Is Virtual Selling Really Different? Here are the Facts

By Andrew Sobel

In the last few weeks my inbox has been bombarded with articles about how you need to dramatically change your business development approach in order to sell in a virtual environment.

Puzzling Headlines

I’m actually a little puzzled by all these headlines. My own client development strategy is based on two pillars: publishing valuable content (books, articles, etc.) that attracts prospective clients, and gaining referrals from client executives who are happy with my work. (BTW I go deeper into both of these strategies in my new book, It Starts with Clients).

As a result I often get inquiries from clients who may live thousands of miles away but don’t care about the distance because they want to engage with the single most experienced, knowledgeable person they can find about their challenge.

So over the last decade, I have concluded dozens of major sales by phone and video. Of course, I always try to meet face-to-face with a prospective client, because the dynamics of a personal meeting are so much richer than a phone call. But that hasn’t always been possible, and it certainly isn’t right now for many of you.

The Immutable Laws of Business Development

Here’s my point: While succeeding in both modes—virtual and in-person—I never thought I was doing something differently for one versus the other. The laws of gravity don’t change whether you are sitting, walking, or running. And similarly, the basic principles that lead to successful business development don’t change whether you are meeting in person or are on a video conference. Let’s look at these, briefly. Then, however, I will share some small but important tactical changes you should make while building relationships virtually.

So what are those principles or “laws”? You probably know them, but here’s a quick recap. Keep in mind the big picture: A client becomes a buyer when an urgent need meets a proven solution in the context of a trusted relationship.

A client becomes a buyer when an urgent need meets a proven solution in the context of a trusted relationship. Click To Tweet

The business development process must accomplish a number of important steps. You need to:

  • Gain access, usually based on a pre-existing relationship, a warm introduction, the power of your/your firm’s brand, or the intrigue of an interesting idea that captures the prospective client’s interest.
  • Build rapport and trust
  • Establish your/your firm’s credibility in the area under discussion
  • Uncover the client’s most important priorities, needs, or goals—their “Agenda.”
  • Identify/home in on an issue of mutual interest, frame it to define the total problem and total solution, explore the issue and add value, and demonstrate a solution path to solve it.
  • Get a next step to advance the relationship and the client’s understanding of how you can help them solve the challenge. This final step must ultimately be a submitted proposal.

Seven Ways to Improve Your Effectiveness in a Virtual Environment

Does this process change in a virtual environment? No. But how you accomplish these steps—some of your tactics–will change. Here’s a quick list of some of the adjustments you need to make. They are not huge changes, but they will make a difference in your effectiveness:

  1. More conversations. You probably didn’t expect this as number 1…but right now, I believe you actually can and should have MORE first conversations—more “top of the funnel” interactions—than you can in a pure face-to-face environment. It’s easier for a client to agree to a 30 minute phone call than it is to agree to a 60 minute personal meeting. And, you have more time for contacting prospects and clients because you don’t have to drive or fly anywhere.
  2. Bite-sized chunks of interaction. Client interactions need to be broken down into smaller, bite-sized bits in a virtual setting. Most of my clients, for example, report having shorter but more frequent calls to discuss a new opportunity. This has to do with many factors, including the rapidly changing environment that we currently face, the fatigue that sets in when you are on the phone or staring at a Zoom screen for more than an hour, the narrower bandwidth of human communications afforded by virtual interactions, and so on.
  3. More rapport building. Sometimes, when you’re in a virtual mode, it’s easy to just plunge into the business conversation. You’re not in someone else’s office, and the natural tendency to chat and connect on a personal level gets pushed aside by a task orientation. Take a few minutes at the start of a call to get to know the other person.
  4. Supplemental media. Now is a good time to surround your virtual interactions with additional media—for example, articles, well-done digital brochures, videos, podcasts, interactive demonstrations, and so on. Use them to bring your personality, your experiences, and your solutions more vividly to life.
  5. Better listening. You need to become an even better listener. Even on video, you don’t get the same clues about how the conversation is going. It’s easy to talk over the other person because of the signal delay and also—if you’re on the phone—because you don’t see the other person’s body language (e.g., their facial expression may telegraph that they want to say something, but you don’t see it).
  6. Better questions. Thoughtful questions—what I call Power Questions–are always critical, but even more so now. Why? Because it’s hard to feel personal warmth over the phone, and questions are important both because of the substance they uncover and because they telegraph your sincere interest in the other person. Studies show that people who ask good questions are perceived as more likable. Fresh, thought—provoking questions will help you overcome some of the limitations of virtual communications.
  7. More effective use of your voice. For example:
    • Sameness is the enemy of the speaker. Modulate your tone, volume, and cadence/rhythm to keep the listener engaged. Slow down to make an important point. Lower your voice to convey seriousness (that’s right—lower it, don’t raise it).
    • Pause more often and for longer periods of time than you would if you were face to face. These silences invite the other person to speak, and they help ensure you don’t talk over them.
    • Project energy and enthusiasm—even more than normal. If you have a soft voice and you don’t tend to inflect your speech that much, you can come across as low-energy on the phone. Again, studies show that high levels of enthusiasm make you more likable and interesting to others.

The critical challenge is to master the core principles and steps of the business development process. Adjusting them to a virtual world is actually the easy part.

Get It Starts with Clients and Join the free 100-Day Client Growth Challenge

One firm just wrote to me: “Our whole client service team is going through the book and the Growth Guide together. The account managers are doing the weekly assignments, which push them to engage more often and more productively with their clients. We’re already seeing positive results.”

If you don’t already have one, you can get your copy of It Starts with Clients, hereYou’ll also be able to download my free, 46-page Client Growth Guide and join other readers in my 100-Day Growth Challenge. Each week, for 100 days, I’ll guide your through the strategies and action steps you must implement now in order to connect deeply with your clients and emerge stronger than ever from the current turbulence. It’s a complimentary course in building clients for life (well, plus the cost of the book!).

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