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The Future of Sales Travel after COVID-19

Updated: May 20

Niels Bohr, the Physics Nobel laureate and, oft-described, father of quantum mechanics, is quoted as saying:


“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”


So I may be entering dangerous territory in this month's blog post. Yes, I am indeed going to make a number of predictions and some of them may be contentious. You may strongly disagree with some or all of them. In truth my predictions are just educated guesses. Only time will tell what the future actually holds but, as business people, we have to make predictions and then plan around them in order to navigate our business through uncharted waters and onwards to success. So let’s get to it!


Let’s look at where we are now, at least in terms of sales travel and, more specifically, sales travel for scientific products. The good news is that it is very easy to predict where most of our salespeople are right now, they are at home! Yes, most of us are not going anywhere and haven’t been since March of 2020. True, there is some small variation to this in the US market where some limited travel for sales and installations has resumed. However, in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Canada and pretty much the rest of the world, sales visits to universities and pharmaceutical research laboratories have all but ceased. As I wrote in a previous post, we have all found other ways of communicating with our customers e.g. remote demonstrations via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meets, etc. Some of our businesses are using tools like Teamviewer Pilot to assist with remote installations in order to keep up a good standard of customer service.


For companies who have pivoted their sales methodologies quickly, there have been some benefits. There have been direct cost savings (reduced spending on hotels and airfares) and indirect savings (travel time now redeployed into direct customer interaction and/or marketing or lead generation activities). Trade shows have stopped and with them have the attendance costs such booth hire, travel, accommodation, equipment shipping and the dreaded “drayage” charges mysteriously imposed by some conference organisers to gouge (or they might say help!) exhibitors to get their boxes from the arrival bay to the booth.


Most of us have come to terms with the forced loss of these activities - but the million dollar question is what will happen when the vaccine roll-out makes it safe and permissible to travel again. Will (or should!) we return to doing things exactly as we did before the pandemic? So now for my predictions or maybe a mix of my predictions and my wish list. Here goes:


Trade Shows


The big scientific research conventions and their accompanying trade shows have been on a slow decline for the last two decades. Attendance has dropped and interest in visiting the trade show booths seems to have dropped even more quickly. There was a time when scientists made an effort to “walk the boards” and see all the companies exhibiting at a trade show. It was for them the best way to get information about new tools that they might employ in their research. With the advent of the Internet and especially the Google search engine this has changed. Scientists feel they can research potential tools from the comfort of their office chairs. Since the pandemic began in March of 2020, most vendors have increased their direct marketing efforts and are utilising tools like Inside Scientific webinars, SciLeads and others to help them reach out directly to relevant researchers.


My guess is that trade shows will return, starting in late 2021, but that they will never return to the dominant position they held before the pandemic. The reasons for this are both customer and supplier led. Customers are likely to be more selective about their travel choices and have become more comfortable with assessing new products remotely. On the supplier side, vendors have seen the efficiency of other marketing and lead generation approaches and will be reluctant to invest the same amount of dollars and hours into trade shows as previously done, especially if it means removing that budget from the newer activities that they have started.


In summary, I think it will still make sense for most vendors to attend and exhibit at just one or two trade shows each year and eliminate the rest, replacing them with other outreach activities.


Pre-Sales Visits


This will only affect some companies, as not all vendors made pre-sales visits before Covid. Pre-sales visits were especially popular for high-value and complex products where the ability to demonstrate how the product functioned in terms of results achievable and/or ease of use was felt to be essential to getting a commitment to purchase. Those that did have mostly worked out how to do good demos remotely. Indeed in some cases, they have found that they can do better demos remotely e.g. by having an in-house demonstration lab where everything (from reagents to ideal tissue samples) is already prepared to optimize the success of the apparatus being shown. Indeed, in some cases manufacturers have found that they can now do live demos that are more successful than what they had previously achieved when visiting labs.


My feeling here is that even after we have all been vaccinated, pre-sales demonstrations at the customers site will be greatly reduced.


Installations


Most of us have had to fumble through remote installations during the last year. Even when customers have purchased complex systems, they (or their governing institutions) have been reluctant to allow manufacturers and distributors to visit to perform installation services. Companies together with their customers have muddled through complex installations using video-conferencing tools like Zoom to help work out how to find the right cable to connect to the right port, etc. etc. Some vendors have moved to more advanced tools like TeamViewer Pilot, an augmented reality video conferencing tool, to help with complex on-site assembly. These installations have been completed but, in many cases, they have taken hours or days longer than if a technician had visited and have caused considerable frustration for end-users.


Some manufacturers have learned from these interactions and have started to engineer out the most difficult assembly steps in their systems but this takes a lot of time and isn’t always possible. Any level of frustration or irritation that customers experience when they get their goods can have a negative effect on perceptions and can greatly reduce the word-of-mouth promotion that vendors hope to get from happy customers. So, I believe that for products that traditionally required on-site installation services, it will be wise for vendors to return to offering this service asap.


In summary, I believe that travel for trade shows and pre-sales visits will never return to it’s 2019 levels but that installation visits will. The savings in terms of money will likely be transferred into other forms of marketing and lead generation. The time savings for individual salespeople will have to be assessed more closely. In smaller companies, some of this time will be redirected into marketing activities. In many cases salespeople will need to adopt direct outreach to generate some of their new leads. Indeed, in some cases companies may find that the volume of deals a salesperson can handle will increase and this will lead to either a growth of overall sales or possibly a reduction in the size of the sales team.


Only time will truly tell……….


Rory Geoghegan

May 12th, 2021


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