With social distancing set to be the dominant theme of 2020, businesses will have to find new ways of servicing their customers without going onsite. Understanding how this set up will effect sales people, customers and business as usual is essential to making it through to the other side when we can set up a new normal.

There are three areas that sales managers, sales people and business owners need to be aware of. These are the person, process and perception. These will all play a crucial role in transitioning people from selling face-to-face to selling over the phone.

The Person

The New Environment

Sales people are finding their work environment turned on its head. Previously they have been free agents out on the road able to do as they want, free from the constant oversight that comes with being in an office. As long as they were making budget they were pretty much left to their own devices.

Now being stuck in the office they will feel as though they have had their wings clipped. Cabin fever will set in for them more quickly than for other staff. Being stuck in the same place with the same people all day will cause some people to become agitated. Sales managers should watch out for this as it can cause tensions to rise between sales people and the rest of the office. Remember, sales people love being on the road, but office staff love sales people being on the road more.

If sales people are able to work from home (as most should be) working may be more difficult. If there are no designated home office sales people may find themselves working from the kitchen table, coffee table or outdoor patio. Throw into the mix of other family members working and schooling from home and it makes it almost impossible for sales people to get in the zone to do their best work. It’s at this time that motivation falls and self talk turns negative.

Environmental Signals

Sales people rely on a host of environmental signals to sell their services. These include what they see in the customers’ office, changes from last visit and chance interactions with other staff members.

On top of this, sales people rely on the social cues from their customers. The way they move, how they interact, hold back or lean in all come together to signal to the sales person what they should do next. When selling over the phone these cues are missing.

Speed of Call

Without the environmental signals and social cues, sales calls will be shorter.

Sales people are used to sales calls taking a particular length. They turn up, have rapport building conversation over a coffee, move into the sales conversation solve the issues and walk out with a reasonable order at a good margin. This might take anywhere from 20-45 minutes.

But over the phone, a lot of this is missing. Calls will go from being 20+ minutes to being over within 5 minutes. Where it used to take all day to make 6 sales calls, this will now be completed before morning tea. What then?

As a sales manager, it is important to understand these changes in your sales team. Put strategies in place to ensure they can have a familiar space to work – perhaps sitting in the car.

The Process

Many sales managers are seeing their sales teams and methods of selling need major adjustments.

If your sales team has been using ‘show and tell’ as their means of selling they will struggle in the current times. If your sales team is selling out of catalogues, needing new widgets as a reason to call on customers then they will struggle to offer value to their customers in the Covid world.

Right now customers need problems solved – not just more stock to sell. Sales people need to look beyond the current Covid-19 caused problems and see what problems they can solve for their customers on the other side of the pandemic. The way your sales people walk alongside their current customers as the trusted partner they have always said they are is to ask better questions.

The Better Question to Ask

Table 1 shows the four types of questioning techniques that I teach my clients. Going well beyond open and closed and the 5W questions, each style of questioning has a different focus to achieve different objectives.

Table 1. The four different areas to focus your questioning on.

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The first focus is Level. Are you asking context or content related questions – is it big picture or nuts and bolts details. Asking the big picture questions helps sales people get a lay-of-the-land view to know what is happening.

Language is about challenging the meaning of the sentence or the word. If a customer says, “I can’t buy from you’ the usual response is to ask ‘Why not?” or ‘What would you need to see so you could?’ But when you ask a question like this you give the customer a chance to reinforce their position which makes it harder for you to come back. A better way to question this would be to challenge the individual words in the sentence. For a complete explanation of this see here.

The Point is where most sales people spend their time. Getting into the detail and understanding of what is going on so they can solve a problem. The concern here is that we all make assumptions and then these assumptions get in the way of us communicating.

The final focus of Person is about listening over talking. In a bid to help out, solve a problem and then move on sales people often talk over others, finish their sentences and make assumptions as to what is needed. This is done in the name speed and being helpful. Another version of this is when sales people offer their own experience of what the customer is speaking about under the guise that it is about building rapport.

But it doesn’t. All it does is brings attention back to you and away from the customer. Let the customer speak and share their ideas, problems and issues. When you have these you will know what to sell them.


When selling over the phone, all you have is sound. How you well you manipulate it will determine how successful you are.


The most obvious thing to do with sound is to listen to it. Don’t jump in, don’t finish sentences and don’t offer your thoughts. Just listen to the customer.


If someone is speaking fast you can speak fast too. If they are slow, slow down to their pace. This matching will build a connection that makes it easier for you to sell your wares.

Selling over the phone will be the new normal for the next 6 months. Done well it can strengthen your business and enable you to walk along side your customers as the trusted partner that they need.

As always, I’d love your thoughts here.