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COVID-19’s impact is global and wide-ranging. When I first started writing about the coronavirus about three weeks ago, I thought it would, among other things, bring about more remote work and remote consumption of more enterprise software services in China. At this point, there’s no doubt that some version of that future will become reality in the rest of the world too.

While the discussion of remote work technology tools and management is now a hot topic, what’s less discussed is whether this public health crisis will fundamentally change the way the software products that power remote work are sold too.

No Place to Meet

It’s no secret that a lot of business is done at industry conferences. Here’s an incomplete list of the big conferences in the mobile, developer, or enterprise technology space that have been canceled, postponed, or turned into virtual events. All these conferences have at least 5000 people attending.

  • Strata Data & AI San Jose
  • KubeCon EU, KubeCon China
  • Google Cloud Next, Google I/O
  • Mobile World Congress in Barcelona
  • Facebook’s F8
  • Saastr

While the cancellation of large music festivals and NBA, NHL, and other professional sports games are getting most of the media attention, these industry conferences are the conduits of lucrative business activities. I’ve personally attended many of these events before, as someone with something to sell. These are large events, where huge amounts of marketing dollars are spent and meaningful business relationships are supposed to be forged. Another type of events that have been canceled are the sales kickoff gatherings of large enterprise companies. These are internal events that usually happen during Q1 of each year to set goals and energize the entire sales and marketing team to kick ass and make sales for the rest of the year.

These are all elements of the complex enterprise sales and marketing ecosystem that generate billions of dollars of transactions every year. All of them have either disappeared or been virtualized due to the coronavirus.

And I haven’t even mentioned business travel. During the early days of the coronavirus, I’ve heard many tech companies still permit travel that was revenue-related (e.g. customer visits, negotiations, signing deals, etc.). Now, all travels regardless of their type and purpose have been halted, and so are the fancy steak dinners and drinking that typically flow through these trips.

How Are Tech Companies Selling During COVID-19?

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of video conferencing going on. Not only are tools like Zoom being deployed internally to stitch together remote work communications, client and prospective customer meetings are being done in the same way.

Is it working well?

Based on an article by The Information, so far so good. Even though the article’s main purpose is to report on how certain companies are adapting to remote work, it also provided some color on how these companies are keeping external business activities going.

Dave McJannet, who is CEO of Hashicorp, a commercial open source multi-cloud infrastructure startup recently valued at $5.1 billion USD, shared that he did Zoom calls with two potential customers who are both Fortune 50 companies. These are definitely customers he would normally travel to visit in person given their size and importance. Both calls apparently ended positively, resulting in contracts being sent over that could result in business deals. While he admitted that it’s difficult to build trust over video calls, McJannet also wondered if customer meetings can be done effectively via video, so much so that business travel will be permanently reduced after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

“What Zoom will prove to us is I probably didn’t need to travel that much anyway.” -- Dave McJannet, CEO of Hashicorp, The Information, March 16, 2020

This is of course anecdotal. Slack’s most recent earning call told a slightly different story. Despite Slack, being a workplace team communications tool that is very much at the center of the remote work culture, its business future depends on selling into large enterprises, which typically require the rituals of business traveling and in-person visits that I mentioned above. Because its future earnings guidance did not match Wall Street’s expectation, its stock tanked, and one of the reasons cited was how the reduced business travel could limit Slack’s ability to close large enterprise deals. Its conservatism was further illustrated by its CEO Stewart Butterfield sharing his own anecdote, where the CTO of a new large customer told him buying Slack is the last purchase order he will sign for quite some time, until the uncertainties caused by the coronavirus settle down.

To be clear: if enterprises stop spending on technology products, it will be more because the coronavirus has negatively impacted the broader economy in significant ways, not because the makers of those products are not flying in and selling them in-person.

Who Will Benefit?

Well, in the world of technology products at least, I believe this shift will help companies with the best technology!

That may sound like a silly, obvious point, but we all know the best technology doesn’t always win in the market. Developers and technologists lament this reality. And so do business operators; no one enjoys selling inferior products.

In a possible future world, where more customer meetings, demos, and negotiations are done virtually, it will be more important for the technology and product to speak for themselves.

