One Presidential inauguration, several COVID vaccines, and an enthralling short squeeze involving GameStop later, and 2021 is proving to be something of a rocketship of a year. Perhaps there was something to all the stories around the Great Conjunction of 2020.

Despite all the turmoil, Challenger’s first pulse survey of the year starts on an optimistic note. As many know, 2020 was all about “being optimistic, quick and bold” and “persevering’ while trying to ‘not be terribly distracted by COVID noise”. Overall sentiment, for example, is up sharply when compared to the rolling average over the last 6 months. We think this is at least partially explained by a Q4 that might have gone better than anticipated. 

Of keen interest to us all is when business travel might return to something close to normal. At this point, September 2021 is most people’s best guess. But with that said, many tell us that they have succeeded at offering a variety of virtual events and engagements. It’s likely the blend of live and virtual activity will forever look different than it did in 2019. 

We also wanted to get a rough sense for 2021 priorities. No surprises, but for many, 2021 will be the year of account growth, followed by wanting to sign new business. In terms of corporate investments, sales leaders and others tell us that they want to focus on sales managers. Similarly, leaders tell us that they want to refine their leadership and coaching skills in 2021. Given that 2020 pushed many to their limits, asking them to rebuild their businesses while also trying to figure out working from home, all while conducting zoom school, it is no surprise that many now realize that they need to strengthen their leadership competencies. 

Download the infographic with the full survey results here. 

Sentiment 

Perhaps powered by a bullish stock exchange, 2021 is starting on a positive note with sentiment showing large improvements on all three dimensions that Challenger measures. Noteworthy is the significant improvement around the business environment which is 11 percentage points above the average from the last 6 months. 

This positive sentiment also likely comes from a Q4 that might have turned out better than anticipated for many. Fully 53% tell us that they outperformed expectations by more than 5%. 

Sales leaders are similarly bullish about the prospects for 2021 with a somewhat surprising 84% projecting revenue growth in excess of 5% from what they produced in 2020. 

This optimism is striking when we look back at April/May of 2020, when sales leaders thought that they wouldn’t be able to deliver revenue if the sales force had to continue working from home.  This fear appears largely overcome with September as the month that received the most votes for when close-to-normal travel might resume. And 15% do not expect customer-facing travel to resume at all in 2021. At the time, a long 9 months or so ago, this thought would have struck most people as preposterous and damning (we won’t hang on!). However, as one participant put it, they ‘learned to communicate remotely, [learning that they] wasted time and money on travel that was unnecessary.’  

Corporate Priorities 

Sales leaders tell us that they spent a lot of 2020 “laying the foundation for a bigger 2021” by “adapting to the new way, [of selling] despite lockdown, and maintaining and strengthening our customer-relationships.” Well, 2021 appears to be the year when companies expect to harvest some of that growth with a focus on account growth and new account acquisition. Sales leaders, in particular, are most focused on new business with others in the organization more focused on existing business. 

Investment Priorities 

In terms of investments needed to deliver on these growth aspirations, 2021 ought to be the year of investing in sales management followed by investments in rep capability. For not only did 2020 expose gaps in selling skills, it also exposed gaps in management capability. Sales leaders are also looking to invest in more content marketing and selectively sourcing new sales talent. 

New Year’s Resolutions 

On the subject of New Year’s resolutions, one of our leaders told us that the best thing they had done in 2020 was to:  

“Homeschool my children. Teaching 7 year old boys has helped me be a better sales trainer and leader. It’s amazing how much overlap there truly is. I used to laugh when sales leaders would say that I should ‘treat my team like small children’ but I now understand what that means.”  

This theme of needing to be a better leader, of rising to the occasion, and not always getting it right came through when we asked about the skills that respondents were most interested in developing for themselves. The top choice for leaders was wanting to improve ‘coaching and leadership’ skills. At Challenger, this struck a chord, given that we rarely see organizations fully commit to manager coaching despite all the proven benefits. Individual sellers were more likely to want to learn more about their own product/solution as well as wanting to improve at negotiations. 

Conclusion 

Overall, sales organizations appear well-placed to start 2021 with a bang. Most are highly optimistic about revenue. They worked hard in 2020 to firm up existing relationships and to refocus their efforts on customers with the highest potential. It seems 2021 will be all about working with sales managers and individual sellers to cut through the noise and deliver value to customers. 

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.