Will the golf day ever return?

People are keen to socialise again, and as vaccination rates increase, so will the opportunities for events.

Lockdowns and social distancing have kiboshed industry events. How are sales teams coping with the change?

We can congratulate the technology sector for a job well done. Sales soared during the pandemic, riding winds of digital change that enveloped nearly every organisation. But while that success can credit a captive audience, customer engagements took a hit as lockdowns and social distancing severely limited vital touchpoints such as vendor conferences, supplier events and face-to-face meetings.

As the industry comes off the high of the past two years' sales, the going is getting tougher. Sales and support engagements are not what they were before. Are virtual calls a replacement for in-person meetings? Can sales teams still maintain customer relationships and pursue new business as they have before? Will the golf day ever return?

"The pandemic resulted in a very sudden shift in sales engagement," says Brian Timperley, CEO of Turrito. "In person, boardroom, lunch and social events all but evaporated, leaving sales teams with a shell of the former choices for sales engagement. Fortunately, more progressive businesses were able to adapt quickly, switching to Teams or other video conference solutions, increasing calls and email communication, and collaborating using Sharepoint and other document management solutions. This was far from the richness of our prior sales engagement, but enabled us to stay in strong communication with our customers, and continue to support them and their businesses throughout some very difficult times."

Bracing for impact

Kriya Govender, PRP Solutions Kriya Govender, PRP Solutions
The impact varied between the types of channel business. Distributors, for example, don't rely as much on visiting clients, although they had to up their game for premium clients and end-user engagements. Nor were the changes entirely unexpected, adds Heman Kassan, Technodyn International's sales director. "The shift from this to the more digitally-connected individual started well before the pandemic. Engaging with customers around SaaS-based solutions is very different to trying to sell monolithic ERP solutions. So in large part, we had already evolved to being more digitally engaged with our customers while maintaining the personal touch at all times and still popping in to drop off that favourite bottle of tipple or a birthday cake."

Some customer-facing parts of the channel were already primed for the change, says Kriya Govender, CEO of PRP Solutions. "The pandemic has had the biggest impact on our sales and the on-boarding of new clients. In the past, these functions were done face-to-face. Our support has always been online, so we could continue serving existing customers with zero impact on operations. As a company that has already digitally transformed in this regard, we were fortunate that our core business remained unaffected during the hard lockdown and subsequent months."

Several companies echo this point. In one executive's words, the 'remote' support model didn't evolve because of the pandemic, it merely matured. Meanwhile, 'pop in and drop off' relationship tactics had to take a back seat, and more focus landed on developing leads creatively.

"The real challenges became: how do you get to the customers? How do you promote new brands? How do you develop new opportunities? This demands a lot of new creativity," says Rory Twort, Axiz's managing executive of sales.

Virtual fatigue

Rory Twort, Axiz Rory Twort, Axiz
If you've logged onto your umpteenth virtual call today, imagine someone trying to pitch a sale at you in the next meeting. Virtual fatigue is one of the numerous challenges that channel companies have to overcome. Yet practically all the interviewees noted that while virtual cannot replace face-to-face engagements, these also bring new opportunities to the table if you can adapt to use them effectively.

"Virtual meetings are adequate to maintain relationships, and in many ways can be more productive," says Henk Olivier, MD of Ozone Information Technology. "The thing to consider is to still give the personal feeling, and do video calls on relationship meetings. This does give a more personal touch to engagements. Always have an agenda, but be a bit more casual than just a formal to-the-point call."

There are even advantages, notes Govender. "More people can be involved in these new client meetings. This means that all the relevant information can be at hand even if prospects fire off tough questions. It’s easy to have 10 people on standby to join in the conversation or send chat messages to answer these questions, instead of just having the salesperson say that they will get back to the customer."

Customers have also adjusted. For example, some now prefer non-intrusive channels such as email to engage with providers, says Jeff Ryan, the MD of AWCape. "Many customers are sending inquiries via email. What we also notice is how many more of these emails are written outside the traditional 'work hours'. This talks to how people are trying to manage their home and work/life balance, having more flexibility in when to work."

This point suggests that when salespeople do virtually interact directly with customers, they should deepen their empathy for the customer's changing lifestyle. Turning on cameras to see faces and body language is also important, says Timperley, noting that "you can become extremely productive with the use of virtual meetings, removing the need for travel and enabling you to gather large groups of people in a short space of time for quick, effective meetings."

Golf days ahead?

Jeff Ryan, AWCape Jeff Ryan, AWCape
It’s important to be flexible. People like the flexibility of having a morning of virtual sessions, so they have time in the afternoons to do other work, says Kassan, adding that, "digital fatigue is real, and we need to remember to serve customers where they want to be served. Nothing beats catching up in a real-world context, so yes, virtual meetings have been adequate, but their future will be their part in a hybrid mix of face-to-face engagement and the quick virtual catch up."

But let's get down to business: will customer engagement events such as golf days ever return? Golf events may well be the surprising winners of a post-pandemic world. Golf has flourished because it's outdoors, supports social distancing, and has attracted a new cohort of players looking to break away from indoor routines.

"All of a sudden, golf became big," says Axiz's Twort. "Because the golf courses were open, and you could practise a little bit of social distancing on the course, all of a sudden, the whole spike in golf popularity seemed to happen. And we saw a lot of golf being played with customers."

People are keen to socialise again, and as vaccination rates increase, so will the opportunities for events. AWCape’s Ryan points to the jump in overseas football events as examples of this effect, adding there is a spirit of carpe diem – seizing the day – brewing under the surface. He believes that the pandemic's restrictions may be invigorating the events world: "If anything, the choice of events has increased. We will definitely see a more 'hybrid approach' to doing things. There have also been some very clever fundraising ideas during the pandemic, i.e. virtual marathons, growth in online gaming, VR treasure hunts, drive-by baby showers, to name a few."

Yet that zeal shouldn't mask an important message: there’s no going back to old ways so prepare to sharpen your digital sales presentation edge, says Ozone’s Olivier: "In most industries, interactions with clients are going to be very different. The one matter that all companies need to think about is the online collateral and visual stimulation to their clients in their products as well as on the company and company profiles. Companies will need to spend more on making a company's image and products digitally visual."