Empty Sports StadiumIt’s hard to imagine a virtual Tupperware party. Sales presentations are trickier with the move to increased online communication. Gone (for now) are the days of making small talk with prospective clients in the hallway and capturing their undivided attention face-to-face. Now that life has gone virtual, is it really possible for sales professionals to channel their charisma and build rapport through video calls? Do customers respond the same way to virtual selling tactics? Or should salespeople be expecting lower commissions until they can meet in person?


Featured Guests

  • Kathleen Lima – Sales Manager, Gartner
  • Keith Lubner – Chief Business Strategist, Sales Gravy

Episode Highlights

  • 1:47 – What is virtual selling and how does it work?
  • 6:35 – B2B vs. B2C – Who virtual selling is really for
  • 12:34 – The biggest barriers to overcome
  • 16:50 – Is virtual selling just a “young people’s” game?
  • 23:09 – What students can learn from virtual selling
  • 26:16 – Final thoughts from Keith and Kathleen
  • 28:12 – Paul Jarley’s final thoughts


Episode Transcription

Paul Jarley:                         Remember the door-to-door Salesman?

Salesman:                           Good morning, madam.

Homeowner:                     Good morning. I’m afraid I don’t want them.

Salesman:                           You’ve been selected for a special introductory offer, madam.

Announcer:                        Using one of the many tricks to interest you, he’ll keep talking, exaggerating.

Paul Jarley:                         My sense is he got largely replaced by the robocall.

Robo Caller:                       Hi, I’m calling from vehicle servicing to reach out regarding the factory warranty on your vehicle. Our records indicate it’s past the coverage expiration [crosstalk 00:00:24] the vehicle you want to sell is actually still eligible for a warranty.

Paul Jarley:                         But if there isn’t enough to be annoyed about in 2020, now we have this.

Zoom Caller:                      Can anyone hear me?

Zoom Caller:                      We can hear you.

Zoom Caller:                      Hello.

Zoom Caller:                      Yeah. We can hear you. We can all hear you.

Zoom Caller:                      I’m sorry. Just before we begin, can I just go to the bathroom quickly?

Zoom Caller:                      I’m just going to go ahead.

Paul Jarley:                         Does anybody really need Zoom call salespeople? Really?

Paul Jarley:                         This show is all about separating hype from fundamental change. I’m Paul Jarley, Dean of the College of Business here at UCF. I’ve got lots of questions. To get answers, I’m talking to people with interesting insights into the future of business. Have you ever wondered, is this really a thing? Onto our show.

Paul Jarley:                         Necessity really is the mother of invention. Case in point, how do you sell people stuff if lockdown orders and social distancing norms mean you can’t meet with potential customers in person? Answer? Virtual selling. Google it and you’ll see how many YouTube videos you can find featuring people who are now positioning themselves as virtual selling experts. YouTube is the happy home of many a modern-day snake oil salesman. So I wanted to talk to a few sales experts and get their take on virtual selling and whether I need to incorporate this into the business school curriculum. Listen in.

Paul Jarley:                         So what the heck is virtual selling and how does it differ from other forms of selling?

Kathleen Lima:                  Virtual selling in general is a way to communicate using digital platforms and technology in order to still be able to do business.

Paul Jarley:                         Kathleen Lima is a sales manager at Gartner, and more importantly, a graduate of our professional selling program.

Kathleen Lima:                  It’s something that at Gartner we do a lot in our mid-sized channel. We do almost full virtual selling. We’ve always been doing that. In the field we’ve been much more face-to-face and local, but in general, to me, virtual selling is very much just using digital platforms in order to still build relationships with clients and to get business done.

Paul Jarley:                         Keith, are we on TikTok? Zoom? What are we on?

Keith Lubner:                     So interesting. No.

Paul Jarley:                         Keith Lubner is chief business strategist at Sales Gravy.

Keith Lubner:                     You think about it, virtual selling is… We’ve been doing selling this way since the dawn of time, since smoke signals basically when you really think back on it. We’ve been selling virtually and… It’s not like all these virtual platforms are anything new. We’ve been using it for years. It just so happened that now we’ve been forced into this in a really profound way. So how it’s vastly different though from face-to-face selling is it’s basically selling without all your senses. Think about it. When you’re face-to-face, you have that you can read people. You can pick up on their mannerisms. Everything is normal in that environment, from things like the audio or the lighting or how they look. And when you move into a virtual world, you have to be really intentional now, whereas before you didn’t have to be intentional about all of these senses. You have to be intentional about how your audio sounds.

