Does virtual selling make for lonely salespeople?

Photo: Getty Images/AsiaVision
May 13, 2022

Without the typical in-person social interaction, virtually selling tends to be transactional and lonely, not only impacting morale, but sales effectiveness.

That’s according to Valerie Good, a marketing professor at Michigan’s Seidman College of Business, and Lisa Earle McLeod, a consultant and author of “Selling with Noble Purpose,” in a column for Harvard Business Review.

Tapping into Ms. Good’s research into loneliness based on surveys of B2B and B2C salespeople, the two found virtual selling can lead to three “problematic behaviors”:

  1. Social awkwardness: “In an agenda-driven video sales call, the social elements (handshakes, shared coffee, etc.) that once humanized the sales interaction have been stripped away.” Salespeople are missing social cues that build trust due to rusty social skills from reduced in-person selling. Resetting after a rejection is also harder “without a bullpen of colleagues to buoy their spirits.”
  2. Loss of focus on customer needs: Sellers overeager for social connection “don’t listen deeply” during the needs assessment phase of the sales process and are “more likely to forget critical customer information.” The lack of visual cues in virtual selling also make the conversations less memorable.
  3. Conspicuous overspending on customers: Loneliness has a direct link to increased spending on clients for the “dopamine high of a positive social interaction,” but the gifts and meals don’t return additional revenue.

B2B virtual selling has accelerated amid the pandemic and work-from-home trend as store associates clientele via apps, but particularly due to the need for Zoom sessions that have replaced in-person interactions.

A Bain survey from early 2021 found 92 percent of B2B buyers prefer virtual sales interactions because of faster communication and cost effectiveness. Three-quarters of buyers and 54 percent of sellers agreed, or were neutral, that virtual was effective for complex products. Bain’s survey, however, also showed 55 percent of respondents at VP level or below would be demoralized or quit if their company moved to a primarily virtual model.

An Allego survey from around the same time found 48 percent of sales professionals indicating remote selling has made it harder to close deals and 56 percent of sales leaders believing remote work has negatively affected team culture.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: What’s your take on the pros, cons and hurdles around virtual selling? Do you think it’s accurate to characterize virtual selling as being lonely, un-motivating and morale-depleting?

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"I do think it’s harder to convey warmth and connect at an interpersonal level virtually when it comes to B2B sales. "

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9 Comments on "Does virtual selling make for lonely salespeople?"

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Dion Kenney
4 months 22 days ago

I completely agree. For all of the advantages of the virtual environment, I find that the absence of in-person contact reduces effective communication and creates an awkward human-to-human interaction. This is exacerbated over time, as the sense of isolation erodes people skills.

Melissa Minkow

I do think it’s harder to convey warmth and connect at an interpersonal level virtually when it comes to B2B sales. There was a hefty culture built around sales visits that energized the interactions and allowed for more differentiation among providers. The pro to virtual selling is how little logistics are involved. There’s flexibility in scheduling and an ability to be available to more prospects in a day than with in-person visits.

Bob Phibbs

While most of the retail workforce has moved back to in-person, this study is valuable in showcasing how much support salespeople need and get from working with people, not screens. The other problem highlighted is how transactional the experience is. Great salespeople know it is the return customer that brings loyalty and that only happens if they have a chance to develop a relationship.

Jeff Weidauer

The virtual option has made selling more challenging, but the fact that buyers prefer it means that sellers need to adapt to this new environment.

David Spear

Though remote work has many advantages, selling takes a hit on many levels. Just think about how hard it has become to “read” the room while you’re on a Zoom call. It’s nearly impossible. Understanding and reacting to body language during a sales pitch is vital. Without this, making a quick pivot or complete course correction becomes problematic and with it can potentially kill a deal. Sales professionals are inherently extroverts and high-octane individuals. They love to socialize and win over the hearts and minds of customers. Meta, virtual, remote — whatever you want to call it is tough and demanding, especially if you have remits that include million dollar-plus deals. With virtual selling it is incredibly hard to replicate in-person, face-to-face, demonstrative discussions, which is why planes are full, airports are teeming and sales meetings in the office are on the rise! Thank goodness.

Ananda Chakravarty

Virtual selling is a slightly different skill but, having worked with teams of telesales folks in the past, there are experts in the space that can manage the sales process effectively and build relationships. Customers have also learned to trust over Zoom sessions as not only sales is affected by teleconferencing. Frankly, most companies couldn’t have survived and grown their sales in the last few years without effective Zoom selling. As for being lonely, un-motivating, or morale-depleting because salespeople are unable to engage physically – well, all of these aspects are traits of how you feel, not necessarily how you sell. Sellers can succeed even with these conditions – and then hang out with family and friends in their local jaunts.

Brandon Rael

The virtual selling model has matured to meet the needs of the digital-first customer. Store associates and fashion brand ambassadors now have the capabilities, tools, training, and expertise necessary to drive a personalized clienteling experience for the customers who want to shop in the physical stores and have an excellent experience via their mobile devices.

The customer journey has so many divergent touchpoints, and it’s up to the retailers and brands to meet the customers where they are. If they happen to be on the native apps, Instagram, TikTok, and now the metaverse, the brand ambassadors must be empowered with the capacities and tools to drive these experiences. While 85 percent of the retail sales take place in the retail stores, there are far more dynamic digital engagement steps and interactions that require this strategy change.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Virtual selling requires sales professionals to utilize specialized skills, new strategies and to pay attention to details in a different way. Most high-performing salespeople I know like a challenge and are adopting creating relationships in a digital world.

Besides, the three “problematic behaviors” cited are common in F2F situations as well.

Kathleen Fischer

Virtual communication overall is definitely more difficult. Human beings have always relied on personal interactions and many cues are missed in a virtual environment. But virtual selling is not going away, so the challenge will be to identify ways to motivate and inspire those in virtual selling environments.

"I do think it’s harder to convey warmth and connect at an interpersonal level virtually when it comes to B2B sales. "

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