For months now the most frequent request Challenger has received is for resources to help sell in a virtual environment. It’s been six months and the “new” world seems to be settling into an equilibrium, and it’s clear that virtual selling isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. But we also know much more about how salespeople are adapting to the environment.

In Challenger’s Pulse Survey from September 2020, those who noted they had effective or very effective outreach strategy put 17% more emphasis on using strategic silence to allow for a response, 12% more emphasis on asking powerful questions, and 9% more emphasis on asking for next steps and planning the next interaction. (You can read the full report here.)

One thing is clear to us at Challenger – the correlation between why Challenger works and what is needed to succeed in a (pandemic) virtual environment is high.  While the environment has changed, utilization of fundamental skills is still the reason why some sales reps succeed and some don’t. Effective execution of Teaching, Tailoring, Taking Control and building Constructive Tension throughout the buying journey wins deals. The customer’s need for Commercial Insight has never been greater; customers are hungry for relevant information that can help them adapt their businesses to the current situation.

Selling virtually is about engaging buyers virtually, not just presenting virtually or turning on your camera. The fundamentals of selling, those being most important to the buyer, haven’t changed because you’re not face-to-face, but they might need to be executed slightly differently in a virtual environment.

Below are the key considerations that organizations, managers, and salespeople should be thinking about as they sell in a virtual environment.

Consideration #1: Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

Preparation is one of the fundamentals that looks different in a virtual environment, driven by the fact that the pandemic has affected industries differently. A company selling PPE is faring differently than a hospitality company; a company that provides printing systems has a different challenge than a company helping with IT security. Understanding how the customer’s company has been affected is table-stakes now. It’s not enough to just look at a company’s website and financials; high performing sellers dive deeper into research on customers, stakeholders, and customer’s customers to better inform their conversations and commercial insights.

And preparation goes beyond just knowing more about the customer. Because so many customers feel overwhelmed, it’s important to know why you are meeting with the customer and be clear about the outcome you need. With forward-thinking, you reduce the workload for your customer to educate you on what’s happening or what’s needed. This opens the door to a more effective conversation.

Consideration #2: The Attention Bar is MUCH Higher

Being in the same room as someone face-to-face to discuss a solution affords a certain level of attention. It’s much harder for a customer or prospect to cancel the meeting; there may even be a sense of “Well, he/she came all this way so I might as well hear them out.” Some sales reps mistake this as interest, but a customer’s lack of urgency is always exposed later in the sales process. Now, with everything virtual, it’s much easier for a customer to avoid a sales rep; they can cancel an hour before the meeting and not feel bad about it (at all). When you do get in front of a customer, even though it’s on screen, you must bring value to the initial conversation, complete with Commercial Insight to create demand and build urgency that sticks through the buying process.

Remember, delivering a Commercial Insight isn’t a monologue. Don’t read through presentation slides; engage the customer in conversation. Asking good questions takes planning and preparation. These questions should clarify something for you about the customer or confirm a hypothesis; they should not be questions you should already know the answer to. Good questions build conversation, help you learn more about a customer’s current state and beliefs, and challenge your customer to examine their situation from a different point of view. Additionally, customers pay attention when they know they need to respond to something!

When asking thought-provoking questions, the need for active listening increases. Listen to the customer’s answers with a desire to better understand their current state; don’t listen just to respond. And – especially if you are not using a web camera – attune your ears to listen for change of tone, signaling frustration, disengagement or fatigue. These might be subtle signals, but without body language or facial expressions to alert you to a change in the customer’s posture, listening to verbal cues is critical.

Consideration #3: Build Credibility, Not Just Rapport

Building rapport means acknowledging the current situation, but don’t mistake it for credibility. The Warmer of the Challenger choreography defines the conversation you want to have. It’s a chance to show your customer you have perspective on what others in their situation are doing and you understand the implications the current environment has on their operations. If a customer doesn’t immediately think you can bring them value and insight, you’ve lost the deal. So establish credibility early by showing you understand the customer’s world and have unique perspective to share.

Consideration #4: Constructive Tension Results in Action

It can be tempting today to turn empathy up as high as possible. Empathy is important because the current situation impacts every aspect of our lives, not just work, but a difficult situation is not a reason to avoid hard, but beneficial, conversations. In other words, don’t be too empathetic that you don’t tell the customer what they need to hear, or don’t ask tough questions with a curious posture. You build constructive tension when you ask the customer how they plan to deal with obstacles and show them what’s at stake if they don’t change.

It’s not enough to build constructive tension so the customer sees change is necessary. A customer can agree change is necessary, and – in the next breath – say that now is not the time. So, sellers need to leverage constructive tension to get customers to agree that change is necessary and that they can and should solve it now. This requires a very clear case for change that focuses on the cost of doing nothing or delaying change. The numbers should be realistic; don’t go all doom and gloom just to drive action. Focus on the cost of the status quo instead of pivoting to the ROI of implementing a solution.  The Challenger choreography steps of Rational Drowning and Emotional Impact can be particularly useful in stating the case for change.  And, the New Way and Solution, and how to best implement, must be balanced to acknowledge the current situation and provide the customer confidence to make the change.

Consideration #5: Keep Momentum Going

Taking Control involves keeping the deal moving forward; high-performing sales reps ensure the customer takes action to keep the buying process in step with the sales process and don’t hesitate to give a customer a next step. If the customer follows through, it means they are progressing in their internal buying process. With more meetings needed now to close an opportunity, it’s imperative to map out what you need from the customer, why you need it, what value it will bring them, and when you need it by. If the customer agrees and follows through, it’s a good indicator that the sale is progressing. If you’re setting next steps but the customer is not following through, remind them of what stalling a decision is costing them by revisiting the Rational Drowning portion of the Challenger choreography. And if that message doesn’t get them to progress the process, then consider spending your time on other opportunities.

In summary, certain aspects of selling have changed in this virtual (pandemic) environment, but sales fundamentals still hold. Preparation is key, customers still need to be taught, and the Challenger choreography is a good roadmap for convincing your customer to take action, even when you’re not meeting face-to-face.


Becky Abraham

Becky Abraham

Becky Abraham is now the Director of Product Management at Challenger, after helping implement Challenger at organizations in industries including Financial Services, Pharmaceuticals, Manufacturing, and Technology.