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The Inside Track — A case for the power, and permanence, of virtual sales

June 16, 2020

Virtual selling is working. 

And according to a recent B2B sales survey conducted by McKinsey, it is likely here to stay. 

The Inside Track03 Covid and Virtual Selling

The consulting firm found that 96% of B2B companies shifted their go-to-market strategy during COVID-19 to a videoconferencing/phone/web sales model. Of those, 65% believe the virtual strategy is as effective or more so than its in-person predecessor. That figure was up 5% from earlier that same month, indicating that skeptics of virtual selling are becoming believers as time goes on. 

Indeed, the pandemic has shown us the value of digital interactions in sales, and now companies are saying those interactions are two to three times more important to their customers than “traditional interactions.” As a result, many companies are expecting those changes to stay: 32% of B2B companies are “very likely” to maintain these shifts post-COVID, and 47% said they are “somewhat likely” to do so. 

At Boardroom Insiders, we’re seeing the same trend play out. Our editorial team continues to dig into the earnings calls from major companies across the U.S., and although the economy is hurting in very real ways, B2B companies, particularly in the tech space, are a decided bright spot. They benefited from the wave of digitization that hit back in March. They successfully raked in new business with free or limited trials. Now, they’re converting those customers, hiring more salespeople and investing in digital and virtual sales tools, training and other programs to keep the good times rolling. 

The pandemic has also brought about a sort of “Golden Age” for executive engagement, which is providing a boost to enterprise sales teams pitching mission-critical SaaS products. Executives are more available than ever before, and it’s a dream come true for C-suite sales and marketing teams. They still have to come to the table with value to add and insight to contribute, but the barriers to access these executives have been lowered. For how long, who knows? But for the moment, it’s a bright spot for companies like Adobe, Salesforce and Pure Storage, to name a few. 

We’ve pulled together the most recent insights from CXOs to understand how their priorities and strategies continue to shift in our fast-changing reality. Don’t see the executives you’re interested in? The Boardroom Insiders platform is home to more than 20,000 Executive Profiles full of insight like this, and our team is updating them constantly to give you and your teams the information you need to close bigger deals, faster. 

And we assure you, those deals are happening. We’re watching it all unfold. 

What they’re saying 

Pure Storage CEO Charles Giancarlo
"I'm probably communicating with twice the number of customer executives now that I'm working from home, and the same is pretty much true with our sales team. It takes less than a week to get an appointment. People are available, [and] the meetings themselves are very efficient. Meetings that are in person would take a month or two to set up, and then take hours to have the meeting and to convey everything you want to convey. [Now they] probably get done in about two thirds of the time.... And we're seeing that across our sales base. That is to say it's been easier to get access to higher levels in the customer base. And these have been very potent and very hard-hitting meetings. So if anything, I expect that we're going to see sales in a B2B environment permanently take on more of a virtual digital technique to them."

Box Inc. CEO Aaron Levie 
"We're very excited about that transition to more virtual selling … that ability to get more and more customers on video right away. I mean, it used to be that if we wanted to go have a conversation with a Fortune 500 company, that might be punted by two, three, four weeks out. You have to travel. You have to get the team together. And we're having those meetings get scheduled within a day or two of the initial kickoff. So that's one dimension. The speed of conversations that are happening is fantastic. The ability to be in multiple regions at once is also really great for any of our sales managers. So obviously, in sales territories, they can be spread throughout geographies. So you're spending less time on the road. You're able to get on video calls throughout the day with customers. That's also helpful. And then we've been able to engage our broader customer community way more effectively right now. We hosted our customer advisory board a couple of weeks ago, and it brought together nearly 40 CIOs of more or less the Fortune 500. And that was a meeting where we were able to bring everybody on video [and] very seamlessly be able to share best practices, what people were seeing, share our product road map, get feedback."

