They want selling guidance, even if it means that they have to adhere to a greater level of sales process discipline than they have previously.
Sales process discipline can be introduced, nurtured, and monitored with forms of guided selling.
As traditionally implemented, guided selling is used to enforce sales process execution and help resolve sellers’ uncertainties about what to do next on complex sales deals. In this new COVID-19 paradigm, guided selling tools can be used to quickly implement new playbooks that address new selling techniques.
Guided selling tools, particularly those that monitor the discrete actions that sellers take to move deals forward, offer two other attractive advantages. They give sales managers a new means of monitoring sales execution on specific deals, helping them to see how well sellers are adhering to the recommended best practices. They also generate metadata about sales execution, helping sales leaders understand which activities and process steps contribute to win rates. This enables managers to deliver better coaching recommendations.
To support guided selling, application leaders have many application options. For a list of applications that meet specific sales use cases, see Tables 1-3 in
Help your sales organization prepare for guided selling tools by asking them to model their typical sales processes, particularly modeling incremental process steps within sales stages that are likely to have the most impact on moving deals forward.
AI-based prescriptive next best actions are not a quick-fix for most selling organizations. To be accurate and usable immediately, they require 12-18 months of historical sales execution data.
Prepare for the transition to AI-based guided selling by initiating a data quality improvement and sales process standardization program.
The No. 1 priority of every sales organization in the current crisis is to keep the sales team safe. This means working from home to limit close personal contact with other team members and customers. Customers will also be reluctant to engage in personal contact. When sellers catch the virus they may be out of action for weeks risking continuity of service to their customers.
This can be mitigated by driving more business to the organization’s digital commerce site. Unpredictable supply and demand will cause stock-out and over-stock situations. Purchasers will want to quickly locate and lock down available supply. If the digital commerce site reflects real-time inventory levels and expected supply timelines then customers can quickly locate and order what they need.
Instruct sales reps to proactively contact their customers to discuss how their day-to-day needs can be supported by the company’s digital commerce site, even if the rep is incapacitated. Use web conferencing to demonstrate how to use the site.
Ensure that the digital commerce site is ready to scale to support an increase in traffic.
If supply is likely to become limited, business and IT must work together to quickly implement a rationing strategy and implement it on the digital commerce site.
Ensure that IT is ready to support novel product offers intended to clear excess inventory, or new products introduced to respond to the crisis (e.g., the gin company that is now making hand sanitizer).
If the digital commerce site does not currently support the display of inventory levels, urgently initiate an IT project to expose this for products that are likely to run out of stock.
Ensure that sales rep compensation plans are adjusted so they do not lose income by driving business to the website.
When the current crisis abates, this strategy has the added benefit that customers will be conditioned to using the website for day-to-day transactions, thus reducing cost-of-sales and freeing up reps to hunt for new business.
The cost and availability of raw materials and parts is likely to change rapidly as suppliers and whole geographic regions are impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Demand and inventory is likely to fluctuate as customers hoard certain items and stop purchasing others. Pricing is a powerful tool for ensuring continued profitability (or at least minimizing losses). Most organizations still manage pricing in Excel spreadsheets and are not equipped to make frequent price changes to respond to market conditions and the supply situation. Price management solutions enable prices to be calculated and managed at a scale and speed that is impossible with Excel. These solutions can be implemented in a matter of weeks and could prove critical to weathering the current crisis.
Evaluate whether existing processes and tools can support rapid changes in pricing — which are driven by changes to costs, supply and demand.
If the business is not currently able to adjust prices quickly, consider the rapid procurement and implementation of a price management solution (see ). Note that these solutions also offer more sophisticated machine-learning-based price optimization algorithms but those are not suited to the current environment because customer buying behavior is unlike what has been experienced in recent history.
Gartner Recommended Reading
Customer reference survey, Magic Quadrant for Sales Performance Management. n = 74
MQ49: “Please indicate the types of measurable business benefits your organization has realized with your vendor.”