If you’re managing a centralized sales force, last year pulled the rug out from underneath you. In the space of a few weeks, the majority of your team members were no longer coming into the office or able to meet with customers in person; suddenly, you were managing a remote sales force.

Supervising, motivating, and managing a remote sales team hasn’t been easy. You might have seen a drop in employee engagement—maybe even drops in activity, performance, and results.

Here are some tips for managing your sales team through what seems to be the new normal.

5 Tips for Managing a Remote Sales Force

  1. Train your team to pick the right communication channels
  2. Stay in touch – often
  3. Help team members find their routine
  4. Coach them on virtual sales
  5. Prepare them for what’s next

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

1. Train Your Team to Pick the Right Communication Channels

Effective sales are all about effective communication, but nothing about effective communication is obvious or common since the pandemic. Some salespeople struggle when outside of their communication comfort zone. They may be amazing at in-person selling, but unsure what’s effective with email, text, or video calls.

Set your team up for success by running some workshops on how to use each channel most effectively. Like I said, this may seem clear as day, but… Different communication channels are better for certain tasks than others. Here’s a quick refresher on the top four communication channels, which we’ve ranked in order of value and effectiveness.

Video: The closest thing you can get to an in-person meeting and perfect for discovery calls and sales presentations.

Video calls can be great for establishing a connection with buyers but can be a challenge for reps and potential customers who feel self-conscious being on camera. Having a reliable internet connection makes it easier to develop a good conversational flow without worrying about lagging or freezing. The best use of this medium is concise presentation followed by Q&A and/or fielding questions from the “Chat” option available on most video conferencing platforms. However, managing an effective Q&A session on any stage, live or virtual, requires practice, so take time to practice with your sales team to help them become proficient at it before they are live.

Another tip for using video is for the salesperson to set the stage for a smoother, more effective conversation. This happens when the salesperson asks only a few, well-planned, open-ended questions that cause the potential customer to do most of the talking without interruptions. This kind of video event requires excellent listening and feedback skills, so the audience knows you are engaged.

Phone: The next-best thing to a video call, since you can hear your prospect’s tone and emotions.

This is the preferred communication channel for more natural conversation style. Phone calls are perfect for discussing complex topics (or delivering bad news). And when you need to clarify details quickly, a phone call is great for cutting through the clutter. After face-to-face interactions, a phone call is the best channel for a two-way conversation.

Email: Great for reaching out to cold prospects (assuming you remain in compliance with GDRP and other privacy laws, of course).

Email is perfect for quick messages that involve little or no back and forth (if the conversation gets complex, ask for a phone or video call). But be warned of these common email pitfalls:

Asking a lot of questions. The usual rules of reciprocity don’t apply to a prospect who receives your email. They have no obligation to answer your questions, so assume they will take the path of least work and hit delete. And frankly, your long time, loyal customers, who are busy managing their own daily stream of emails, aren’t obliged to sort through your message to catch the questions either. So, if you must ask a question in your email to a sales prospect, there should only be one thing in that entire email, and it should only be one succinct question. You can even include a brief version of the question in the subject line to set the stage.

Asking complex questions. Assume asking any questions in an email may be a swing and a miss, but if you must ask a question, you can improve your batting average by making sure it can be answered discretely, quickly and without much mental effort. For example, what time is the dinner, or will you be attending ISA show in Chicago this October?

Trying to be funny or clever. Even if you know your customer really well, communicating humor and nuance in an email is tough at best, a disaster at worst. We recommend using plain, direct language whenever possible to avoid any miscommunications!

SMS/Text: Text messaging can be easy, friendly, and convenient for quick updates.

Though it isn’t formal enough for many prospects, texting can be a lifesaver if you need to communicate a meeting location or last-minute changes to the deal, or when sudden news arrives that needs to be shared promptly. Just remember less is more, and with increasing text spam, people are screening any numbers they don’t recognize.

Combining Channels: An email or text followed up with a phone or video call is even better.

Since people are sometimes reluctant to answer unsolicited phone calls from unknown numbers, you can combine channels to get better traction. For example, try sending an email or text that asks, “Is there a good time to call you today?” You can use the subject line to set up the context for the question without muddying the email message. If you do get them on the phone, make sure you are true to your word and only ask the one question you mentioned in your email or text message, and see where the customer leads the conversation.

