November has proven that 2020 is not done with us yet. While the presidential election technically behind us, the US has entered a period of uncertainty. It seems unlikely the US government will pass a second stimulus bill before late January 2021. And while the world recently received excellent news on the vaccine front, COVID cases are accelerating in Europe and North America. It is reasonable to assume the increase in cases will be followed by lock downs and strained hospital capacity. We hope for the best for everyone as we enter what could be a difficult winter.

Challenger’s November Pulse Survey reflects this uncertainty with significant drops in sentiment regarding personal career, organizational future, and overall business environment. With that said, sentiment around the business environment does stand above what it was through September (52% in November vs. 46% from June through September)- it just didn’t build on a more positive October. However, on the positive side, expectations for performance in Q4 remain high.

As we look toward closing out the year, we also wanted to get a sense for changes sales leaders see in the commercial environment. Top-line, larger percentages now forecast lasting changes partly driven by needing to work harder to influence customer decision-making.

Download the infographic with the full survey results here. 

Overall Sentiment

Sadly, the rising optimism around the business environment we observed in October has not held up. Sales leaders are now less optimistic about their personal and organizational futures than they were. We appear stuck in a period of uncertainty about the medium-to-long term, a noticeable change from October.

On the positive side, revenue performance in Q4 might be looking better than forecasted, with a larger percentage of Sales leaders revising their forecasts toward the upside. Many saw better top-of-funnel lead performance in Q3 and an existing customer base more open to considering new opportunities.

Face-to-face Meetings

Most customers across industries are still not willing to accept face-to-face meetings. They are still happening, but more as the exception than the rule. In general, companies whose workforce is able to work from home are least likely to accept face-to-face meetings. Healthcare companies, on the other hand, whose work necessarily involves interacting with people in person are currently most open to returning to face-to-face meetings. Similarly, suppliers of physical goods are also more likely to be able to have face-to-face meetings.

Have Things Changed for Good?

When we asked in April about permanent changes to the commercial environment, most sales leaders were fairly conservative in their assessment, believing a pre-COVID environment would snap back in place fairly soon. A good six months later, the shape of things to come appears to be much clearer.

To start, much of purchasing activity will remain digital. In the words of one sales leader, “[sales] will need to provide meetings virtual moving forward. Updating sales process and technology is a must to attract and provide consultative sales. Prospects who avoided us before now they have a valid reason and seem to prefer to work virtually”.

Challenger believes that the adoption of virtual working accelerates a transition toward a different-in-kind sales and marketing tool stack (i.e. more tools integrated into a common method). We are also seeing changes in marketing strategy, with less reliance on bringing people together, but more reliance on a variety of digital outreach. Marketers and sellers will need to work harder to communicate the technical aspects of their insight and solutions digitally, given they can no longer bring together the right group of people in a live setting.

Beyond these changes, there are large percentage changes in terms of delivery and channel structures. We believe that more centralized forms of distribution are here to stay as more retail-oriented outlets struggle to compete. Similarly, now that companies have started to make more B2B purchases directly, we will see more and more bypassing of third-party distributors. Companies in this space need to be ever more creative in the experience and value they provide to stay relevant.

Challenger believes the main challenge/opportunity for the commercial organization (particularly the sales force) will be to help customers make decisions once sales has succeeded in driving initial interest. Currently, as sellers tell us, customers look first to their peers, then to subject matter experts to help them make decisions. In a virtual setting, however, it is harder to put customers together with their peers, or to link them with credible SMEs who can provide the right references. Sellers need to find more creative ways to sell through Mobilizers and other advocates (this is a longer game). Also, if sellers are further down the list of most trusted resources, those sellers who are truly helpful (those who effectively support decision-making) will clearly stand out from their peers. Supporting the decision-making journey will, more than ever, be a point of differentiation.

Summary

Overall, given November’s COVID cases around the world, we believe 2020 will continue to bring personal hardships and long-term uncertainty, even if the broader business climate outperforms expectations.

Commercially speaking, sales organizations have to work more closely with peers in marketing, customer success and more to have an impact with clients who might prefer to continue conducting business virtually. Sellers should ask themselves two questions: (1) Who can I leverage to support decision making who already has the buyer’s trust and (2) How can I make myself more useful and trustworthy in supporting decisions?

Challenger will continue to keep track of these developments and we wish the best to everyone

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Spencer Wixom & Timur Hicyilmaz

Spencer is Senior Vice President of Marketing at Challenger, and has helped transform sales and marketing teams in some of the biggest and best companies in the world.

Timur has been conducting research for most of his career. He was part of the team that researched many of the original concepts behind Challenger. Mostly focused on trying to better understand how commercial organizations succeed, Timur has spent time working on everything from trying to understand consumer attitudes toward energy consumption to identifying best practices for hospital operations leaders. His passion is for trying to identify strategies that are more likely to deliver a desired outcome than any others.