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How Sales Leadership is Changing in 2020


Nigel Wright Recruitment organised a discussion forum between 19 Sales Directors and business owners across a range of industrial and service sectors. They shared insights regarding significant changes to customer buying behaviour, culture and staff development that were encountered, and are expected to endure, post-lockdown. The main aspects of this discussion are noted here.

Main Changes

  • Videoconferencing is saving time and boosting productivity, avoiding the time and travelling/hotel expense of visiting unqualified potential customers until later on in the sales process.
  • As supply chains became disrupted, industrial businesses became more demanding of their customers to gain firm confirmations of orders. Customers understood the difficulties and it’s hoped that this more demanding and open dialogue will continue.
  • Investment in digital marketing is complementing, and in some areas replacing, sales team activities.
  • Internal communication has increased through the application of technologies such as WhatsApp and Zoom for frequent, formal and informal contact.
  • There is a real change in attitude towards flexible working and it’s expected that demands here will persist post-lockdown across all industries.
  • There should be less key skill dependency resting with individuals. Furloughing staff highlighted that cross skilling/training is needed to avoid practical difficulties when people with key skills are unable to work and no one else knows how to complete their tasks.

B2B Buying Behaviour

Sales teams focused on existing client bases during lockdown, with little new business activities being relied upon. Companies were keen to support/service clients rather than seeking to generate revenue from them; there was more emphasis on account management than business development. Some new clients have appeared unexpectantly, but their challenging timescales and unforecasted nature meant they were difficult to supply despite reduced demand overall. Regular Zoom/Teams conferencing with customers has enabled salespeople to get to know clients on a personal level that would not have been achieved previously.

Industrial businesses have experienced extended lead times due to problems with supply chains and delays in receiving materials.  This has led to manufacturers having to push their customers for forecasts and being more demanding and firmer with customers regarding this. Customers, in turn, have become more accepting of the difficulties outside of their suppliers’ control.

COVID delayed buying decision making. Leads and orders from customers were initially held back as plans were revised but this created pent-up demand which is being released now that businesses are unlocking. These raised levels of demand are expected to subdue.

The productivity of those not furloughed has risen – being able to make that first call on Zoom rather than travelling to customer sites means sales people can qualify or filter out information early on in the sales process and only move to face to face meetings for fully qualified leads.  This needs to remain part of way of working going forward. There is an expectation that face to face customer meetings through the sales process may reduce by 50% to 65% in the coming year.

Some B2B companies have used lockdown to build digital marketing capabilities to capture leads through PPC/SEO activities that feed better quality qualified leads at the first point of contact. This may be a lasting change that will replace some salespeople activity.

Maintaining Team Culture

There seems to be a real change in attitude towards flexible working. There is greater trust and cultures are more output driven rather than relying simply on judging people by being present. Flexible working experienced during lockdown is increasing employee influence to justify this being maintained post-lockdown.  But being physically present in the office is important for salespeople. People achieving their targets are likely to gain greater flexibility. It’s recognised that it’s easier to  build culture when teams are physically present.

Even manufacturers are recognised that some working from home may be possible after lockdown. This is a significant change from always needing to be on site.  This also raises concerns around the safety of people working from home. Employers still have a duty of care to ensure that staff have the right equipment and resources to be safe in the home working environment.

Working from home has been embraced easily by service/tech businesses and a more flexible approach is expected to continue into the future.

Webinars with internal teams are easier to arrange because people are available. Meetings are more efficient and more frequent. It is harder to judge how team members are coping though because of the inability to meet face to face.

Sales leaders were in consensus that executive teams need face to face time to address strategy and organisational matters.

Groups seemed to have been relatively good at keeping in touch with employees on furlough. The trend includes weekly 1-2-1 calls to keep in touch and update teams on what’s happening. WhatsApp has been great for teams to keep in contact with each other – teams have established groups which have been effective in building deeper relationships/supporting each other.

Industrial businesses seem to have kept in touch with staff more functionally than socially.  Smaller businesses have concentrated on this more than larger businesses.  Whilst larger organisations have focused more on mental wellbeing.

With remote working being more readily accepted, one Northern based company has already recruited software engineers in London – the COVID situation has extended their talent pool and this is seen as good, particularly for niche skill sets. Remote onboarding has taken place in many departments but less so in for roles based on the shop floor. The remote onboarding practices are generally found to be less effective/productive then when on site.

Training & Development

A quieter period of fewer leads/sales has provided opportunities to train and develop staff.  Much training is online to easy to implement remotely. As staff started working from home it became apparent that many were not tech savvy. This quickly generated a need for individual training on how to use laptops, Teams/Skype, etc. from home. Working at home has opened thoughts about H&S awareness and limitations of the homeworking environment that is lacking and was never needed before.

Furloughing staff highlighted that cross skilling/training of staff is needed. Individuals with key skills/knowledge had been furloughed, causing practical difficulties because no one else knew how to complete certain tasks. Greater duplication of abilities and knowledge is needed within teams in future.

The provision of remote training is more likely used by larger businesses.  For smaller businesses, remote communications are likely to be used for team meetings and communications rather than training.           

121 management is sometimes difficult for under performers. Systems are needed to be in place to enable greater transparency. Clear routes to hit targets, combined with a process to follow that can be measured, enable effective monitoring and performance management. Training can be more effective if kept short and concise over Zoom because face to face benefits are missing.

Lockdown provided the opportunity to upgrade IT systems which then required salespeople to come back from lockdown into training sessions to start getting them operational again.

Delegate’s comments:

Get in touch

If you would like to be involved in future sales leadership discussion forums, please contact Associate Director, Ben Debnam on or 0771 413 3484.

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