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Sales Reps Eager to Resume In-Person Selling

Even as salespeople grow more comfortable with virtual selling, many reps long to escape their computer screens to build relationships.

When Duane Svec had product ideas to present to a car dealership client, he used the method that he’s turned to out of necessity since the beginning of the pandemic: virtual.

The president of Omaha-based Svec Promotions (asi/183650) sent 15 product images and specs of each in an emailed presentation, followed by a phone call. But the customer wasn’t impressed with the products and wanted other ideas.

Woman on plane wearing mask and texting

Svec wasn’t to be deterred. He knew they were solid options for the client’s needs. So he told the customer to expect him for a safely distanced, in-person presentation with physical samples of the same products. He closed the sale on six of them.

“People have to examine the items,” says Svec, who logged about 25,000 miles in business travel each year pre-pandemic. His sales success often comes from “being in front of the customer so I can read him or her. Sales will always be a relationship business,” he adds.

Top promo salespeople have long been defined by a few key qualities: product knowledge, marketing know-how and commitment to both burgeoning and established relationships. To demonstrate their loyalty and determination, reps would rack up thousands of miles of business travel each year.

Of course, that changed drastically with COVID. Companies grounded their workforces and clients’ offices were closed to visitors. Salespeople who relied on in-person interaction to build their relationships and close deals had to quickly figure out how to bring in orders virtually. If they hadn’t used Zoom before, they most likely did by the end of March 2020.

It’s not what traditional, dedicated sales reps had signed up for when they got into the industry, but certainly there are benefits to virtual selling: savings in money and travel time; lack of geographical boundaries; and no packing up samples (and then having to choose what to leave behind when it doesn’t all fit).

Though, it’s undeniable that something fundamental is absent: human contact.

“It’s been very different,” says Jim Nistico, president of Syracuse, NY-based Proforma Infinity (asi/300094), who annually logged more than 38,000 miles a year by car visiting prospects and clients in upstate New York (about 700 to 900 miles a week). “Something’s missing when I’m only working remotely. I like to look clients in the eye when we’re going over projects. That’s where I gain trust and build my business more comfortably. Once the pandemic passes, I plan to see clients face-to-face again. They tell me they’re looking forward to it too.”

A year since the coronavirus infiltrated the world, business has gone on. Companies and people still order promotional products, and reps have shown they can still close sales virtually. But salespeople who thrived on in-person interaction aren’t ready to remain sitting in their home offices. To them, sales is more than just racking up revenue. It’s about ambition, vision, a love for building strong client rapport and dedication to the job. It’s why they work weekends and answer late-night calls and texts. It’s why they want travel to their clients as often as they can – and why they’re eager to resume in-person selling as soon as possible.

Jeff Darr

“In-person selling will make a comeback, but we’ll also see more strategic engagement with technology as we move forward.” Jeff Darr, Victory Image LLC

Still, for the time being and after a year of virtual options, reps need to keep additional technology tools in their belts to continue doing business. That adaptability and flexibility – also marks of successful sales reps – will set high performers apart in the months and years to come, and will continue to be expected of new hires.

“Our industry was hit hard this past year,” says Jeff Darr, owner of Victory Image LLC (asi/352141) in Wichita, KS. “For the next year or two, we’ll see cost-saving measures like virtual sales as we climb out of this hole. The industry will never be the same, but in-person encounters build relationships. They’ll make a comeback, but we’ll see more strategic engagement with technology as we move forward.”

‘Meet Them Where They Are’

With virus variants cropping up, slow vaccine distribution and lingering fears of illness, no one really knows when we’ll be back to normal or what residual effects we’ll have to contend with in the years to come. With so much uncertainty remaining, sales reps should prepare to continue with a hybrid selling format for now. Gartner Research found that, as of late February 2021, only 11% of companies surveyed had resumed business travel or planned to return to normal levels in the next six months. The rest wouldn’t commit to a timetable.

However, with the vaccine rollout, confidence is building that business travel will finally see some real recovery. The Business Traveler Sentiment Survey from GoldSpring Consulting found that business travel will return to 70% of its pre-COVID rate by the end of this year, with 63% of the 15,000 travelers surveyed saying they’re planning on traveling within the next six months. But almost two out of five said receiving the vaccine is a priority before they’ll get back to air travel, and with uncertainty over distribution of the vaccine lingering in some corners, expect virtual events and combination in-person/virtual meetings to remain.

Travel pie chart

(GoldSpring Consulting)

“Moving forward, we’ll see a combination of face-to-face and virtual methods,” continues Darr. “There will be less travel as part of companies’ cost-saving measures. We’ll see a comeback of in-person sales, just not at pre-COVID levels.”

Reps at Top 40 supplier Edwards Garment (asi/51752) in Kalamazoo, MI, have been raving about the benefits of virtual trade shows. “With traditional shows, distributors would only send one or two people,” Vice President of Marketing Taraynn Lloyd says. “With virtual, everyone can attend. So we can be in contact with 10 or more reps from each company. It’s been terrific.”