Keith Lubner:                     And the reason you want to do that is on the other end you don’t want to create a lot of… And we talk about this in the book that Jeb Blount, our founder, wrote. We talk about how, if we don’t normalize the environment for people going from in-person to virtual, that we’re creating all of these processes in the brain that will create a lot of what we call cognitive load. And when that happens, you slow down and you don’t have great interactions. So you have to be really intentional about all these things to make the environment seem normal so that you minimize those processes that are kicking off in somebody else’s brain. That’s where it’s vastly different because in person you take it for granted. You just do it. It’s natural for every single human to have a face-to-face meeting. You’re not thinking about the lighting. You’re not thinking about anything like that. Now you have to.

Paul Jarley:                         Neither of you may be old enough to know this, but there’s a really famous United commercial, probably from the… I’m going to guess the eighties. Where the guy comes in to the office and he says, “Our oldest client fired me today.” He said, “We didn’t know who he was anymore. We meet with our customers on the phone. We send faxes.” And he hands out plane tickets to everybody in the room, telling them they’re going to go meet their clients face-to-face. I think that commercial won hundreds of awards.

Keith Lubner:                     I remember that commercial. [crosstalk 00:05:18].

Paul Jarley:                         Yeah. Bill Steiger’s old enough to know who those people are.

Keith Lubner:                     I remember that one.

Paul Jarley:                         So is that the old school version of virtual selling? On the phone? Fax?

Kathleen Lima:                  I think so. I know when I even started doing virtual selling, we didn’t really use video whatsoever. And that was the norm because that was the culture and the norm. We just did conference calls. Now, it is much more important than ever to do video. We have gone almost full video in any meeting we have now with client or internal, we are almost full video, which is different.

Kathleen Lima:                  And two, it’s even more important now to build that rapport. Because a lot of times, when you… At least when we were virtual selling before, we had a 30 minute time slot, we had specific things we had to get done. You check all the boxes, you go through. And now this is the normal. So you have to be able to build those relationships and know who your customers are to your point and not forget who they are. But you have to be able to do it without being able to go to lunch with them or sit across the desk from them and walk into their office and talk about your families as you’re walking through the hallways. You just don’t have that anymore. So rapport is even more important.

Paul Jarley:                         Is this used largely in B2B sales situations or are there B2C applications as well?

Keith Lubner:                     From what we’re seeing it’s largely B2B. And people are really struggling with how do they… And I hear this a lot from folks that are just superstars in sales. And the superstars in sales… What Kathleen was getting at was so true. They had this innate ability just to build rapport. They were brilliant at it in person. And all of a sudden they’re like a fish out of water, basically, when they come into the virtual world. They’re struggling mightily, mightily, mightily with that. So when we think about selling in this new paradigm, it goes back to the things I was talking about earlier, as far as normalizing the environment. Because building rapport and normalizing the environment is so, so darn important now.

Keith Lubner:                     And it’s really important for those people that just… They innately knew how to do it before and now they’re in this world where they have no idea how to do it and they just struggle. So we’re the same way. We teach a lot of classes on this and we’re telling people at all times, “Always be video ready.” We call it BVR. “Be video ready.” Yourself. Because you want to try to make that connection with someone. And the only way you truly can read someone or make that connection is if they’re also on video, because then you can pick up on all the non-verbal communication that they’re giving you, which is normally what they would do in person. And that’s where people are struggling. They’re struggling with, how do they do that? How do they interact that way? How do they handle all that?

Kathleen Lima:                  Yeah. And in terms of B2B versus B2C, at least in our research, it says that by 2025, 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels. I think it’s possible to do B2C. I think it might be a little bit different than B2B.

Paul Jarley:                         Yeah. Here’s why I’m asking, Kathleen. I assume… Maybe wrongly, so help me out here, that in most of those B2B sales situations, you already have some relationship with that customer. Because here’s the thing. From a B2C standpoint, I’m not accepting a Zoom call as a consumer. I’m on Zoom enough. You’re just not getting me there. So it’s hard for me to understand virtual cold calls. I just don’t really see that as something that’s likely to be a thing. Is it?

