Rethinking Customer Transactions for a Virtual Environment

A familiar trend arising from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we are all moving to remote and digital methods of working in a virtual environment. We have largely shifted from face-to-face contact to technology platforms to conduct our business and personal interactions. This transition has numerous impacts on business, such as how much office space we truly need, keeping onsite workers and customers safe, and managing work-from-home staff effectively.

One aspect of this new normal which has drawn our attention recently is the effect this virtual environment has on business interactions, especially sales. Customers are increasingly saying, “I’m satisfied with a virtual process for transacting a sale and doing business with a company.” As you unpack that statement, you begin to reconsider assumptions about doing business face-to-face.  For many years, leaders commonly believed that having a face-to-face relationship helped companies build trust, and thought it made it easier for salespeople to answer questions and explain complex ideas. This approach became central to the selling process, particularly for larger and more significant sales.

However, as salespeople have been unable to travel for the better part of 2020, we see that many of them are doing fine economically. (Of course, there are still some segments of the economy that are not doing as well, such as hospitality.) Once you take an entire year of business and you move it successfully to a virtual environment, you have to wonder: Is getting face-to-face with somebody to transact a sale really that important?

Of course, brick-and-mortar retailers need to maintain a face-to-face connection with their customers by having them visit their stores.  While digital channels have expanded for all types of interactions, B2B customers in particular are learning to transact business digitally.  The thinking goes, if my business is going to buy a pallet of goods or a number of medical devices from vendor, or if I plan to engage a supplier for services, the virtual environment may be more than adequate for conducting these types of interactions.

This shift in thinking carries numerous organization design implications. One example is how your sales force operates. Think back to the days when all the pharmaceutical companies had representatives who would visit doctors’ offices. They followed regular routes, brought in lunch for the staff, and then met with the doctors to convince them to prescribe their company’s drugs. The entire process was built around regular face-to-face contact.

Today, the way in which the customer wants to interact with you is quite different. This new reality begs the question: Do you need an army of salespeople out there pounding the pavement?

Consider how large purchases are made on the consumer side. You may feel differently, but I don’t like to buy a car. I have to go to a dealer and interact with someone who may be more interested in commissions than doing what is right for the customer. How much better would it be to just go online? You can see what the average prices are; offer the seller a fair price; and have it delivered to your home or office – no personal contact required.  We’re seeing more and more cars being sold that way.

So why not bring virtual sales over to the business side? Could you buy a fleet of trucks for your utility company like that? Could you buy a tractor like that?

Carry that implication forward and think about how things would change for people who sell tractors in rural America. If sales moved online, they would have a different role. Maybe we need to improve our digital sales channels and repurpose salespeople to become consultants who can be available virtually. Then a customer conducting a transaction through an online channel would have someone who can provide expert guidance on-demand. Those former salespeople might also move into a support role or a customer service role, helping those customers who would rather do things for themselves and who prefer doing it virtually.

How Does the Move to a Virtual Environment Impact Organizational Systems?

If we think about this from an organization design perspective, there are many sides of our Cube Model that are impacted significantly by moving to a virtual environment. They include:

  • Work: How was that work done in the past? Previously, sales may have just meant people pounding the pavement. Now it could mean making those people available to customers on an on-demand, virtual basis.
  • Structure: Instead of needing hundreds or thousands of salespeople, maybe you need just a few who are then dedicated to certain specialties or platforms to support customers with targeted questions or applications.
  • Metrics: We may no longer measure, “How many doors did I stop at?” It could become, “How many customers did I consult with?” or “How many transactions were completed with no human interaction?”
  • Culture: Working from home rather than in a shared office setting, or interacting with prospects and customers online rather than face-to-face, represent just two of many changes that have massive cultural implications.

With this in mind, leaders and organizations should look at their business and ask themselves: “Based on what we’ve learned about working differently during the COVID era, does this suggest a persistent theme that will continue in the future?” Customers are not only comfortable working with us in new digital and virtual ways, but they may actually prefer it. Let go of the notion that one day everything will go back to normal. Instead, ask yourself whether today presents opportunities to embrace what seems to be a growing trend of customers wanting to do business in virtual ways.

Much of what we have in place today has been cobbled together out of necessity over many years. Now we have a timely opening to revisit our organizational structures from a fresh strategic perspective. How will you create and design your processes, the technologies, people, and structures to make virtual buying, selling, transacting, and consulting into a more seamless, fantastic process? If we put our minds into redesigning those structures for the virtual environment, it could really change the game for organizations.