Once upon a time enterprise tech sales were about long days out on the golf course, expense accounts that stretched well into the night and a zealous protection on the part of sales people of their personal Rolodex - or at least that’s how many of us want to believe things used to be.
Whatever the reality was, COVID has put an end to any lingering suspicion that this is a viable approach, as lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders have forced the Sales function to re-invent itself over past 12 months.
With travel hugely restricted or banned altogether, face-to-face meetings in gleaming tower blocks around the globe now seem as much a product of another age as the golf course negotiations of old. Forget about the 19th Hole; sales pitches now take place online. Now it’s all about Zoom meetings and virtual demos, not 4 irons and diplomatic missed putts to sweeten up the prospect.
Salesforce’s Chief Revenue Officer Gavin Patterson flagged up the new norm last year when he noted:
Salesforce is a phenomenal sales machine that is built on face-to-face selling…We close a lot of business that way. If there's been a handful of face-to-face meetings since February or since March, I'd be really surprised. So we've had to completely pivot the way we build demand and close deals.
Salesforce is, of course, not alone in this situation. As early as April last year, only weeks into lockdowns really starting to take effect, McKinsey surveyed businesses across 11 countries in seven operating sectors and found that almost 90% of sales had already moved to a video-conferencing/phone/web sales model.
The new world of Sales
The other interesting finding from that study was that, even at that early stage, more than half of respondents said they believed this virtual approach was equally or more effective than the pre-COVID face-to-face model. That’s a point of view that’s only grown in credibility since then, with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff coming out with the startling observation last month:
If I could rewind history over the last 22 years, I would have enforced a much more significant digital discipline for our sales organization. I think that when we look back at all of the time and energy we spent physically getting on airplanes, getting in cars, going to people's offices, having a breakfast or a lunch or a dinner, waiting to try to make a C-level sales call, [then] when you look today at the level of access that you have in organizations to conduct B2B sales, I mean it's all [about] the capability when you're digitally-enabled - you can go anywhere, just much, much faster.
It’s that mindset that can be seen behind today’s ‘re-invention’ of the firm’s flagship Sales Cloud offering, now pitched as Sales Cloud 360 - ‘the complete growth platform’. It’s a repositioning of the bedrock upon which Salesforce was first built to reflect a changed world in which, even once lockdowns are fully lifted, everyone’s had their vaccine and it’s safe to get back on a plane again, nearly two-thirds of sales people polled by the firm attest that how they do their jobs has changed permanently, with more than half (51%) expecting to travel less.
Key features of the revamped offering include:
- Salesforce Meetings, providing a claimed 360 view of all attendees on a single screen as well as account history, open service cases, bios and action prompts.
- My Trailhead integration, addressing a common complaint from sales people that they haven’t had training for this new virtual world.
- AI capabilities, including Pipeline Inspection, Einstein Conversation Insights and Einstein Opportunity Scoring.
I caught up with Bill Patterson, General Manager, CRM Applications at Salesforce to get his view on the changes wrought on Sales by the pandemic and what ‘life beyond the Rolodex’ really means in practical terms for sales people. He told me:
Sales has long prided itself on the power of connection...the metaphor of selling over the last 20 year has been how tight and close and how ‘real time’ can you be present with your customers. The last 12 months, when it wasn't physically possible to be there, have shown us that we still need to facilitate a deeper sense of purpose and connection between customers and their partners. That has been the area that has been very challenging for a lot of companies in this pandemic - to figure out how can they re-create that magic for that fully-digital experience. I don't think we're ever going to be back to a place where people are just going to hop on planes and travel freely like we did before the pandemic.
This need to build those relationships is where the likes of Salesforce Meetings comes in - and it’s not Salesforce’s pitch at a Zoom-killer, said Patterson, but it does build on a year when video has become the daily norm for sales:
Most sales people have gone through a lifetime of Zooms over the last year, just facilitating a kind of face-to-face connection and trying to re-create the past. What we do with Salesforce Meetings is looking at not just re-creating the connection, but how do we make that connection immersive, intelligent, deeply personal to every call and every action that comes out of it?….No longer do you have just that face-to-face interaction, but while they're in the meeting, the sales person gets the full bio, the full representation of who you're meeting with, the context...AI is presenting real-time recommendations and guidance for how the dialog is going - if I keep talking and not listening, it tells me to keep quiet and let the customer speak.
Changed for the better?
Bearing in mind, Benioff’s allusions to the benefits of this COVID-enforced revision to sales tactics, Patterson agrees that much has changed for the better:
I think what COVID has given us is a more accountable seller and a more accountable sales organization. When things become digitized, there [is] a trail or a trace for measuring your activity, measuring your velocity and measuring your productivity. Those are easier to track than the effectiveness of a golf game! What it allows sales organizations to do is truly get to a higher level of accountability and a higher level of measurement that starts to see productivity and performance jump off the page.
We've launched some new capabilities for pipeline inspection that measure not just not your activities and what you've done, but really the velocity of the moving pipeline, pinpointing specifically deals or milestones that really need to be brought back on track. We've gone from this world of a lot of uncertainty to a lot of motivation and a lot of participation and a lot of velocity in selling, because business is much faster than it once was…For the sales team that are using this new version of Sales Cloud, their performance is through the roof.
Acceleration can also be seen on the buy side, he adds, citing as a case in point private jet provider Jet It, which has seen a threefold increase in sales revenue from using Salesforce:
Prior to the pandemic that might have been a very long, methodical selling cycle...In the commercial airline industry, Jet It is now thriving and capitalizing on a moment of time that can really drive a 3X increase in revenue. Part of [making that possible] is giving people the information they need at the moment that a customer would need it to make that decision. Because we're an all digital world, we can fly that proactively in the first conversation, not the fifth conversation. Because we're now all digital, and because we're now digitally-equipped, you're seeing that acceleration really occur.
Does all this really mean an end to the ‘golfing model’ of old? I recall Benioff once telling me that the annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco was the most important sales lead generation event of the year for Salesforce. Last year Dreamforce clearly couldn’t take place, replaced now by an ongoing series of online Dreamforce avatars that appear to be proving highly effective.
ServiceMax CEO Neil Barua made the point to me last week that a benefit of the virtual sales model is being able to get more decision-makers in one place at one time than would be possible in the physical realm and that this accelerates deal consummation.
But another comment from Barua also hit home - how do you replicate the ‘hallway’ experience of the likes of Dreamforce or other industry gatherings? It’s those face-to-face encounters, formal or informal at a beer bust or a show party, that have been so productive. And let’s face it, a beer bust on Zoom isn’t the same thing, no matter how hard we try to kid ourselves!
The future is hybrid, suggested Patterson:
I don't think that golf and personal relationships in selling go away; we will just see less. I don't think we will see the eradication of massive events, but I think we will see them being really selective. But [given] the opportunity to get highly-personalized, highly-engaging meetings at the scale that digital allows us to empower, I don't think sales teams will want to look backwards. I think they're going to want to really lean into that new experience more, to make that highly personalized engagement at a higher scale than it definitely was before.