From many conversations with business colleagues, it seems that there are three categories of thought when it comes to the pandemic and its impact on the world of business, especially sales negotiations. Some believe that things will return to what they were in the pre-Covid-19 years. Many believe that we are in an entirely new normal where the business environment has permanently changed. Then there are those, like myself, who believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Yes, things have changed dramatically over the past year, and some of those changes will stay with us. The sales profession has undergone a profound transformation, especially in the B2B world, from the established face-to-face (F2F) model, to one where the entire sales cycle, even on big-ticket purchases, is often conducted virtually. However, just as negotiation skills were critical for a field sales force where much of the negotiation was conducted F2F, they are even more important when the communication occurs over a Zoom video call, telephone or email.
So, let’s tackle two topics. First, what changes will remain with us into the future, and what will we revert to when regular business travel is possible. Second, what disciplines are critical to hybrid sales negotiations — those engagements that involve every medium that makes the process — and participants — efficient.
Changes That Will Likely Stay With Us
Let’s face it, engaging virtually has a lot of advantages. As I stated in my article titled “Prospering In Your Business Negotiations Despite Global Crises,” negotiations by means other than F2F can be less costly and time-consuming.
Logistics are easier — no one has to travel or book hotels and flights. Schedule coordination is simplified when most of us are working from home offices. We are generally more productive when we don’t have to spend time on planes, trains and automobiles. Everyone should have ready access to relevant data to address agenda items. Of course, the savings are tremendous, something most companies will be reluctant to give up post-pandemic. And why, or when should they?
If you already have a good relationship with a client, and you can serve them effectively without travel, the efficiencies provided by remote work will operate in your favor. The opposite may be true when you are trying to establish a new relationship. You may need more in-person due diligence to obtain relevant information and earn client trust. This is likely to make your investment in generating new business more costly on a relative basis.
Some reversion back to doing things face-to-face will be forced by competition. Those who invest the time to see clients or prospects will put pressure on rival companies to do the same.
On the opposite side, many are finding their clients and prospects more accessible in a remote environment. Clients also have less time lost traveling between meetings so are scheduling more calls without having to worry about traffic or catching a plane. You can meet them in a Zoom, WebEx or Teams call and still enjoy a collegial dialogue speaking about your surroundings or unique Zoom background before diving into the business agenda.
Managing The Risks Of Virtual Negotiations
So, what do we have to beware of as we move forward, virtually or not? There are risks as well as advantages to many aspects of virtual sales and negotiations. Those who manage discipline better will maximize the advantages and minimize the risks.
Let’s explore the following areas of activity:
Research and preparation: Will the pre-work be done, and will each team member carry out their task?
Attention span and distractions: On virtual calls, distractions such as text messages, emails and other interruptions can interrupt the flow of a meeting or cause someone to miss critical parts of a discussion.
Teamwork and team interaction: What do we do if the client asks a surprise question or a teammate starts speaking out of turn — potentially indicating that we are not aligned?
Multi-tasking: Some people like the virtual environment because they can work on multiple things at once; this can distract a meeting and seem disrespectful — something you should never do as a seller.
Resources, Roles And Rules Of Engagement
To minimize the risks and maximize the advantages of working virtually in these areas, we need to manage the three “Rs”: resources, roles and rules of engagement.
Managing resources means ensuring that the people with the skills and responsibilities to make progress on the specific meeting agenda are present. This means not only that your own team is prepared but also ensuring that your counterparts from the other side agree to participate. Managing this part of the process enables you to move productively from meeting to meeting and toward closure.
This overlaps with roles, which includes defining each participant’s responsibility for preparation, timing and the role they will play in the session. Meeting roles include assigning tasks for taking notes, keeping time and ensuring all agenda items are addressed. For each item, is it closed or open; if left open, who has responsibility for that item going forward?
Rules of engagement capture roles and responsibilities, and answers “How will we interact?” This includes responsibilities for handling specific categories of questions and issues. What do we do if…? How do we handle surprises? Part of setting rules of engagement is a discussion about multitasking and distractions. Generally, I prefer no multitasking unless specifically called for in the meeting to address a particular question. Cell phones and text or instant messaging are to be turned off unless specifically related to the meeting. The expectation is that each participant is fully engaged for the time allotted.
Practicing the three Rs is necessary to maintain credibility and momentum to closing. It is part of each negotiator’s responsibilities and will provide you a mechanism to maximize the advantages and minimize the risks of virtual negotiations. And, it is a great discipline to develop for your eventual return to face-to-face meetings.
Note: this article originally appeared in March, 2021 on Forbes.com. You can view the original post here.