Kathleen Lima:                  It’s interesting because I just had this happen to me on the other side, where I had someone prospect into me from B2C perspective.

Paul Jarley:                         Really?

Kathleen Lima:                  So what people are doing that seems to work is… You’re right. Am I going to, if I was in a B2C organization, just set up a Zoom meeting and call someone and hope that they’ll talk to me in video? They’d tell me to get lost. But people are actually utilizing from a B2C perspective LinkedIn a lot more and other platforms to build those relationships and make them more warm leads and then ask, “Hey, are you open to having a meeting about that?” And then if you’re open to meeting as a consumer, that’s when they can send a Zoom meeting. And at least for me, I might at least pick up and listen, because now it’s something we’ve already been talking. We’ve been messaging on LinkedIn. We’ve been having conversations. And it feels much more real versus if someone just sent me a Zoom cold call of some sort. I absolutely would not pick up.

Paul Jarley:                         Keith, do you have thoughts on that?

Keith Lubner:                     A hundred percent. You’re absolutely right. Here at our company, we’re teaching a lot of sales professionals day in and day out. And what we’re seeing is absolutely people are utilizing… They’re utilizing LinkedIn. They’re utilizing other platforms as well. We’re seeing more and more of these social platforms coming into the business space actually. Here’s what they’re also doing. They’re taking all of these different modes of communication… And really all these modes of communication fall into really two buckets. Synchronous and asynchronous modes. Bi-directional and one way. And what they’re doing is they’re blending them into their processes. So they’re blending a phone call. They’re blending texts. They’re blending video messaging, which is really starting to come out really strong these days, as far as making connections. They’re actually utilizing video messaging through the social platforms and through other apps to make those connections that they normally couldn’t make.

Keith Lubner:                     And it’s not as dramatic as it would be to just send somebody a virtual link to a Zoom meeting or any other platform and say, “Come on, let’s get on that.” But it’s a way of somebody to see, even from a prospecting perspective, to see the person, to see the enthusiasm, to read their mannerisms, whatever the case may be, in a really non-threatening way. And that is opening the door to actually getting them onto a virtual meeting. So this blending all of these approaches is really the key as people move forward. It’s really the key of true productivity. It’s how they use something like video and they insert it into where would normally maybe do an in-person. And how do they use the phone effectively and how they tie texting into all this. Now, they’ve been doing that in a way, but now what we’re doing is we’re bringing virtual technologies really to the forefront in this blending concept.

Paul Jarley:                         Yeah. This is going to get me in trouble, but I’ve seen my wife do some of this. On Facebook Live where they’ll have opened demonstration sessions and sell products that way. It’s intriguing to see how that’s worked. But that’s a form of virtual selling as well.

Keith Lubner:                     Yeah.

Paul Jarley:                         If I think about it that way. I’m not sure I know what Tupperware’s doing these days, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a similar approach to that going forward. So talk a little bit about what the main barriers are here to overcome. You touched on it a little bit, particularly with respect to senses, but what other barriers are there?

Keith Lubner:                     Sure. Well, psychologically people feel threatened when you move them out of their safety zone. And their safety zone has always been in person. Think about those superstar sales people I was talking about earlier. Their safety zone is when they’re in person with somebody and they’re going face-to-face. And that’s most people. And as soon as you start to bring somebody out of their safety zone, as soon as you start to touch on that safety bias that their brains inherently create for themselves, they immediately feel uncomfortable. They feel vulnerable.

Keith Lubner:                     And that’s exactly what’s happening when you bring somebody into a virtual world. Because quite frankly, the camera can be intimidating. And people feel threatened. They feel it’s different. They’re looking for something that’s wrong in the environment, not something that’s right in the environment. So when they move into a virtual world, they’re not saying, “Hey, this is the best thing! I can’t wait to do that!” What they’re thinking is, “Oh, man, this is going to make me uncomfortable. And I don’t want to feel uncomfortable.”

