Why COVID-19 Has Changed IT Services Sales Forever

As companies globally seem to become more invested in digital ways, even as different parts of the world open up slowly, I’m seeing a future where IT Services companies will have to sell very differently from now on in.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed much, and some changes may last for a while longer. Remote working, shifting operations online, digital services, sales, and marketing are some of these changes that may become the defining themes of our future. In the last couple of months, we have seen how companies in even the most traditional sectors can indeed change their ways of functioning and adopt a digital-based way of life. This had been predicted by so many experts for so long, but it took a pandemic to change things at this scale.

But what about the impact on the world of IT services sales as traditionally practiced by Indian software services companies?

The way it used to be

Indian technology companies have traditionally been extremely export-focused. The largest market (by far) has been the USA, followed by other English-speaking regions like the UK, Australia, and S E Asia. The way they have approached these markets has usually been through a mix of means.

Tapping into the extended personal network of the founders and CxOs has always played a key role. Of course, this is a strategy that works well when the company is looking to establish itself, but it has limitations in scalability. And of course, these networks are also vulnerable to being tapped by the competitors.

Many companies have based their outreach strategy tremendously on participating in large events for visibility. They have exhibited, sponsored, and spoken at events like Oracle OpenWorld, ServiceNow Knowledge, AWS Summit, Microsoft re:Invent, and the likes. This has given them access to a massive pool of attendees from their target audience. They have leveraged that for visibility and for building connections and starting conversations that keep them going year-round. This costs lots of money. But the ROI is clear.

Most Indian IT companies have had a travel-heavy strategy for getting in front of the target audience. I say this from personal experience of having, cumulatively, spent many many months traveling to and across the USA to meet prospects and customers. This strategy has traditionally depended on the efforts of an “inside sales” or “cold calling” team. This team, almost always based in India, must spend nights sending email campaigns and making cold calls to try and set up that elusive first meeting with a new prospect. This mechanism was getting stretched even before the current scenario as campaign responses and answers to cold calls had been plummeting for an age already. Sales leaders felt comfortable with this strategy though, as it allowed them to retain a sense of control. At least, they were doing something, and everything was measurable.

But much of that will change now.

So, what will change?

There are some obvious changes already making big impacts.

All events and conferences have shifted online. While being a sponsor will still get some visibility for the brand name and the logo, the big value is, possibly, gone. There can be no networking in an online conference. There is also no possibility of new people “finding” you as they look through the exhibitors. It is this that drove “top of the funnel” awareness and got you exposure to a new audience. Without that there are no new prospects to add to the database and follow up with over the rest of the year. That opportunity seems gone for good.

Travel is, of course, off the table right now. But even once international travel reopens, it will be very hard to justify traveling. Many countries will implement mandatory quarantine periods on arrival. Airlines will be flying at reduced capacity and are, hence, likely to charge much more for seats. Measures like these will dramatically push up the cost of travel. Perhaps to an unsustainable level.

Other changes could be behavioral, and hence, more profound.

Companies like Twitter have announced that they intend to ask their employees to work from home for the foreseeable future. Other technology companies look set to follow suit to some degree or the other. While your target customers are working from home, it’s likely that some extremely significant changes in buyer behavior could become embedded in their way of working.

So, even if you do brave the travel, how likely are you to get someone to agree to a meeting in these strange times? Most people want to continue maintaining a policy of self-isolation even though the official lockdown may be lifted in their area. Under those circumstances, how many new prospects would agree to a face to face business meeting with you, masked or not?

It’s being said that the post-COVID buyer will be more discerning, less inclined to shop around, more direct, and consciously better informed. This could be a function of some changes in values brought about in testing times or just the fact that working from home gives them more time to do their research and educate themselves on the business problems that they’re seeking solutions for. If that happens, it would seem logical to assume that they will only engage with the vendors they see as realistically capable of delivering them value. They are unlikely to give openings to vendors who cannot project themselves in that light. Most first meetings were anyway given in response to the sheer persistence of the caller or email sender. It seems likely that these rates will dwindle even further. 

Is there any option?

The task for IT services companies has always been to become visible to a new audience and stay visible to their current audience. The complication in these times is that being physically present in the eye-line of the target audience looks unlikely. It’s also probable that the outreach-based methods like email and cold calls will become even less impactful. So, what does that leave?

This is a “made for digital” problem, in my opinion. IT services companies will have to turn to content marketing, social media channels, and distinctive personal branding of their CxOs to make themselves visible. This will have to be the medium where they showcase who they are, how they are different, what is the value they can deliver, and to whom? They will have to do this strategically, professionally, consistently, and over a sustained period of time. This will make them visible to the right audience and, more importantly, in the right context.

I believe that the only way forward may be for them to focus on growing the top of the funnel and on improving the efficiency of each stage of the funnel below that.

They will have to create an impact digitally -there’s no other option now.

7 Reasons Why B2B Companies Fail at Social Media and Content Marketing

7 Reasons Why B2B Companies Fail at Social Media and Content Marketing

Through Midas Touch, the B2B specialist social media agency which I run, we have worked with several B2B organizations – especially in the technology space. We have strategized and executed several social media initiatives and have seen tremendous success.

We all know the stats as well –

  • 57% of purchase decisions are made before a customer ever talks to a supplier (Source)
  • 80% of business decision makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles versus an advertisement. (Source)
  • 94 percent of B2B buyers conduct some form of online research before purchasing a business product (Source)

And yet, many B2B companies fail in their social media efforts or are not able to derive the desired results. What could be the reasons? Are they not serious about their efforts? Are they putting in efforts at the wrong place? Are they clueless about what to measure and what not to care about? Or there are some other reasons?

