Since originally publishing this article in late May 2020 in Finnish we have updated it based on even more experience gathered in numerous virtual meetings.
The media is full of articles and guidance on how in the “new normal” meetings are held using one of the numerous online platforms, which have been so much the hot topics of the past half a year.
Businesses have been using these systems for a long time, mostly for internal meetings, thereby saving costs and time. But does virtual selling – international selling in particular – work as well as meeting face-to-face? More and more salespeople are now forced to try it.
No question about it, technology does offer quite a good environment for this and when specific, remotely located expertise has been required for meetings, for instance software demos have been organised over an online connection with good results for quite some time. The main challenge has been that some customers have not been able to use those online platforms that require the installation of software on their computers. Or this has been hindered by the internal policy of their IT department.
Much fewer articles have been written about how the considerably more challenging matter of holding the sales discussion in a successful way is done: bringing results that at the end of the day benefit everyone involved.
It is clear that everything that we have learned about interaction between people and how sales discussions are held is still totally valid. However, something is missing from these virtual meetings or is very limited: the ability to get that important, non-verbal feedback from the customers. This is also called body language. Matters are not made any easier by the fact that often the salesperson has to speak a foreign language and often so has the customer, too!
A good negotiator and salesperson has one key skill on top of all others: situational awareness. In some professions this ability to know what exactly is going on in the surroundings is crucial for survival. Fighter pilots have their cockpits full of technology serving this very requirement. Where does the salesperson have it? It has to be between his or her ears!
How can one then develop this skill? Only by practicing and concentrating on what one is doing. Preparing the meetings with foreign customers very carefully. Studying the LinkedIn or Xing profiles of your customers very closely and picking up some points for use in the discussion – careful reading will often give a good view on what they find important and what is of value to them. And taking into account cultural differences: how people and organisations in the target country are making business and particularly investment decisions.
Listening is essential. One has to not only hear what is being said, but also get an understanding of what is not being said. A Finn often says out loud what he or she thinks (for the good or bad!), but this is not the case in all other cultures. This is something you will not learn by reading books, only through experience and by spending time in the target country.
It is also important to check in regular intervals with questions that one has understood the customer’s comments correctly and that you and the customer are “on the same page”. And this works both ways, too! Present questions that will show you any parts of your key messages that were not understood or fully grasped by your counterparts.
The Finnish academic and specialist in human communications, Osmo A. Wiio famously presented the Wiio’s law as “human communications usually fail, except by accident”. There is actually quite a lot more detail to this law that you can find on Wikipedia. Check it out – it will give you a smile, although the topic itself is of course serious!
Often you can get professional, expert level support to better prepare yourself for such meetings from the country in question. Technology helps you to get online with your customer, but your skills make the difference.
In this way export sales performed virtually works really well. In our experience, careful preparation and persistence pays off!