How Did George Jetson Sell Spacely Space Sprockets?Author: Dr. Scott Downey, Director and Professor

On the show The Jetsons, George Jetson worked for a company called Spacely Space Sprockets as (what the internet says) a digital index operator. Although this dates me — especially since some of you reading this cannot remember life before FaceTime — I think about this show every time I get on a Zoom meeting. Whether we are in favor of it or not, it seems most of us have had to make the move to online meetings, including those of us in sales.

There is no question that attitudes toward human interaction are different now than they were six months ago. COVID-19 has affected the world, with every industry adapting to life during the pandemic. The effects of the pandemic may have a slower release in less populated areas, but high unemployment and loss of income among a large segment of the country will change demand for food and prices and have lasting consequences for our supply chain.

As salespeople, we may be encountering greater reluctance from customers around in-person meetings, and maybe we’re even feeling some of that same reluctance ourselves. So, does this leave salespeople to be like George Jetson and have all of our conversations over video chat now? How will this work?

My answer to the first question above is, “kind of!” The average age of farmers today remains in the mid-fifties, which means many farm customers are in the high-risk category for the illness. Even those who think extreme reactions are overblown have to consider whether interacting with a salesperson is worth the risk. For the next year or so there will be customers with real or imagined concerns with whom a virtual meeting may be the only option.

My answer to the second question above of how this will work is, “well…maybe not very well.” None of us are entirely comfortable talking someone through a proposal or recommendation from in front of a computer or video chat on our phone. However, for times this is our best or only option, we had better learn to make it work, and fast!

I have had several conversations recently with companies and sales managers asking how to help salespeople communicate more effectively in online interactions with customers. I’ve also been doing many virtual meetings with sales teams to present some best practices. Here are a few things I’ve been talking about:

  1. Every customer and interaction are different. Maybe some customers are operating business as usual, but don’t assume this to be true. Masks, gloves, distance and location should not be an afterthought. Ask customers their preferences and be clear about your own (if your company hasn’t created its own policies). Global pandemic or not, salespeople must always be aware of customer preferences around meetings. If a customer doesn’t want to meet at all regardless of the format, the issue may not be related to concern over the virus, even if that’s the excuse.
  2. Obviously, online interaction isn’t the same as face-to-face. Not everyone has good internet, so make sure you are both in a place you can have an online conversation. You may even have to settle for a phone call. Additionally, it’s harder to read body language and take turns talking online (“Go ahead.” “No, you go ahead” “Sorry, you go.” “Oh no, you go ahead.”). As a result, people are generally more hesitant to have conversations online. A good online sales call requires preparing much more planned, specific questions in advance. A face-to-face question may get a 10-minute conversational response, but only a one-sentence answer online. Prepare for this by giving thought to what you want to know and having your questions ready.
  3. Being a good online salesperson has roughly the same rules as being a good face-to-face salesperson. You must prepare and organize, ask questions, know your stuff, and bring value. When you are face-to-face, your personality and experience might cover you when you don’t have time to prepare. Maybe you have a set of questions you commonly ask that come easily in face-to-face meetings when you don’t have to think much about the setting, only about your next question. In this new online environment, more of your attention must go to the screen. Online selling can be hard and can reveal some of the things we need to work on in real life.
  4. You may have to practice. You’ll get the hang of it quickly, but be careful not to be overconfident. If you have a lot of internal Zoom meetings, it’s easy to assume an online call with a customer will be similar. Not true. Maybe you are able to use the technology well, but your customer may not be as comfortable. Unless you focus on their experience, you may not get another shot at interacting with them in a meaningful way until our current situation passes.

Remember when you were just a little baby sales rep and everything was new? We’re kind of back in the same position. The comfort and confidence you once had performing one of the most basic tasks in selling  — the sales call — isn’t there. We have to learn how to do this again, the same way we did back then. Stay positive! Look on the bright side at things that are even better about this new setting:

  1. You can queue up what you want to present (i.e. demos) and share your screen easily with online presentations.
  2. You always have documents you need with you (instead of, “I think I’ve got that in the truck, just let me run and get it really quick.”).
  3. People can consume information more quickly than it is presented. Use the chat function to emphasize key points or have concurrent side conversations during group sales calls.
  4. You don’t have to travel, and no one has to host so it’s easier to have others join you on the call.
  5. Meetings generally have a clearer purpose that can enhance the quality of the call.

Video calling isn’t new. We’ve been able to Skype and FaceTime for a while now, but not all of us used those tools often. While email, text and phones have been much more common, going forward, video calls may be preferred over phone calls in some settings.

No one wants to have their time wasted — online or in the real world. Being good takes effort in both settings. It’s tempting to hope and wait for things to return to normal, but they won’t. We are living in a generation-defining moment, and things will look different on the other side. Like everything else, we have to adapt. If we can’t figure out how to sell Spacely Space Sprockets online, customer may just go to the dreaded competitor — Coswell Cogs.

Beyond the Blog

Learn more from Dr. Scott Downey in the Precision Selling: Building Relationships with Large Farmers professional development program on July 28-29, 2021. Participants will gain tools and information to increase their odds of success by learning to clarify decisions, discover alternatives, manage risk and much more.