How Savvy Midsize Firms Increase Sales in a Virtual World
March 26, 2021
Having salespeople who provide a personal — and in-person — touch is often a crucial differentiator for midsize companies. Reps who spend more time schmoozing customers and going the extra mile to tailor offerings have given many midsize firms an edge over larger and more bureaucratic competitors and smaller ones with fewer resources.
Yet the pandemic has shut many customers’ doors on sales forces at midsize companies. One survey found that at the end of last year, the most widespread challenge for U.S. midsize companies was maintaining customer relations. That was the only one of the five challenges tracked by the survey that had grown consistently worse over the first three quarters of 2020.
What can leaders of midsize companies do to keep a personal touch in sales interactions? How can their salespeople avoid trying to keep customers through discounting — a tactic favoring large companies, which can more easily access capital markets and tap deep corporate cash reserves? How can they compete against the typically more sophisticated operations of big firms, which can plow tens of millions of dollars into digital selling tools and training?
From our research and client work, we’ve found a number of midsize companies whose sales forces have been holding their own in the pandemic. Their sales strategies can be categorized in three ways: using online connections to humanize interactions, creating greater sales process efficiencies, and bursting out of traditional geographic boundaries.
Forging Human Connections in a Virtual World
Salespeople who have been forced to resort to email and other digital channels often fall back on standard, formulaic messaging. The thinking is often that if they can’t have an in-person discussion with customers or prospects, they need to create online messages for the masses. This overlooks the many ways that technology-mediated customer relationships can be personal and powerful. We find that the most-effective sales teams at midsize firms use technology less as a mass communication channel for sales pitches and more as a medium that can provide a personal touch.
Los Angeles–based art consulting firm Kevin Barry Art Advisory (KBAA) used this approach to stabilize its sales and managed to continue landing projects despite daunting challenges. Founded in 1995, KBAA has about 50 employees, including seven salespeople. The firm advises on art to create striking interiors for offices, health care and senior living facilities, and such high-end hotels as the St. Regis in Toronto and the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. In the travel sector, KBAA’s service is an upscale offering at a time of enormous budget cuts. When the travel industry plunged, so did KBAA’s revenues in the sector.
For KBAA Principal Allison Barry, the pandemic prompted a moment of soul searching. “With the virus, fear, and death, we thought, What’s appropriate for us from a marketing perspective?” she says. The firm landed on a strategy of building human connections through virtual interactions with customers and prospects. It eliminated the pitch from its sales calls, focusing instead on asking customers how they were coping as people. It trained its salespeople on how to look good on Zoom and required them to always turn the camera on. To demonstrate its aesthetic prowess, KBAA’s graphics department created video backgrounds depicting edgy artwork.
KBAA took the strategy a step further by adapting prepandemic relationship-building techniques. Rather than meet prospects for meals or drinks, salespeople sent clients artisanal cocktail kits to be opened during a Zoom call. As the pandemic dragged on, they organized online Pictionary games for moments of shared levity. Customers widely appreciated these touches. “I heard from a lot of my client friends who said, ‘I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time, and I really needed it,’” Barry told us.
As business stabilized, KBAA made the bold decision to increase its sales investments, even though revenue was down. It hired an outside consultant to help manage the sales strategy and prepare for postpandemic growth. A major focus is forming better teams around each salesperson so that he or she can spend more time on sales and less time managing projects sold. The number of active projects has already risen by 11% over the four months ending January 31, 2021. The company expects its humanized virtual approach and sales team restructuring to boost sales bookings by 20% to 50% by summer.
Many other midsize companies have adapted their sales techniques to pandemic-era constraints. Consider Syserco, a 200-person San Francisco Bay Area firm that designs and installs energy management systems. As stay-at-home orders began, CEO Derek Eggers watched numerous office space development projects get shelved. The firm looked unlikely to match its $80 million in prepandemic annual revenue. Its salespeople, eager to boost earnings and cultivate client relations, were frustrated by their inability to meet and entertain prospects in person, so they got creative. One rep delivered a tasty artisanal beer to the front door of a client who was known to be an aficionado, calling to alert the client to the gift.
The firm also pivoted its sales focus from office buildings to biotech, a sector that has continued to grow despite the pandemic. As a result, its revenue in last year’s fourth quarter rose 21% from the previous quarter. Eggers attributes the success to the personal outreach by Syserco’s sales team as well as the revamped sales focus.
Creating Sales-Stream Efficiencies
Midsize companies that have been performing well during the pandemic have embraced technology-mediated selling to reach more prospects faster, more effectively, and with smaller budgets.
The San Francisco Bay Area–based Alliance of Chief Executives, for one, has dramatically improved its recruitment efficiency. The Alliance, which has more than 300 members, runs meetings in which CEOs (many of them heading midsize firms) can discuss strategic and sensitive issues with peers. It has grown steadily in membership, meetings, and revenue since its founding, in 1996, and recently began expanding its services to CEOs beyond northern California.
The Alliance’s 15-person membership-development team bears the dual responsibilities of persuading CEOs to join the organization and determining whether candidates are suitable. Prior to the pandemic, the process took two to four months and had a 24% success rate. Interested candidates were extremely busy and lacked the time for premembership in-person meetings.
The pandemic’s constraints forced the Alliance to streamline its approach. The team is making far greater use of its personal LinkedIn accounts to learn about prospects and reach out personally, and later to introduce the Alliance if an executive appears to be a good fit. This has allowed reps to build trust and rapport up-front rather than lead with the benefits of joining. Videoconferencing has also helped. By requesting brief calls rather than hour-long meetings, reps are more easily getting onto CEOs’ calendars and have eliminated the travel time that had encumbered their schedules.
In 2020, the new sales approach increased the number of initial conversations with prospective members by more than 50% per month and reduced the average sales closing time by 40%. New memberships increased by 29%, with most of the gain coming after the pandemic’s lockdowns began.
Removing Geographic Distance as a Sales Barrier
In addition to improving sales efficiency, the newfound acceptance of video calls and other communications technologies has let midsize businesses eliminate the barriers of geographic distance, opening up new sales opportunities. Many companies are expanding operationally to areas that were previously too remote for their salespeople to visit, which could yield windfalls from underserved regions. After restricting itself to northern California for 24 years, the Alliance of Chief Executives has built new membership in Arizona in record time, contributing to 8% overall revenue growth.
Midsize companies are also rethinking how they set up their sales teams. Previously, many were organized according to geography to minimize the travel time and expense of face-to-face interactions. Now that businesses are connecting virtually, the personalities, backgrounds, and expertise of reps and clients can be more effectively matched. Travel expenses are eliminated, and reps can make many more calls.
Before the pandemic, team selling with subject-matter experts was particularly costly and challenging, and the schedules of highly sought-after experts were constrained. That’s changing. Experts can reach far more prospects via video calls. Video is particularly advantageous for companies, such as professional services firms, where service delivery doesn’t require a local presence. In the Alliance’s case, video has enabled CEO Paul Witkay to become more deeply involved in new-member development, increasing the closing rate regardless of geography. Even after the pandemic, businesses would be wise to reevaluate when in-person meetings are necessary and when virtual meetings would be better.
Selling Shouldn’t Revert to Prepandemic Practices
As vaccination becomes more widespread, the economy is expected to recover or even surge. But to survive in the near term, midsize companies’ sales teams need to adapt to continue overcoming the barrier of being unable, literally, to knock on doors. The changes ushered in by the pandemic, such as a greater reliance on video calls, will not disappear. Smart companies will look to capitalize on them.