2. Stay in Touch – Often

Out of sight, out of mind? When your sales force works from home, it’s hard to know how often you should communicate with them and how that communication should be structured. Here’s how we have handled this at Durrie Sales with our reps.

Communicate one-on-one. With remote selling, salespeople might feel isolated and cut off from company and colleagues. Prevent this isolation by meeting one-on-one with each rep on your team on a regular basis. Use video conferencing whenever possible.

Meet weekly. Schedule one meeting a week with the team to review results, pipeline, activity, successes, and roadblocks. Pay particular attention to pipeline activity so that opportunities don’t stall because of inactivity. Concentrate on helping them tackle a challenge that is a slight stretch. This is a chance to share antidotes for how you have managed the different communication channels well. And use these weekly calls as a way to motivate and encourage each rep.

Overcommunicate. Remember that there isn’t any watercooler gossip when there isn’t a watercooler anymore. One of the effects of remote work is that team members get left out of the loop on company initiatives, announcements, happenings and more. So, err on the side of overcommunicating. Use email, group video calls and your company intranet to ensure that every member of your sales team is up to date on the latest developments, no matter how seemingly insignificant. A morning check-in video call with the entire sales force can be a great way to get everybody up to speed, connect as a team, and troubleshoot any tricky issues.

3. Help Team Members Find Their Routine

Working from home is still foreign to many salespeople’s extraverted personality. Isolated from their peers, within walking distance of the fridge (and their bed), and with Netflix only a few clicks away, they might struggle to establish good working habits.

Help your team members get into a productive, predictable grove by publishing a simple work-from-home policy. Show them what you expect of them during a typical workday working from home so that they can perform at their best, and make sure they know it’s ok to take breaks.

Here are some guidelines from ISA’s Hi-Po podcast on how to stay focused when working from home:

  • Start each workday at the same time.
  • Establish a comfortable workstation in your home.
  • Feel free to step away from your desk to deal with distractions.
  • Mimic your at-the-office schedule, including time off for breaks and lunch.
  • Complete your work within the same amount of time you did at the office on a normal workday.
  • Schedule time away from work/screens.
  • Don’t let working from home be 100% of your day; establish a set schedule of working hours.

4. Coach Them on Virtual Sales

Zoom fatigue is just one of the consequences of the new-normal of virtual selling. If you ask your sales force, you will likely discover that they are suffering in other ways as well. Selling virtually, after all, isn’t the same as selling face to face. Building trust and establishing rapport is harder … while misunderstandings and misinterpretations are much easier.

Set your sales team up for success by coaching them on remote selling. This coaching should cover several relevant areas, including:

  • Logistics: Asking permission to record the call, saving recordings, and putting call notes into the CRM.
  • Presence: How to look professional and polished on-camera, tips for effective online presentations.
  • Communication: Creating rapport in video calls, handling objections, how to manage multi-person conversations.
  • Practice: Leave enough time for dry runs BEFORE you go live.

5. Prepare Them for What’s Next

How we sell has changed – and it may never go back to where it was. According to The Wall Street Journal, anywhere from 19% to 36% of corporate travel may have disappeared forever.

This massive shift affects more than just the ability of your sales force to travel to sales appointments. It also changes how organizations are going to onboard and train new team members. Even after most of the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19, you and your sales force are likely to experience a drastic drop in the number of in-person meetings you are used to attending. This includes meetings with prospects, of course. But it also includes in-person meetings with colleagues and team members.

Even Easier? Sales Outsourcing

Is permanently managing a remote sales force just too much to put on your plate? Consider a hybrid approach. With a hybrid sales force, manufacturers outsource part of their sales to a manufacturers’ representative and keep the rest of the work for their in-house team. In 2019, 67.9% of all companies studied by the Industrial Supply Association (ISA) used a combination of independent reps and direct field sales employees.

If you have questions about outsourcing your sales, read our online guide, Why Outsource Sales?

6 Things Manufacturers Should Look for in Independent Sales Reps