This does *not* mean the soft skills of selling will be less necessary; in fact, quite the opposite. It’s more difficult to explain and demonstrate how a new technical product works over video than in-person. There will be more demand for sales people with technical aptitude, or engineers with strong communication skills. The type of people less in demand will be your stereotypical traveling salesman, whose forte is wining, dining, and smooth-talking with a winning smile.

We are already seeing this shift with news of Amazon Web Services (AWS) expanding its sales team to compete with Microsoft’s Azure, in the competitive and lucrative cloud computing space. What kind of sales people is AWS looking for? “[S]alespeople who have deep technical knowledge in areas like cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and data analytics…”

As COVID-19 deepens its impact in the enterprise business world, this trend will only accelerate.

Trust Building in the New Normal

One common argument justifying in-person sales and marketing activities is “trust building” with customers. It’s valid. Any financial transactions require trust to be in place first. With enterprise technology products, it’s extra important because deals can cost millions of dollars spanning multiple years. It’s almost as long (and costly) as a marriage!

Yet, more transactions with increasing complexities are being done with trust and without in-person interactions: e-commerce, vacation rentals with Airbnb and VRBO real estate with OpenDoor, and even life insurance with Ethos.

Can that happen to enterprise technology products? Yes.

In many ways, it’s already happening before the coronavirus. Most cloud computing purchases are done virtually with a sign up form and a credit card. Many self-serve software products are doing well and growing quickly, e.g. Zoom, Slack, Atlassian’s suite of products. But the large deals with big companies still require elbow grease and face time to build trust and familiarity, for now.

So will the coronavirus pandemic be the beginning of the end of the traveling salesman?

I believe so.

Just like more remote work and more remote consumption, it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be 100%. But it’s a real, secular shift.

And it’s ultimately a good thing. Technology and product-driven companies will be rewarded. Sales-driven ones will not.

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Chinese Version Below

以后还需要当面做销售吗?

冠状病毒的影响是全球的,广泛的。三周前,我刚开始写与冠状病毒有关的文章时,我当时认为它会给中国人民带来更多的远程办公和更多远程软件服务消费。看来这种未来已经不仅仅会在中国发生,而会遍及世界各个国家。

远程办公的技术,工具和管理文化已经变成热门话题,但较少讨论的是,这场冠状病毒危机是否会从根本上改变软件产品的销售方式。

无处打卡

很多生意都是在各种各样的行业展会上切磋出来的,这不是什么秘密。我在下面列了一些在海外已经被取消、推迟或变成线上的大型展会。(可能不完整,只是想形容下状况。)这些活动起码有5000人以上参加。

  • Strata Data & AI San Jose
  • KubeCon EU, KubeCon China
  • Google Cloud Next, Google I/O
  • Mobile World Congress in Barcelona
  • Facebook’s F8
  • Saastr

虽然媒体和大众的关注点都在大型音乐节和NBA、NHL等职业体育赛事的取消,但这些行业展会对整个商业大环境很重要,是想做企业级科技产品生意的毕竟之路。我个人参加过以上很多展会(去宣传卖产品)。参加这些活动都需要大量的宣传和营销投入,去发展客户关系。还有一类被取消的活动是企业自己的销售启动会。通常在每年第一季度发生的公司内部活动,目的是设定本年大目标,激励鼓舞整个销售和营销团队多多努力。

每一种大会,无论是对外还是对内的,都是这个复杂的企业销售和营销生态里的要素,是每年数十亿美元交易背后的故事。今年由于冠状病毒,要么改成上线版,要么就完全消失了。

我还没提到商务出差这一块。在冠状病毒爆发的早期,我听说许多科技公司仍然允许“与收入相关”的外出(如客户访问、谈判、签署交易等)。现在所有的外出,不管是什么类型和目的的,都基本停止了。那些商务外出”必备“的高档牛排晚餐和酒水也跟着泡汤了。

疫情期间怎么做销售

可以想象,视频会议取代了很多面对面交流。像Zoom这样的工具已经不只是被内部所用,来便利远程办公,与现有和潜在客户的会议也在用。

那效果好吗?

