Your industry was hit hard...we get it, but it's been almost a year already and although you've likely rebounded back to some normality, we'd like to see you rockin it more than ever. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that even if you find yourself with that cards stacked against you, there's no reason you can't succeed. Yes, it takes some major determination, a certain degree of pivoting, and a whole lot of perseverance, but, if you can learn to sell what's, "no longer in demand", you can sell just about anything, no matter the situation, and no matter what appears to be against you.
The most successful sales teams aren't traditionally born in a remote environment, and some would even argue, remote sales teams, have a disadvantage when it comes to closing a sale. Our conversation with Nick Van Der Kolk, VP of sales for SMB with TravelPerk, crushed a lot of the 'old school' beliefs and stories many of us condition ourselves to think around selling in a remote environment. What we're about to share with you is an insider's look into how to be successful at remote sales by focusing on what matters the most when it comes to selling remotely. Throughout, we'll also weave in some insights from Nick on what it really takes to steer a remote sales team through the storm.
Whether you have heard of TravelPerk or not, their name clearly pinpoints the industry they occupy, and, let's just say, the pandemic wasn't so kind to the travel industry this past year. With that said, the insights you'll gain from reading or listening to, the conversation with Nick, aren't only valuable for remote sales teams within the travel sector, but you can also gather knowledge and apply them to other hard-hit industries as well, including tourism and hospitality. If you don't fit into those categories, yet you still find yourself here, there's plenty of reason for you to stick around. No matter the industry, you'll be able to apply your learnings from this conversation to any remote sales team.
To start, we'll dive into the struggles brought about by the pandemic that Nick's team faced, as this is likely where most of us found ourselves when Covid-19 hit our businesses in early 2020. Like most sales teams, Nick's team of 10 managers and roughly one hundred sales staff working with him, needed to adopt a new way of working by making the necessary adjustments as a result of the restrictions brought forth by the governing bodies within the country. Not only did TravelPerk experience the hit to the travel industry, but as they are Barcelona (Spain) based, one of the hardest-hit areas in terms of covid cases, these rising numbers played a factor on employee's health and wellbeing.
Nick joined TravelPerk at the very start of the pandemic in the travel business sector. Having only arrived a day before the lockdown took place, his time in Barcelona has been nothing short of excitement.
Nick quickly settled into his role within TravelPerk. He describes the company as a happy marriage between a booking.com and a corporate booking tool that is made like a consumer site but works similar to the way you would book for business travel, with everything that is correlated around it.
This past year has been the year of digital tools, for the better or for the worse, depending on how you look at it. The virtual tool stack of many sales teams have likely needed to change and so have the processes that go along with them. Although, for TravelPerk, Nick shared that the tools they used prior to the pandemic haven't changed a whole lot, a testament to the quality and adaptability of the tools themselves and to the way they've been using them.
The TravelPerk sales team was using Zoom prior to the pandemic, along with Salesforce, and various prospection tools, from Outreach, to Sales Navigator for LinkedIn and other tools connected to these.
"Basically our tech stack has not changed, during this pandemic. Although, we have made adjustments coming out of ERTE"
For those outside of Spain, ERTE is essentially a furloughing scheme for companies, allowing businesses who were experiencing losses, due to the pandemic and the strict measures of confinement, to send their workers home or install reduced hours for their employees. As you can imagine, for companies that were under ERTE, and for some, who still are, the situation hasn't been easy to manage by any stretch of the imagination.
"We were on reduced working hours during the height of the pandemic. Some would argue the height is now. But, in our minds at least, we're on the last chapter of the Corona pandemic."
Nick shared with us that for smaller deals, Zoom was already a part of the way TravelPerk sold, so in terms of acquiring, nurturing, and closing these deals, most were already being handled on Zoom at one point or another in the sales cycle. Now, on the other hand, for the enterprise team and the bigger deal sizes, TravelPerk would often go on-site to the prospects, with some account managers going directly to the customers. Since all of the above hasn't happened as a result of the pandemic, these conversations have switched over to Zoom, which Nick shared, has a few main pitfalls (more on this later when we dive into business travel & economics).
Being a business within one of the industries that were hit the hardest this year, TravelPerk learned rather quickly, that they would need to make some drastic changes in order to continue to prosper.
"Our biggest struggle is that travel is not a topic for anyone right now."