Keith Lubner:                     So the barrier is psychological right there. And the barrier is getting them to understand that it’s okay. Now, when they come in, the other barrier is the environment that they’re in has to be set up so it mimics or duplicates what an in-person world would look like. And that goes back to little things like lighting, little things like audio, little things like where the camera angle is at. Things like that now matter because of the moving somebody out of their safety zone into this world. And when you make them feel comfortable, then those barriers go down. When they don’t feel comfortable, fight or flight kicks in. They’re either going to fight it day in and day out, or they’re going to run for the hills.

Paul Jarley:                         I would guess that it would just be easier to say no to you on Zoom or virtually than it would be in person. Is that true?

Keith Lubner:                     It is.

Paul Jarley:                         Yeah?

Keith Lubner:                     It is. Look in the bottom right hand corner of every Zoom meeting. It’s, “Leave meeting,” or, “Turn video off.” Look how easy it is for somebody to disengage. So one of the challenges we’re finding and we’re teaching people on this is how do you keep the attention levels high on these meetings? How do you collaborate? How do you keep them engaged in these meetings when clearly they have these very immediate options? And clearly sometimes you can see that they’re multitasking.

Kathleen Lima:                  Video is key for all of this, because to your point, yes, is it easier to say no? Virtually, yes. However, if you’re on video and you’re still looking at someone face-to-face, it’s still pretty difficult. And the size of the room makes a difference. If you have 20 people and you’re doing a demonstration, that’s very different than if you are selling to a C-level executive and maybe one or two other people in that virtual room. It’s just more interactive. So you have to plan ahead of it might sound great if someone says, “I want to bring my entire team,” but it might not be the best move for you if it becomes a situation where there’s too large of a number and because of that it’s not interactive and people shut off their video and start doing other things.

Kathleen Lima:                  It’s funny. Burnout is absolutely a thing. And that’s something for my team specifically we consistently talk about and try to avoid as much as possible. The default for meetings, if you’re going to be doing them virtually, are 30 minute meetings. It’s just the default. It’s just what we’re used to. That’s not necessarily the most productive use of time because between rapport, between everything, just getting to know these clients, you don’t really get to the meat of the meeting by the time it’s over. So it could seem like it’s less efficient. So we always try to make our meetings an hour. We still try to space out our meetings. We don’t want to go back-to-back. To be able to get up, walk around, just like you’d be getting in your car, except for now it’s 30 seconds to a minute. So it could be exhausting. You have to be very, very clear on your schedule so you don’t get burned out.

Paul Jarley:                         Are some people better at this than others? Is this a young people’s game?

Kathleen Lima:                  In general, it is people who have grown up in this environment. So UCF in general, we’ve all had some sort of digital class. We’re used to that. And when we go to, like I said, where you [crosstalk 00:17:10]

Paul Jarley:                         That doesn’t mean the faculty member’s good at it though.

Kathleen Lima:                  I remember I was in a class with 1200 students and you know what? It worked out fine.

Paul Jarley:                         You learn a little bit what not to do too, right? Sometimes.

Kathleen Lima:                  You learn what to do, what not to do and all that. So we start in a channel where it’s mostly digital regardless. So a lot of the people on my team who I have hired are people from that channel. I have promoted them into the large enterprise organization and they are fantastic at this. This is no different for them at all. Versus others who come from outside who have a lot of field sales experience and a lot of in-person experience, they’re incredible at sales, but it was a much, much bigger shift for them. Versus here, it’s just like we’re back in Fort Myers. We’re just doing everything on video. So it’s just more of creating that culture of what you’re used to and making it the norm. Eventually we’re all going to have to be there, but for people who already have that training, it’s very easy to move into this fully virtual world.

Paul Jarley:                         Keith, is that true? Can you not teach old dogs new tricks?

Keith Lubner:                     I would agree, absolutely. Here’s the thing. If there’s a good side, if there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, the silver lining is that it’s forcing people to accelerate their acceptance of technology and to adapt to all of it and to flex to it. So it’s forcing generations that maybe would not accept this, would maybe say, “Uh, I’m just going to do my things my way all the time.” It’s forcing those generations to catch up if you will.

Paul Jarley:                         I don’t know, Keith, Josh is trying to get me to go on TikTok and do some things and I’m really resisting this idea.

