Sales Best Practices

The Long-Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on Sales Teams

Brooke Simmons, Director of Enterprise Strategy at Outreach's Avatar

Brooke Simmons, Director of Enterprise Strategy at Outreach

sales-team-remote-work.jpg#asset:12421:blogFeatured


Who knew when I wrote my first article about selling in a COVID-19 world that we’d still be struggling to settle into the rules and routines of social distancing?

Most of you, actually. In between non-stop Zoom calls from my new home headquarters, I sent a survey to over 600 people, and 70 percent of them said they believed their organization will experience long-lasting change as a result of COVID-19.

9OnIfFegTEqXPuJJlrknPuInxeCcm2GYvQd9EPz9E8DSC6gP8MmmI9tuI9sea-G9-rv5E-WotqPmVwXdWyWXxjM9Pu-1PF_LkLaWBKvpDspyib04yTf7PfVn2269apB7pZAUvB8Q

Now that we’re four or five months in (what is time?), I’m sure you’re having the same reaction I did — of course, we’ll experience long-lasting change! We’re in a global pandemic. Without getting into politics, we don’t know how or when this all will end.

The part that jumps out to me is that the responses echo concerns I heard long before this disruption. Many sales leaders knew they needed to make changes to their sales structures — COVID-19 only accelerated the problem. Leaders didn’t have visibility into field activity, they didn’t have a good content management process to align sales with marketing, and they knew their reps were spending too much time on non-selling activities. They wanted to operationalize their sales motions, but they didn’t have an immediate need to shift their whole strategy. Until, unfortunately, March 2020, when outside sales conversations came to an abrupt halt.

Organizations without an operationalized process found themselves facing months of lost sales and pipeline activities. And unsurprisingly, they want to fix it. Fast.

Let’s dig into the data a little bit...

Bigger teams sense bigger changes

Trends were similar across companies and geographies, regardless of location and company size, but bigger sales teams seem to feel the most pressure. Approximately 80 percent of teams with more than 25 sellers reported a need for change. This intuitively makes sense as larger organizations may have a harder time rolling out new change management initiatives, especially with a newly distributed team.

DdPNWq1rab3lDZtfUxSvYtgxeEhH7KAF7nELs95X14rJ_hlEE2lpRLpMC2HVh5I4gbkqa-sL7GkHirdVeAvQlikTxlfR505V3AaIgZo51bsVVWqtoVIMsOORj_ur9WwxjOpHWInD

Day to day, role by role

We all know job titles are not one-size-fits-all descriptions of how sales reps do their jobs. But we did see a clear delineation of change expectations between roles in lead generation and sales development compared to traditional sales and closing roles. Over 80 percent of Account Executives (this includes folks in closing roles and full-cycle sales roles, as well as field sellers) reported that their sales processes would experience long-lasting changes.

Comparatively, 65 percent of sales development representatives stated that they would face permanent change. Although this is still a majority of responses, the 15 percent difference indicates that the reps charged with booking meetings through email and phone calls already had some efficiencies in place to track their performance, which may have more readily scaled to a new working environment.

ZEkLZvaTI48fD32Xf9mB7LH6hXJBXQ_mlzYu_ewGWqOAcQdSqRsw15w0cNPM4F0OMtuEGhJx0fhWHgTLhsmi6SDZ1OCQX4FT8jSJAuCmPHeNsk3aZUqwv00h-2o6sGkAHMJ6ApBk

I spoke with one VP of sales development who described this disparity at their company: “I can be anywhere and manage a team (at a distance) better than someone who’s physically there; you have all the data and insights (you need) in Outreach. The teams that were lacking data have really struggled.”

Digging deeper, we find that the teams “struggling” now weren’t necessarily caught off guard, but the pressure has been dialed way up.

We already knew what was broken

Of the 80 percent of AEs who responded that their teams will experience long-lasting change, 72 percent said their most urgent need was to create more structure around operationalizing their sales process.

zrCg1SusT8crY0OV8m5wRuLZFFe1pqAjsn-5PaHyFnOOgu_SjCFhev4duD7edRQkg4bzLbJ3wLl3FUdqUKb_ZEusbtf2CboOtvHMrgeMlFNeBuOvhUz1ioCjhWt6Ab10Q_m9iNi3

What does this mean? In the words of a Chief Marketing Officer I spoke with, it means that the “gaps we had been papering over pre-COVID are now too painful to live with.” In my conversations, these “gaps” ranged from foundational processes (like clearly defining sales stages and implementing CRMs) to coaching challenges exacerbated by remote work. COVID-19 accelerated the urgency to fix the cracks we’ve historically been able to ignore.