Normally business travel costs are pretty high on the chart of the overall budget a company has for their employees. In 2019, RunZheimer compiled a thorough cost of business travel report which goes into more detail on the topic; what's interesting is their projection on the expected business travel cost increases in 2020. Who could have known we'd be bracing for a pandemic.
"It's pretty significant, actually, how much companies spend on travel, but if there is no travel, why on earth would you want to revisit your business travel process or change the way you do it?"
So, how do you sell what's not in demand? First things first, identify the potential reasons why a company may want to change their business travel process. At TravelPerk, they identified a large potential opportunity.
Many companies typically worked with a travel agent, through the old school method as some would call it. These are the agents that normally you have to email back and forth when you want to book something, and that charge you money even when you're not traveling. Considering business travel is non-existant right now, the added expense of a travel agent, simply can't be justified. The companies that are stuck with a contract and are having to pay a monthly fee, whilst they aren't traveling, are the same ones coming through the door of TravelPerk. These companies are looking for new solutions and TravelPerk has the answers that'll help.
"Who wants to talk about business travel when there is no business travel and there hasn't been any business travel since last year, last March. So, yeah, pretty tough to get people's attention."
Thanks to TravelPerk's model, they were able to offer an edge that other's couldn't. This is key to selling what no longer is in demand - find your edge!
With TravelPerk, the edge was that there was no commitment, and you could sign up without a fee or implementation cost, and there was no monthly fee to pay. Essentially, what they were offering to potential clients was an opportunity to change the way they do business travel. Companies didn't need to pay anything until they went to travel, and even then, there was only a small fee.
"We're pretty disruptive in terms of our business model, but that was already the case, so we were sort of blessed with the business model there that works."
Nick explained how the situation was a bit two-fold. On one hand, the remote sales team could still sign up customers, but the customers that were signed up were not traveling, so there was no revenue coming in from them.
Although customers were still coming in, they weren't necessarily coming for the same initial purpose before. Simply looking at the search intent of users reveals a lot.
"Google searches for a business travel platform has decreased roughly 66 percent, and that's industry-wide. So there are a whole lot fewer people looking for any travel tools."
With fewer people searching for business travel platforms, and less overall interest in anything relating to business travel, remote sales teams at TravelPerk needed to look for new ways to prospect. More outbound strategies were put into place and more direct connections needed to be formed. They had a difficult job, to say the least.
"We need to try to get people enthusiastic about the idea of wanting to revisit their business travel policy. And again, not really a hot topic right now. So, you know, tough, very tough."
One of the key reasons why TravelPerk was able to continue selling throughout the pandemic was because they clearly knew the reasons their customers were signing up before, what their needs are now, and identified how they could address those directly by pivoting their messaging and the solution they were offering.
"Usually, we sign up customers because they want to save money. That's the primary reason why companies switched to us"
To find out more about how TravelPerk was automating the booking process for business travels and why customers were favoring their platform over booking.com or travel agents, watch the full interview with Nick.
The primary reason businesses sign up to TravelPerk now is because they know that at some point they will need to do business travel, and although that time hasn't come, companies are preparing for when travel restrictions will loosen and they'll be able to plan business travel trips again. Along with this, they also want the latest accurate information about whether they are allowed or not to travel to specific places. With the constant changing of rules and regulations around what's allowable, users are looking for updated information they can rely on. Luckily, all of this is very ingrained into the TravelPerk platform, making it more of a reason now for companies to want to use their system. All in all, TravelPerk has directly addressed the problem their ideal customers face and are offering a custom solution to it, which makes the job of the remote sales team, that much easier.
"The reason to buy is still, for the long term the same, but for the short term definitely has changed".
Adapting the way the TravelPerk sales team sold, while keeping in mind that the buying intent had shifted for the short term, was key to ensuring they could continue to sell what wasn't in demand. On top of this, there were a number of other practices that Nick's team implemented in order to master the process of remote selling. We'll dive into these below.
If you want to be successful at remote sales you need to make sure your focus is crystal clear. Our conversation with Nick revealed some valuable insights into the areas that a remote sales team needs to hone in on in order to be successful.
Nick recently shared his thoughts on Business Travel, in the article he wrote titled "Bill Gates and Business Travel'. He mentioned that business, travel, and economics going hand in hand and that forming a face to face connection is irreplaceable when it comes to being successful in sales.