Keith Lubner:                     It’s funny that you say that. A recent class that I taught, one of the participants asked me about these platforms and they said, “Is TikTok going to be… Is that a platform we should look at?” And our first tendency is to laugh about that. When you really think about it, it’s something that we just have to have our eyes on because it could maybe someday do what LinkedIn did. LinkedIn years ago was just a repository for your credentials like a CV. And now it’s a platform for communicating and utilizing it in the sales process.

Paul Jarley:                         Yeah. But I’m a 61 year old guy and I realized that being on Instagram would just be creepy. I’m not sure TikTok would be any better.

Keith Lubner:                     Well, I’m not too far behind you, I’ll tell you that. But my point is it accelerates… In some realms we’re never going to do those things. But in others, it’s accelerating… Even in our generation, it’s accelerating it. And I look across… my kids are in they’re in their twenties and they pick up this technology a lot easier. Now what’s interesting is this is where cross generations can train each other. Whereas we can train them on utilizing all these different modes of communication, the phone and all of that, where they have never been exposed to that because they’re primarily growing up in a world where texting is the mode of communication. So we can play off one another really well in these environments.

Paul Jarley:                         I would agree that I think that the acceptance of virtual forms of communication are way up, that the pandemic has actually forced that. That will continue in some form. But I do wonder whether virtual selling will have staying power past the pandemic or not. What do you think? Has it just become part of the mix?

Keith Lubner:                     Yes.

Paul Jarley:                         Because here’s the thing. If you’re willing to come visit me, you’re showing more effort, I’m going to pay more attention to you.

Keith Lubner:                     It’s going to be part of the mix. The pendulum has swung all the way across to now just completely virtual and it will swing back. And when it swings back, it’s not going to swing all the way back where we’re not doing virtual anymore. It’s going to swing back to some point in the middle where there’s a happy blend of efficiency. And the happy blend of efficiency will be… You’ll include virtual techniques in there and you’ll use it, like I said before, very tactically and strategically within your sales process. That’s where it’s going to be utilized. It’s not going to be all in one way, all in the other. And I crave, just like everybody else, I crave some in-person environments for training and all of that. We all do. But we know we’re going to be blending both as we move forward for a long, long period of time.

Paul Jarley:                         Kathleen?

Kathleen Lima:                  I agree. And I do think too, it will depend on the industry and what you’re selling. If it’s something that’s very tangible, it might make sense to go in person to actually show the product itself, to be able to show all of the different features and functionalities. If it’s not as tangible, virtual selling might become more so. Yes, we’re still going to do in-person absolutely and I would be remiss if I said we’re not. But if you can show features and functionalities and it’s just not as tangible, it might change the sales process itself of when we are qualifying, “Do we do more virtual and then perhaps in the beginning do more face-to-face? Or at the end do more face-to-face?” It’ll change the process itself.

Paul Jarley:                         Or more virtual workshops around the product.

Kathleen Lima:                  Exactly. Something where if you’re still doing… Let’s say the education process. You can do that virtually, because now we’ve seen, it’s been proven, that it can work. Because we’re still selling, the world is still selling, and it’s shown that it’s worked. So we can incorporate that into our sales process where before that would absolutely have not been a thing. We would have gone into the office and done all of those lunch and learns in person.

Paul Jarley:                         Yeah. Let me take you in just a little bit of a different direction since I have you here. And I’m a Dean with a bunch of students… Well, I graduate 2000 a year. And these aren’t the easiest times for them. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what students, particularly who are trying to build relationships and secure internships and jobs going forward, what can they learn from virtual selling that they might be able to apply to help them build relationships and get to where they want to go?

Keith Lubner:                     I’m right there with you. I have college freshman. So I ponder this often. And I think what they can learn from all of this is that you need to meet people how they want to be met. And if you meet people, if they need to be met virtually, you meet them virtually. If you need to meet people in person, in person. If they want to be met with through texting or email or whatever mode of communication, your ability to adapt and be flexible to those people is really critical.

Keith Lubner:                     Especially my daughter, she’s learning that she has to understand that flexibility. Because some people will want that in person and other people won’t. And I’m hoping I’m answering your question appropriately. Because I’m thinking with regard to my daughter and how she’s interacting. She’s starting to make friends and she’s starting to go through that whole process there. It’s really difficult for them right now because they’re trying to balance these modes of communication and they’re a little confused as to how to do it and how to build relationships. But I think if they can get it down and they can meet people, like I said, where they want to be met, that will help them in whatever career they go into, whether it’s selling or whatever.