Here is my take on why the social media initiatives of B2B companies could fail –

No Strategy

“Strategy is thinking about a choice and choosing to stick with your thinking” —Jeroen De Flander

Strategy – probably the most overused word in the business space today. To me, the above quote summarizes the meaning of strategy. It helps you tie together your goals into plans and helps you achieve those goals. Organizations, when they start their B2B social media efforts, need to think hard and formulate a coherent strategy – what do they want to achieve, how do they plan to do it, what are the available resources, should it be done through in-house team or outside agency, how to engage the subject matter experts, how to monitor, and how to measure the ROI – all such aspects form the components of a solid strategy. Hiring an experienced marketing professional cannot be termed as the strategy 🙂

Lack of Consistency

“If you want to be taken seriously, be consistent.”

Pretty hard-hitting, isn’t it? It, however, is absolutely true in case of B2B social media. If you start with an assumption that you want to “try” social media for three months and then decide whether you would like to continue or not – I would say don’t even start thinking. B2B social media requires influencing multiple decision makers (right from CFO to technology director), the sales cycles are long (something running into months) and the decisions are not taken based on one article (social media is part of the overall sales funnel and not the only channel) – considering all these aspects, it is extremely important that you start your initiatives with a long-term plan. Have a mechanism to monitor the response and results at regular intervals and do ongoing tweaks.

Too Much Focus on Technology

“Our business is about technology, yes. But it’s also about operations and customer relationships.” – Michael Dell

Sure, you are into technology business. Your team has technology ninjas who are extremely passionate about technology and can give an hour long talk on the latest tool. But do you know that not “all” of your target audience may be “always” interested in your technology understanding? Businesses need to understand that technology is just one of the many tools to solve business problems – businesses care about solutions to their business problems. I have seen that many time, technology companies go overboard with their passion for technology and talk only about that instead of focusing on how that technology is going to help in solving a business problem. The B2B content which the company publishes needs to focus on answering the questions of the target audience – it is less about you and your knowledge and more about customer questions and answers to those questions.

Incorrect Choice of Platforms

“Do what is right, not what is easy.”

The world’s most active social platform with the largest user base may not be right for you. B2B social media is more about education more than emotion. It is about building thought leadership than creating just another blog. It is about providing answers to the buyer’s questions than talking about the greatness of your product and service – all such things make B2B social media different than B2C. While you are still interacting with humans, the purpose is different and, hence, the choice of platforms also differs. It is not possible to send a “friend request” to your prospects but you can certainly “follow” or “connect with them” – getting the difference? The choice of social platforms can make or break your social strategy. You will end up doing a lot of “social activity” without any results. Talk to B2B social media experts or read up to understand and know which could be the right platforms for your business.

RoI Misconceptions

“When you say RoI, do you mean Return on Investment or Risk of Inaction.” – Paul Gillin

B2B companies often make the mistake of thinking that the R in RoI is always Revenue – actually the R in RoI is Returns. You will be able to achieve the RoI from your social media initiatives only if you know what to measure, how to measure, and when to measure. Enhanced awareness amongst your target audience, visits to your website, thought leadership, social conversations – all these are valid returns from your social efforts. When you measure the RoI, ensure that you look for qualitative as well as quantitative metrics. Qualitative metrics could include interactions with an influencer, valid product feedback, appreciation by your prospect on your content and so on. Quantitative metrics could include visits to your website, visibility on social platforms, the number of interactions, the number of downloads of your eBook or whitepaper, and so on. It is important to keep monitoring these metrics and tweaking the strategy based on the results.

Lack of Synergy with Sales

Stop trying to sell with marketing, instead use marketing to help customers buy.

B2B organizations need to ensure that there is a very tight integration between sales and marketing – these two teams HAVE TO work in alignment and not in isolation. The sales and marketing strategies need to work together for acquiring customers – essentially because the sales cycles are long, evaluation periods extend in months, building trust takes time, and building thought leadership takes even longer. Marketing needs to understand the sales campaigns and needs to align itself according to those – for example, if your sales team is focusing on a particular industry vertical in a particular quarter, your social media presence has to reinforce your knowledge and expertise in that sector through blog articles, webinars, eBooks, and social promotion. Similarly, the sales teams need to leverage marketing and the social channels to build connections and engage with prospects on social channels.

Completely Ignoring Executive Branding aka Personal Branding

“Your personal brand is a promise to your clients… a promise of quality, consistency, competency, and reliability.” – Jason Hartman

Be it B2B or B2C, finally, people connect with people and people trust other people. Thinking that you don’t need a “face” in the online world is one of the most common mistakes which most of the B2B companies make. Companies need to ensure that all the external facing profile – be it the CEO, your sales director, your marketing head, managers who interact with the client or sales execs who interact with the prospects – need to have a strong online presence. It is absolutely critical that the top management has a strong online brand – they need to demonstrate their values, the expertise of the company, and build trust in the minds of the prospects, customers, suppliers, or future and present employees. Unfortunately, this is often the most ignored aspect – especially by the top management of technology companies. Believe it or not, it has a strong impact on the overall company brand as well.

Hope this helps you in knowing what to avoid so that your B2B social media initiatives are successful. Do share your feedback and comments!