Sales platforms have been around for decades to help executives manage leads and close deals more efficiently. Recent dramatic shifts caused by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic stretched these legacy system capabilities to their limits. In response, vendors took an eraser to the product road maps they had drafted and are now focused on enhancing their systems’ collaboration, price forecasting, sales performance monitoring, and automation functionality.
Sales has always been a numbers game: Sales reps are assigned quotas; they need to generate specific numbers of leads; and success or failure is measured in the number of deals closed and the dollars landed. Through the years, managers became quite confident in the sales projections because the numbers were built on decades of input.
All that has been upended. Recently, sales cycles were dramatically altered, perhaps as much as at any time in history. “When the pandemic struck, all of our customers hit the pause button for at least a few weeks as they tried to determine how to operate in this new environment,” says Jon Dick, vice president of marketing at HubSpot, a sales, marketing, and customer service software vendor.
In fact, when Gartner surveyed chief sales officers, 46 percent of them saw softening demand, and some near-term forecasts varied by as much as 50 percent from their baselines. Other cases were even worse. A Massachusetts auto dealership that had been selling between 400 and 600 vehicles a month sold only 18 in April. Such dramatic turns were common in the auto industry, with vehicle production shrinking 93 percent as the U.S. shutdown was enacted.
Given the volatility, new concerns, like hoarding, arose. Facing potential supply chain shortages, companies and consumers began stockpiling supplies, and price gougers emerged. Consequently, product pricing fluctuated wildly. Many organizations still manage pricing forecasts in spreadsheets, which are not equipped to respond to such volatile market conditions, according to Gartner.
Companies turned to price optimization and management software. These solutions were built to help companies account for pricing variables, like the cost and availability of raw materials and parts. They also operate at scales and speeds that are impossible within basic spreadsheets. With the new tools, companies can better manage financial forecasting during turbulent times.
In the current environment, companies also wanted to see how well their sales reps responded to the changes and the opportunities presented. Sales performance management solutions, particularly ones that work with financial planning and analysis (FP&A) tools, became more important. The sales tool brings budgets and sales forecasts in line with one another, so businesses can set reasonable quotas during dramatic economic changes. The tools have been effective: 78 percent of businesses using sales performance management solutions increased their operational efficiency, according to Gartner.
FROM HIGH-TOUCH TO NO-TOUCH
In the past, sales was a high-touch business function. Before the pandemic, about 46 percent of B2B sales representatives’ time was spent either with customers or at clients’ work sites, according to Gartner. During face-to-face meetings with prospects, sellers gain an understanding of their leanings through facial expressions; their emotions through body language or vocal intonation; buying signals based on how key topics surfaced in every conversation; and resistance based on signs of hesitation or fear.
Then the pandemic happened, and sales reps needed to connect with leads in other ways. Collaborative tools gained traction. In many cases, sellers moved from customer sites to their own basements and relied on solutions like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to keep in touch with and evaluate their prospects. So support for collaboration was added to sales support platforms.
Sales teams also learned new ways to work together. When employees were in the office, they exchanged sales status information face-to-face. As such exchanges became virtual, new ways to track progress, often based on popular social media tools, were needed. “I started to rely on tagging, so coworkers knew I was working on a deal and may need their help,” noted Raul Perdigão Silva, global head of sales at Pipedrive, a cloud-based sales software vendor.
Managers need to coach differently today as well. Gathering sales teams in conference rooms and demonstrating sales techniques has become temporarily impossible. Online video coaching enables collaboration, and remote practice ensures that sellers reach out to prospects appropriately. Interest in virtual training has swelled. In the first month after the pandemic, HubSpot Academy, an online sales training certification enterprise, grew about 64 percent and saw a 47 percent increase in use of its sales enablement tools.
Companies also found new ways to motivate sales employees. “We are seeing organizations incorporate concepts like gamification into the sales process,” says Jon Perera, chief marketing officer at Highspot, a sales enablement software provider. Although it lacks a precise meaning, at a high level, gamification introduces interactive, video-game-like principles—such as competition, rewards, and instant recognition—into the sales process.