woman on laptop alone in office
From utilizing social media to being empathetic towards customers, there are several ways business owners can shift their sales strategies online successfully. — Getty Images/nortonrsx

At the start of 2020, companies were lining up client dinners and business trips to conduct face-to-face sales meetings. Within a few short months, all of that came to a crashing halt as COVID-19 forced sales teams to shift their operations into the virtual realm.

"[In-person] sales teams … had to learn an entirely new system for maintaining and closing deals," said Brian Moran, CEO of Small Business Edge.

This wasn't necessarily an easy transition, since phone and video calls limit your ability to communicate nonverbally. Consider how important the handshake has been in sales culture for generations — it simply can't be replicated over video chat.

"Things like your body language or the tone of your voice carry incredible weight in how we communicate," said E.J. Kritz, director of training and insights at ath Power Consulting. "While a Zoom conference can still allow a salesperson to flash that smile or wow the customer with enthusiasm, much of 'the deal' now takes place over email."

[Read: 6 Ways to Provide Great Customer Service During a Crisis]

This has been especially tricky for complex industries like insurance. Ty Stewart, CEO and president of Simple Life Insure, said in-person interactions previously allowed the company to walk clients through the often-complicated world of insurance policies in the friendliest and most personal manner possible.

"These in-person meetings … deeply ease insurance confusion, particularly with older clientele," said Stewart. "Our line of work relies on this kind of education, [so] our biggest challenge these days is offering the same kind of accessibility and convenience."

Similarly, Michelle Seger, partner and sales strategist of SalesGlobe, noted that trying to come across as authentic and empathetic using technology can be uncomfortable for salespeople who are used to making natural, in-person connections.

How to successfully shift from in-person to virtual sales

The companies that are still having successful sales meetings via digital channels are the ones following the right strategies and best practices. Here are some tips for adapting your sales process and building client trust, even without a handshake.

Use social media to its fullest potential

Moran said social media is a salesperson's secret weapon: It allows you to stay on your customers' radar in a non-invasive manner.

"No customer or prospect will ever get mad if you retweet them, reply to them or share their blog post," he told CO—. "Instead, they will say, 'thank you.'"

Another reason salespeople should get comfortable with social media? It enables them to do market research, network with others and even keep tabs on their competition, said Moran.

Learn more about how to boost your sales during challenging times with our latest episode of CO— Blueprint.

Organizations across industries must seriously prioritize how they're servicing customers via smartphones, reflecting where they can improve and expand those mobile-first platforms and options for real-time support.

Ty Stewart, CEO and president, Simple Life Insure

Keep prioritizing the 'first impression'

While the format may be different, one thing that hasn't changed in the shift to virtual sales is the importance of your first impression. Kritz reminded salespeople that "quality control" matters in your video meetings, so make sure you dress and groom appropriately, have a professional-looking, distraction-free environment, and test out your connection and equipment before signing on.

"You'd make sure everything was perfect for an in-person meeting so ensure you do exactly the same for virtual sessions!" said Kritz.

[Read: Staying Connected With Customers Through the Coronavirus Outbreak]

Think mobile-first

Stewart doesn't believe in-person sales will ever fully disappear, but the future of sales is increasingly mobile, he said, and companies that had relied heavily on in-person interactions may need to make some adjustments.

"Folks will continue to turn to their smartphones first to have their problems solved or questions answered," Stewart said. "Organizations across industries must seriously prioritize how they're servicing customers via smartphones, reflecting where they can improve and expand those mobile-first platforms and options for real-time support."

[Read: 5 Ways to Retain Your Customers During the Coronavirus Outbreak]

Provide value up front

Salespeople should always aim to provide value to their prospects, but being proactively helpful can help you stand out from the endless stream of emails and video conferences your clients are likely dealing with right now.

"Value on the front end of the interaction will become an even better way to open doors," said John Hill, founder of Adapted Growth. "[Create] actual tools, guides and workbooks … that will help your target client. These tools make outreach easier because you are leading with value, instead of leading with an ask."

Listen and be empathetic

In a time when many sales opportunities have been put on hold due to economic circumstances, a good salesperson will always listen to a customer's true needs, even if it means a delay in closing the deal.

"Listening has never been more important than it is now," said Seger. "Understand how your customers are doing in this environment, explore how they want to buy from you moving forward, and remember when to shift to listening instead of selling is key."

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

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