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen 
"While it was difficult to imagine only conducting business with CMOs and CIOs virtually, a side benefit of everyone working at home is that we're able to schedule and engage with far more customers across multiple continents. When you look at existing projects, most people would say that their productivity is actually greater than 100% because they're saving on travel. They're saving on the ability to be very productive without too many meetings... I mean, sometimes you feel like you've conquered time and space because you can have meetings with people across four continents on the same day. It makes for a long day …  but it actually feels really good that we're now engaging with customers. So we just feel that our ability to attract talent also, wherever they might live, that's going to improve. And so net-net, I would say, for a company like Adobe, internally, our productivity is overall higher.”

Medallia CEO Leslie Stretch
"My own customer interactions have increased, saving time and money as I travel the world virtually and we no longer have to wait for a country tour to penetrate overseas markets. I'm very pleased with our team's ability to sell virtually. Salespeople who are waiting for a return to pre-COVID conditions and who depend on physical meetings will not do well in the New World Order. And I'm happy to report that our sellers have embraced remote working and virtual selling, and we've already seen entire campaigns developed and closed virtually. Customers who actively listen to as many sources of feedback as they can, as [they] use intelligent technology to analyze feedback at scale, establish strong relationships. [Strong] relationships underpin healthy economic activity leading to material return on investment.”  

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield (the company ended the quarter with revenues up 49% year over year)
"For me personally, the experience has been kind of magical. I'm in a multi-org shared channel with the CEOs of 15 other SaaS companies, including Shopify, Twilio, Splunk, Atlassian and Okta. In the channel, we have helped each other navigate these unprecedented times. My CEO network is now in Slack, as is Allen's CFO network. And soon, we had channels of communication created between the CMOs, who could discuss how they were thinking about pipeline generation in a world without field marketing, another for CHROs and heads of people, who supported one another and working through benefits and policy changes, the challenges of recruiting and onboarding in a world where none of the participants have met face-to-face, and the same thing happened for IR leads and IT leaders, among others. There is no other way these conversations can happen as effectively outside of Slack. Companies have poor alternatives, and they want to collaborate outside their organization.”

IBM CEO Arvind Krishan 
"This is a reminder that we should always be asking ourselves, ‘Is there a better way to do this? If you don’t question why you’re doing things, you’ll never evolve into something better." Later in the call, in response to a question from an analyst, Krishan said, "With respect to a more technical approach to selling, it’s a journey we have been on, but actually the current crisis in effect catapulted us or accelerated what we are doing."

Trending Right Now 

During this time of mind-blowingly rapid change, we’re committed to bringing you the latest trends we are seeing in the most recent batch of earnings calls reviewed by our team. Here are some trends we have noticed in the past two weeks:

  • A boom in executive engagement due to captive and more accessible C-suites
  • Innovation, whether that’s in go-to-market strategy or in product offerings
  • Work from home, both supporting their internal sales teams as well as their customers in the virtual conversion process
  • Accelerating digital transformation, with an eye toward making virtual selling a fixture rather than a stop gap
  • Hiring, to boost sales capacity and increase the ability to manage incoming opportunities 

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Your Next Steps 

We all need to be aware that in some cases executive priorities are changing. In others, not so much — for now. Marketers should be focused on bringing the latest information as it develops to their account teams as it develops. Given that we employ a small army of really smart people to read and parse corporate earnings call transcripts all day long, we can help by feeding you the latest. 

What do you do with this information? Do what you have always done — align and support. Here are the four questions you should try to answer about all of your top accounts:

  • How has their strategy/priorities shifted post-COVID-19?
  • What are they cutting?
  • Where are they investing--or doubling down?
  • What can you offer that supports their current focus?
Now we want to hear from you. What’s keeping you and your team up at night, and how can Boardroom Insiders help? Let us know at info@boardroominsiders.com, with the subject line “INSIDE TRACK.” 

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Sharon Gillenwater

About the Author

Sharon Gillenwater

Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market, from Fortune 500 companies to independent non-profits, to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.