Many AEs (52 percent) said the biggest limitation on their performance even before the pandemic was spending too much time on non-selling activities. In follow-up conversations, I learned that sales leaders believe time spent on non-selling activities has expanded exponentially in the past three months, making it a top concern.

jxOo15M3sS7No8lICqw5-1aB9S_ZB73aeDa21M4HFiC5Jsg59XnAquWlkOQGKxU9iZCPV-iwJRodbsnza0dixP-6RHXszUR82L8084G0nsfDt9l_u13cEXpehwfPmj9qCTSQ1hkw

When we discussed the root cause, a few trends came through:

  • Increasing demands on all of us as human beings. We’re working from home, which may be an unfamiliar or unwelcome setup for some reps. We’re often still experiencing gaps in childcare, family support, and other key services that previously allowed us to focus on our jobs. These are unavoidable, but important to acknowledge.
  • Reactionary policies have created time management chaos. Teams that struggled with data and visibility pre-COVID 19 were left totally in the dark once teams became distributed. To combat this, many leaders I spoke with implemented new policies and processes around coaching and inputting data, which are very time- and labor-intensive on reps.
  • Way more meetings. Daily standups were occurring at nearly every company I spoke with, and approximately 30 percent now do twice-daily syncs with some teams. “Zoom fatigue” came up often as well. “I don’t feel nearly as productive in this environment. I am spending so much time managing upward that I’m not focused on my deals,” shared one Account Executive, who wasn't alone in that sentiment.

Operations is stepping in to drive strategy

Many sales teams have started to leverage a new operations mindset in orchestrating their sales process. Beyond fixing their immediate issues, sales leaders are thinking about how to partner with their operations colleagues to design a more adaptable, resilient sales process for the future. Although most individuals I spoke with were optimistic about their 2020 outlook, many acknowledged that this won’t be the last major disruption their organization faces, and they need to be better prepared in the future.

To execute positive changes, sales leaders are leaning on sales operations as a strategic partner, not just a tool-stack owner. Here are some areas where sales operations teams are driving strategic change:

  • Rethinking channels and offsetting the disruption brought on by the lack of face-to-face selling. Because of the full stop in physical events and conferences, many organizations had to pivot to virtual events and content marketing to drive leads. The ability to quickly shift strategies and measure success has been easier for organizations with a strategy-minded sales operations team. A director of sales development said, “Our sales operations team helped us quickly SWOT a few strategies to understand what was still generating new leads and meetings and were worth doubling-down on.” Maintaining the momentum of lead flow and constantly analyzing conversion and quality have become much more scientific.
  • Re-evaluating target markets and segments to point the sales teams toward more “stable” potential customers. This has manifested itself for many customers as a need to urgently move upmarket as smaller organizations have experienced more turbulence in budgeting and buying. For many organizations I spoke with, moving upmarket was previously an abstract goal for sometime in the future, but COVID-19 pushed the team to move more immediately. These organizations heavily depended on sales operations to resegment accounts, enrich data, and enable new value propositions and selling materials. This freed up sales leaders to focus on coaching reps instead of re-architecting the sales process.
  • Redesigning sales plans from the ground up. More than ever, input metrics need to have clear alignment to revenue results and rep compensation. Operations functions, all the way up to the COO, are partnering with sales to rethink how activity plans and leading KPIs are paired with spiffs and incentives to ensure the front-line sellers are pointed at the right targets.

Where do sales teams go from here?

The above responses reinforce my earlier conversation with Dan Gottlieb, Analyst in the Sales Practice at TOPO: “Everybody is experiencing some degree of change right now, and the degree of change varies by their role, industry, size, and geography.”

That’s mildly comforting as we all strive to make colossal shifts in our business strategies. Selling has always been hard, and the current environment has exposed fragility in many organizations’ sales processes and procedures. The cracks may have existed all along, but we’re all now well aware of how quickly we need to adapt.

We’re continuing to explore the ways sales leaders can help their teams navigate change in the coming months. Read what Anna Baird, our chief revenue officer, has learned about building the adaptable sales org in a remote new world.

What does it take to lead and adapt in a remote sales world?

Learn from our CRO