"The reason why it's irreplaceable is not that you couldn't do it through Zoom, ... it's because your competition will do it, and then if you don't, then the other side will have a competitive advantage over you"
The way Nick put it is that in a world where nobody is planning business trips anymore, you can play on an equal playing field and you can get away with not doing it either. But, in a world where we can begin to travel again, it's of competitive advantage to have those face-to-face in-person conversations.
"The reason why all these tech businesses open up satellite offices and have local enterprise people for handling bigger deals on-site is not for their hobby or for fun, it's because they want to make a human connection. They want to just win the business. And that's the only reason."
You could say that an in-person connection builds a stronger bond or more trust etc. etc. but when it comes down to it, especially in sales, more benefit often comes out of an in-person interaction, for both parties, whether that be, more information or getting more out of the deal. So, it can be debatable, but, with an in-person conversation, there's a certain type of leverage you have that you just can't match online.
"This whole notion that everything can be done through Zoom now is a bit nonsense because it already was done through Zoom before if they could, and every single year during those years, business travel grew. The reason why it grew is that the global economy is growing. So if the global economy is growing, then also business travel as a consequence will grow; because of globalization, because of people doing business all over the world..."
To clarify, when Nick spoke about business travel, what he was referring to was doing business elsewhere, ie. booking a hotel, flying to another location, not commuting to your workplace, which is a different type of business travel.
Long gone are the days of trade shows and conferences booths, at least for the foreseeable future, however, as much as many of us will cringe at the thought of attending these types of events, we've come to realize that the experience of in-person events is unmatched to those of online gatherings. No matter how many fancy bells and whistles you attach to them, it'll never be the same, it just won't. For the time being though, remote sales teams need to become attuned to connecting in a different way, in order to capture the attention of those they meet through virtual events.
Having been in sales his entire life, Nick is no stranger to attending trade shows and conferences.
"It's not necessarily a particular hobby of mine, but it is undeniably a good way to build new relationships with people that are coming there for an industry-specific interest."
Nick commented on his experience as a keynote speaker and attendee of one of the largest conferences in the travel industry, Uzakrota, which was held online this year. Although he mentioned that it was a well put together event, by no means of a stretch of the imagination, was it the same experience.
"I think if you would survey a thousand people, asking would you rather go on-site or would you rather do a digital conference? I think ninety-nine percent of people will go for an on-site conference"
The whole experience is different and the way you connect with them, even more. Software like HeySummit and Hopin do a great job of bringing as much life and energy to an online event as you can. Nick mentioned that it'll still take some time before the experience at an online event will surpass that of one in-person, where it'll be so good that you'll be completely immersed.
"I don't think conferences are going to go away, again I'm not the biggest fan per se. I don't enjoy conferences necessarily, because I have fond memories of standing there all day at a booth trying to capture people's business cards"
The learning here, or rather, realization, is that with remote sales, emphasis needs to be placed on creating a high-level immersive experience, just as you would do if you were face to face. So, no matter whether you are promoting a product at an online conference or having a call with a potential partner, one key to selling with success in a remote environment is really putting the attention on the experience.
In terms of holding sales meetings, one would expect that if these are taking place online, rather than in person, you'll likely be able to do more of them. With more opportunities to speak to your prospects, that should equate to more remote sales, right? Although this may be the case for some deals, for others, it's the complete opposite.
"For smaller deal sizes, you would resort to online selling or remote selling through zoom meetings, because it wasn't worth it to go to the prospect. So, the competitive advantage there or the costs that are associated with it don't make sense."
It's important to remember that one size doesn't fit all. This statement is true when it comes to looking at the ROI of spending more time in virtual meetings. As Nick shared, for smaller deals, the format was always online, which hasn't changed due to the pandemic. However, for larger deal sizes, handling these in-person makes more sense.
"Now in terms of the enterprise selling or the bigger deal sizes, I do not think you're selling more by doing it remotely."
Regardless of how much more efficient you may be virtually selling vs. meeting a prospect in person (in terms of not needing to travel as much to go on-site), you'll likely be selling less when engaging in virtual sales to enterprise clients. When the human connection is missing, so is a big part of your sales pitch.
Balancing mental health while keeping objectives in mind is a hot topic when it comes to remote sales, which is heavily dependent on meeting strict objectives.