根据一篇科技媒体The Information的报道,目前还不错。尽管文章的主要目的是写某些公司如何适应远程办公,但它形容了一些公司如何保持外部商业活动的故事。

Dave McJannet是Hashicorp的首席执行官,Hashicorp是一家云平台商业开源基础设施公司,近期估值为51亿美元。他分享说,最近确实与两个潜在客户进行了Zoom通话,客户都是财富50强的公司。鉴于这些客户的规模和重要性,他通常会亲自拜访。这两次通话的结果都不错,随后就把合同发出去了,很有可能成交。虽然McJannet承认很难通过视频建立信任,但他也设想未来会不会只用视频和客户通话就够了,也许冠状病毒这场难关过去后,商务旅行将永久减少。

“Zoom可能会让我们意识到,根本不需要出那么多差。” —— Dave McJannet,Hashicorp首席执行官,The Information,2020年3月16日

这当然只是个个例。Slack最近一次的季报里讲述了一个稍微不同的故事。尽管Slack,作为一个办公沟通工具,是远程办公大趋势的核心工具之一,但它的商业未来取决于能否搞定大企业客户,这通常需要我刚才提到的出差亲访。这次季报的盈利预期因为与华尔街的预期不符,股价暴跌,其中一个原因是因为整个商务旅行会减少,可能会限制Slack搞定大型企业客户的能力。该公司首席执行官Stewart Butterfield在季报电话会议上也分享了自己的一点心得,来解释公司为什么对未来持保守态度:一位新的大客户的CTO告诉他,购买Slack是他将在相当长一段时间内签署的最后一份订单,直到冠状病毒造成的不确定性平息下来。

需要说明的是:如果企业停止对科技产品的购买,更多会是因为冠状病毒对整个经济产生的负面影响,而不是因为产品厂商没有亲自飞来拜访做销售。

谁会受益?

至少在科技行业里,我相信这一转变中最将受益的是技术最好的公司!

这听起来想句废话,是吧?但我们好好想想,其实最好的技术经常不是市场上的赢家。很多工程师和技术人员对这一现实感到惋惜。做商业运维的也一样,没有人喜欢卖烂产品。

在一个客户交流、产品演示和交易谈判都在网上进行的未来世界中,更需要技术和产品自己能站得住脚,体现自身的价值。

这并不意味着销售的技巧变得不必要;恰恰相反。通过视频来解释和演示一个新的科技产品比当面做要困难得多。最需要的人才就是懂技术的销售人员或具有较强沟通能力的工程师。需求较少的那类人既是老套的推销人员,只会喝酒、请客、谈笑风生。

行业里已经看到了这种转变。据报道,Amazon Web Services(AWS)正在扩大其销售团队,与微软的Azure团队抗衡,争夺庞大而且利润丰厚的云计算市场。AWS需要什么样的销售人员?“在网络安全、人工智能和数据分析等领域拥有扎实技术知识的销售…”

随着疫情在行业各个角落影响的加深,这一趋势只会加速。

怎样建立信任

一个证明需要出差做销售和营销活动的常见说法就是需要当面与客户“建立信任”。这个说法是成立的。任何交易都要建立在信任上,要想把一个科技产品卖给大企业,这一点尤为重要,因为这种交易很可能价值百万美元,合同长达好几年,几乎和结婚差不多了!

然而,越来越多的复杂交易都是已经在无人亲自介入的情况下进行:电商、在Airbnb或飞猪上租房、在OpenDoor上买房产,在Ethos上在美国买人寿保险

这种变化会发生在企业级科技产品的交易上吗?会的。

在某种程度上,这种变化在疫情前就已经开始了。购买大多数云计算服务的过程就是注册个账户,加一张信用卡。许多自助软件产品已经很成功,发展很快,例如Zoom、Slack、Atlassian的一系列办公产品。但目前与大公司做大交易仍需要坐飞机,亲自谈,从而建立信任。

那么,疫情过后,以后还需要当面销售去拿大单子吗?

我相信不会了。

就像我以前提到的更多远程办公和远程软件服务消费一样,这种变化不会一夜之间发生,也不会是100%。但会是个根本的转变。

这最终是件好事。以技术和产品驱动的公司将受益。只以销售驱动的公司会倒霉。

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