Paul Jarley:                         Kathleen?

Kathleen Lima:                  Yeah. I completely agree. In general, students are… I would assume, tell me if I’m wrong. They are adapting to this new world. [crosstalk 00:25:10]

Paul Jarley:                         Well, some of them are, some of them aren’t, to be quite honest about it.

Kathleen Lima:                  Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely new. I would think from both a personal and a business perspective, there’s been a lot of different changes. And I do think it will become a bit of the new normal. And I feel like the longer this goes on, the more students will begin to adapt. And to your question around how can we help them and is this something we should do, I do think having some sort of training right from the get-go would make this more normal for them. And if it’s more normal for them, then they adapt quicker. And if they adapt quicker, it helps overall. It helps from their own mental health. It helps from their skillset. It helps from just development. If we can adapt and assume that this is going to be somewhat of the new norm and then from there adjust accordingly, especially from an education and training perspective.

Paul Jarley:                         That’s a great segue to my final question.

Kathleen Lima:                  I planned it.

Paul Jarley:                         Thank you. Is virtual selling going to be a thing five years from now? Yes or no, and what will it look like? Kathleen?

Kathleen Lima:                  I’d say yes. 100% yes. The world in general is moving more digital with or without this pandemic. Obviously this has really made this more escalated more quickly. But yes, I do think it is here to stay. I would absolutely advise to incorporate this somehow into lessons, into the business school, whatever needs to happen to help students adapt quicker so they are much more successful when they go into the business world.

Paul Jarley:                         Keith?

Keith Lubner:                     100%. Absolutely yes. Five years, ten years, it’s going to be part of just our DNA of how we do things. I think we’re going to see a shift, even a faster shift, into direct messaging through different apps as well and how we’re communicating that way. All of that’s moving and those that can adapt to that, embrace it if you will, will thrive.

Keith Lubner:                     When you think about just some basic stuff around training people, for instance, companies are now looking at the bottom line savings that they can take on with training people virtually. That’s going to continue to increase as time goes on as well. They’re not going to shift all the way back to bringing all of their people in from all over the country for training events because it’s a very high expense. What they’re going to do is they’re going to look at how can they leverage virtual and train people virtually and minimize the expenses, but get the outcomes that they’re looking to get from a training? And that’s just one example. I think over five years, you’re going to see more and more examples of where people are going to weave this into their processes and make it a normal process.

Paul Jarley:                         It’s my podcast. So I get to go last. This discussion left me wanting more. So I consulted my resident expert, Dr. Bill Steiger. Bill is the director of our professional selling program. He wrote back this. “Virtual communication is the thing. Virtual selling is a subset of virtual communication and likely the most significant change in the sales process since cell phones.”

Paul Jarley:                         Bill’s point is if a new way of communication develops, you can rest assured somebody is going to try to sell you something using that new platform. In that sense, virtual selling is a thing because virtual communication has become a thing. For virtual selling to become a big thing, customers will have to embrace it. As Keith said,

Keith Lubner:                     “You need to meet people how they want to be met.”

Paul Jarley:                         And I’m not sure why customers would prefer this method. Is it a more convenient form of buying for the customer? It certainly saves the seller travel costs, but I’m not sure it’s more convenient for the consumer. Does it represent an easy way to get information they need without having to suffer the whole sales pitch? This got touched on a bit when Kathleen noted,

Kathleen Lima:                  You’re now on the computer. We can go through and start looking up answers right on the spot and we can pivot a lot quicker.

Paul Jarley:                         If virtual selling is going to be a thing, it’s going to need to be a customer thing, not a sales thing. But my guess is that virtual selling is going to be much more limited in scope once things open up again. It might form a chapter in a book on sales, but I doubt it will be a whole new curriculum. What do you think?

Paul Jarley:                         Check us out online and share your thoughts at business.ucf.edu/podcast. You can also find extended interviews with our guests and notes from the show. Special thanks to my producer, Josh Miranda, and the whole team at the Office of Outreach and Engagement here at the UCF College of Business. And thank you for listening. Until next time, charge on.

Listen to all episodes of “Is This Really a Thing?” at business.ucf.edu/podcast.