One of the largest causes of mental health stressors during the pandemic was the feeling that you could be fired any hour of the day or day of the week. Luckily for TravelPerk employees, this fear was less.
"We did not fire anyone. It was pretty uncommon in the travel industry because pretty much every company fired people, including the big shots like Booking.com, and Expedia."
TravelPerk made mental health a priority and did what they could to ensure that they wouldn't have to let anyone go during the pandemic. Removing people's doubts about the potential of losing their job was an important factor in supporting employee mental health. When it comes to mental health though, there's more to consider.
On top of work-hour reductions, Nick shared that the isolation experienced at home was challenging for many employees. The management team has come to learn through the pandemic that a far greater emphasis needed to be placed on checking in with employees to make sure everyone was okay.
"So the emphasis on culture and keeping things smooth in that sense or let's say mental health, take up far more time than what it used to be. As a sales unit, selling is very important because that's what you're hired to do. But, the culture side and the mental health side have definitely gained importance or in the spectrum of importance, have definitely risen to pretty high up there."
Giving a shout out to employees remotely doesn't have the same look and feel as it does in office. Pre Covid times, many companies celebrated a deal by ringing a big bell in the office.
With everything online, what can we do to give a shout out to celebrate the closing of a deal when our sales team is remote?
The sales team at TravelPerk uses a separate Slack channel for celebrating wins. Sales staff are required to share their closed deals in the channel so the rest of the team can see the latest wins and cheer each other on. In this way, they try to stimulate the adrenaline rush of closing a deal and getting recognition from it outside of payment.
"The CEO, on every single deal, looks at it, and congratulates the person who closed the deal."
If you'd like to watch the full interview with Nick, and find out what the VP of sales at TravelPerk thinks about the future of sales, tune into the full interview. For now, here's a recap of some of the thoughts he shared on the future of sales.
The individuals who use to travel for shits and giggles as Nick put it will likely be reduced and this type of travel will be eliminated.
"Moving forward, I have no doubt in my mind that this will be reduced. Everything else, I really don't think will be that different because the pandemic has not brought anything necessarily new in terms of what's possible."
The less visibility you have over your sales team, the more likely managers feel the need to watch over what's going on.
"Typically managers want control. So you want people in the office because you want to see what the hell they're doing and what the hell's going on."
Some managers address the lack of visibility by micromanaging their team, while those who understand how to successfully manage a remote sale team, know that using a collaboration tool to keep everyone in the loop, is more effective and promotes greater transparency and trust between their team, than watching over every little thing they're doing. Rather than micromanaging, it's crucial leaders empower their sales teams.
How do you celebrate success in the remote sales environment? Those teams who once rang a bell when a client was closed, now resort to Slack channel shout-outs or recognition software to highlight team wins.
"If you have a team in the office, you can feel the vibe around you with salespeople. If it's like a graveyard in the office, you know that nothing is happening."
"There's this element, that if you're new in sales or you're a rookie, you've just started, you benefit a lot from having other people around you to learn from, and to hear things. For the seasoned veterans, it's not really a problem. But if you're just starting out in your career, I think it really is."
If you're setting up your sales team remotely and hiring rookies to join the team, it's worth having them work from the office, at least until they get in the swing of things. As it's often more difficult to train sales members and have them grow in an isolated environment, in-person shadowing needs to be a focus.
Any sales team knows, regardless of the industry, that creating a competitive environment remotely comes with some challenges. Traditionally, most companies, including TravelPerk's sales department, were used to having TVs hanging in the office, featuring dashboards that highlighted the sales metrics, whether that be revenue related or how many demos were done, the sales team always had instant insight into the stats.
Since having gone remote, TravelPerk's remote sales team have moved these metrics and dashboards to Salesforce. They've chosen to rely on their digital dashboards to drum up a little bit of that competitiveness so the sales team could see how they were doing against the rest, providing them some indication of whether they were ahead, behind, or sitting at #1.
"That competitive element is primarily there, but I must admit that it is harder to do it remotely."
Our conversation with Nick dove into many more facets of what remote working looked like for the TravelPerk sales teams, what they've needed to change, how to effectively build relationships within a remote sales team environment, mental health, and a whole lot more. To watch the full remote sales interview with Nick and find out what's coming up next for TravelPerk, check out the full version here.