Due to the repeatedly tightened hygiene measures caused by the “4th wave” of the Corona pandemic, work is again relocated to the home office as much as possible. Sales representatives can no longer visit their customers in person and are physically distanced from their colleagues and managers. Without face-to-face team meetings, how can a useful, regular exchange be ensured? How can in-depth, fruitful customer discussions take place despite the lack of personal contact between sales representatives and customers?
Create the optimal conditions through external and internal communication
1. Proactive and harmonized communication with customers
Customers should be informed as quickly as possible whether the current situation will result in changes in the cooperation for them, e.g. through changed ordering and delivery modes, delivery bottlenecks, special or goodwill arrangements. It is advisable to proactively seek the conversation instead of waiting for customers to approach the company. This can be in the form of a newsletter, a video message or a direct mailing – the creative style and format can be chosen according to taste and practicality.
It is also advisable to develop discussion guidelines and language rules for all employees who are in dialogue with customers. Especially with frequently asked questions (FAQs), employees can express themselves clearly and provide customers with consistent information. Speaking with a “unified voice” of the company avoids misunderstandings.
2. Meetings with sales representatives
Managers should consider together with the sales representatives how the daily work of the can now be structured. New procedures or releases of special regulations should be adjusted together. How can a smooth cooperation between the sales units (internal and external) be achieved in the near future? Are there tools or regulations that could improve cooperation in the long term? If not already done, it makes sense to conduct a review of cooperation in previous lockdown situations. Work methods and processes that have worked well in the past should be established for all employees. For those things that have not worked out well, creative solutions for more effective work from the home office should be found.
3. Continuous transparent information from the management towards employees
It should be openly communicated what importance employees have for the company, also and especially in times of crisis. In order to show appreciation, it is useful to make a written statement – as personal and motivating as possible. To ensure that the employees are always up to date, this should also always be updated. Employees can also be provided with additional information to facilitate working from home (e.g. support services for technical equipment, childcare options).
4. Managing employees in the home office
Especially people who lead in “personal contact” are now challenged to adapt their leadership style to the ongoing home office situation. It is important to find new forms of leadership for oneself and, above all, to learn to trust the employees. Clear agreements and the definition of rules on how to organise the daily work routine and ensure interaction between managers and employees can help. Regularly scheduled meetings are the basis for a joint exchange.
5. Interaction between employees
Networking between employees is also important to promote the exchange of news and ideas. The company’s own intranet or special cooperation platforms such as Slack or Microsoft Teams can be used for communication among colleagues. To strengthen the (virtual) team feeling, ideas, best practices and success stories of individual employees can be shared here, e.g. with regard to customer contact.
Interpersonal relations, humour and the opportunity for informal meetings (e.g. the “virtual coffee break” or the “after work/ happy hour” on Friday afternoons), where private matters can also be exchanged, should not be neglected. In pandemic times, everyone needs a catalyst for their individual tension.
6. Virtual short training for video conferencing
The organisation of online short trainings for the handling of telephone and video conferences is important to enable the implementation of virtual exchange and the realisation of virtual customer appointments. Methodological, but also technical aspects should be integrated in the instruction. A contact person for queries and the regular passing on of tips and tricks to employees is also useful. When dealing with virtual communication channels, it is true: Practice makes perfect.
Effectively implement virtual customer support
1. Approaching the customer actively
Sales representatives should actively call their customers – especially if they had already made an appointment with them. Instead of the already arranged personal meeting, a telephone or video conference should be suggested as an alternative. Mentioning the advantages of such communication, such as saving time or involving other people regardless of location, can convince customers to participate in the virtual meeting.
2. Preparation for virtual customer support
It is advisable to send out the invitation for the planned conference well in advance and to explain in the invitation how the handling works, especially for inexperienced customers. When sending out invitations to video conferences, it should be pointed out that the participants may have to download apps in advance or that it makes sense to dial in by telephone if bandwidths are weak. The technology and possibilities of the tools used should be tested in advance, because content may need to be shared via screen transmission during the presentation.
The meeting and the participants should be given as much structure as possible, for example by setting the objectives, agenda items and a time frame. If necessary, samples or specimens can be sent to the customers by post in advance so that the sales conversation can start straight away at the meeting.
The virtual workplace should be set up as neutrally and tidily as possible. Some conference tools offer the option of setting a virtual background with a company logo. A business outfit underlines professionalism – even if one cannot be seen from head to toe. Attention should also be paid to the background noise during the meeting. Door and windows should be closed and other people living in the household should be told in which time slot virtual appointments are taking place. If noise reduction is not possible, the use of a headset is recommended. This filters out background noise and provides better sound quality for the other person. Wearing a headset also enables better listening.
3. Performing the virtual appointment
During the interview, attention should be paid to a short, precise, but customer-oriented style of conversation. As in on-site appointments, the advantages of the product should be conveyed. Just as in face-to-face meetings, facial expressions are important to convince the counterpart and build trust; gestures are also beneficial to a limited extent.
The sales representatives should take on the role of the moderator in the conversation and pay attention to conversation customs, such as greetings or that all parties can finish speaking. Right at the beginning, it must be ensured that everyone can be understood well and that everything is working smoothly from a technical point of view (e.g. sound and microphone). This can be checked, for example, by a short round of introduction. The structure that has been worked out should also be presented beforehand. During the discussion, statements made, and results should then be written down, if possible on the shared presentation or on a whiteboard, flip chart or pin board (if available) that can be seen by all. Virtual tools such as Miro Boards can also help to promote interaction. It is important here that such tools are tested internally in advance.
4. Ensure documentation
After the meeting, an e-mail should be sent to the client in which the results and agreements are recorded in writing. This should also inquire about any queries or requests for changes. The agreements made (e.g. preparation of an offer, sending of first samples) should be fulfilled as soon as possible – if necessary also in exchange with the office staff.
5. Learn continuously
Even with virtual appointments, errors or technical difficulties can occur. The motto is not to get discouraged or upset. It is important to learn from mistakes and do better next time. Active exchange with colleagues can help to learn from their experience and share advice.
In every crisis there is also an opportunity – namely a progressive professionalisation of the virtual customer visit. This increases the likelihood that part of the customer service will continue to be done virtually post Corona. In this way, part of the travel time can be saved and invested in an even more intensive preparation of the talks. It is therefore worthwhile to invest time in the topic of virtual customer visits in order to intensify customer care during these times as well and thus to bind customers to the company in the long term.
For better readability, the generic masculine is used in these articles. The designations of persons used in these articles refer to all genders unless otherwise indicated.