While Zoom and virtual event platforms have been ideal solutions in the interim, there’s a contingent of reps who are anxious to get back to normal in-person sales. Dan Edge, director of North American sales for Peerless Umbrella (asi/76730), says it will be a hybrid selling format moving forward, because of the need for human contact combined with persistent health fears. But he’ll be selling face-to-face whenever possible.

Dan Edge

“Nothing will ever replace a dinner or cocktails when it comes to taking a relationship to the next level.” Dan Edge, Peerless Umbrella

Before COVID, Edge traveled an average of 60,000 miles each year by plane; that included 20 weeks of the year traveling within North America, plus a couple visits to Asia, and about 15 trade shows. From the first week of January to the middle of March 2020, when shutdowns began, Edge was on the road for seven of those 10 weeks.

“True relationships will only be made in person,” he says. “Nothing will ever replace a dinner or cocktails when it comes to taking a relationship to the next level. At in-person shows, I get more done off the floor, at night, than I ever do in the booth. And I hope that never changes. I hope that relationship selling never goes away and that it’ll always be the most important reason someone gives me their business.”

Meanwhile, at Kennesaw, GA-based InTandem Promotions (asi/231285), owner Sara Webb says end-buyers are eager for some in-person contact; she’s seen significantly more of them coming to their offices for presentations and brainstorming, while staying masked, maintaining social distancing and following protocols like temperature checks and using sanitizer stations. At the same time, the team has continued with Zoom, combined with old-fashioned phone calls, direct mail and handwritten notes. She anticipates having a presence in both the digital and analog worlds for a long time to come.

“You have to be flexible based on clients’ needs and meet them where they are,” says Webb. “That’s always been the expectation of any sales team. Meetings and travel will pick back up, but we’ll all be forever changed. We’re meant to be together, in packs. But maybe being a bit more cautious isn’t such a bad thing.”

In-Person Can Be the Differentiator

What does all this mean for traditional salespeople who want to look their clients in the eye? Even as digital tools are here to stay, dedication to in-person sales calls may be even more of a differentiator moving forward.

“It’s more important now,” says Armand Routhier, owner of Sonshine Promotions in Clermont, FL. “My customers love it when we’re in person. You almost always get 100% of their attention and you can feel a vibe you could never get from virtual, since most communication between people is non-verbal. Larger deals especially require a bond that’s harder to forge in a virtual call.”

It’s no different from before COVID, when sales reps were (ideally) rewarded for their persistence and resolve. But now, that’s taken on renewed importance after a year of virtual selling, when in-person efforts can stand out and impress.

“The best reps aren’t afraid to go after it,” says Routhier. “Wash your hands, put on your mask and go out and greet them with a smile and an elbow bump to show them you’re still in their corner. There’s a time and place for virtual calls, but it shouldn’t be the majority of the time. They’re just the icing on the cake for me, not the cake itself.”

We’re social creatures, says Troy Benson, president of Gibsonia, PA-based Southpaw Industries (asi/330137), and that includes selling and being sold to. “I hope my competition decides not to go back to meeting face-to-face, because that’s when the customer appreciates them,” he says. “That’s always been the case. It’d be easy to sit on the computer all day and just send emails and have virtual meetings, but they’re just not the same as person-to-person.”

While there are benefits to video calling, and it’s the safest method of selling while the pandemic persists, promo will always be a relationship-based industry built on human interaction, says Megan Erber, outside sales manager for New Jersey and Pennsylvania for Top 40 supplier S&S Activewear (asi/84358), who normally travels 22,000 miles a year by car and attends multiple trade shows, from Vegas, to Orlando, to Atlantic City, NJ.

“As much as I love working from home in floral PJ pants and slippers with a dress top, I miss my fellow humans,” she says. “I miss their reaction when I show them a new product I’m excited about. You can’t get that from a Zoom meeting. I don’t think virtual will completely replace in-person sales. It’s just a bridge to transition us to the future of selling promo products.”

5 Tips for Excelling at Hybrid Sales

camera icon1. Take photos of product samples so you can have them ready for a Zoom meeting and the road, and the images can be used in email presentations.

three arrows2. Be flexible with client needs. A planned in-person presentation may need to be virtual at the last minute if someone at the end-buyer’s office needs to quarantine or gets sick.

question icon3. Ask the right questions, especially on a Zoom call. Body language is harder to read virtually, so make sure your queries will elicit important information that can help you nail down exactly what clients are looking for.

coffee icon4. Schedule casual virtual meetings too, like a 30-minute catch-up over coffee. Do your best to build essential rapport with prospects and clients, even if it still has to be over Zoom.

trade show icon5. Keep an eye out for in-person shows coming up – like ASI Show Chicago in July and fASIlitate hosted buyer events – and start marking your calendar. Many organizations are still hosting virtual ones too for those who prefer them, like the ASI Digital Expo in August.