This article originally appeared in Forbes.
Sometimes hearing a new phrase to describe something I’m already familiar with helps reveal the deep importance of an idea. A recent conversation with a client woke me up to a phenomenon I knew was happening but couldn’t quite name. The chat happened at a recent meeting. During a break between sessions, I struck up a casual conversation that, predictably, landed on Covid.
The most significant impact of the pandemic on our sales efforts, my client said, is this: “Salespeople have lost their eyes.”
It was a phrase I’d never heard before. I asked for an explanation, and immediately I recognized the problem.
Prior to Covid, the life of a salesperson involved an expected amount of face time with customers that now seems incomprehensible.
Before we used screens for every meeting, our people were out in the field. All day, every day. We were in our customers’ factories and warehouses. We could note empty or overflowing parking lots. We could see which competitor had also signed the front desk logbook. We could look into offices and cubicles and read body language to gauge which person in the organization actually made decisions; the actual chain of command, not what was suggested by mere titles.
Now, all of that is lost, or seems to be.
To be sure, much good has come from this change. I used to leave my home Monday morning and travel from two to four days, all around the country, checking in on clients and only seeing my family on the weekends. Clearly, not everything about that life was healthy. But we’ve swung so hard to the other side that, as my client said, we’ve lost something vital we used to have.
The question now is, How do we get it back? Or at least enough of it to thrive?
Prior to 2020, almost all of my business was done in person. Yes, we had conference calls. But there was almost never a case where I wouldn’t see a customer during a sales cycle. In some cases, I’d see them up to a dozen times.
These relationships now feel much more transactional. At the top of the hour, anyone you’re talking to will usually have another call to join. Customers are downright surprised these days when you request any time in person.
I got asked to dinner recently with a client and realized it would be the first such casual meeting I’ve had in three years. That’s astonishing. I’m happy to have it on the schedule – because I know we’ve lost something.
For example, one of the things I used to take for granted: those casual conversations that happen in the cracks between official meetings. Waiting for a cab together or walking on a busy sidewalk on the way to lunch. There’s so much to be gained from these spontaneous conversations. They were and are irreplaceable in terms of creating rapport and, more importantly, learning valuable intel. They only happened because the people I was with felt comfortable, and those people felt comfortable because I was with them in person.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. If you’re a personal wealth advisor, the little time you might get with a client is going to be spent in a much different way than if you’re selling medical supplies.
But in both cases, the answer has to involve some amount of face-to-face time. Maybe it won’t compare to what we used to have in the pre-pandemic era. That’s OK – it’s understandable that our customers, like us, also find things to love about an era of work where not everyone is expected to be in the office or on the road all the time.
Getting your eyes back, or seeing for the first time, is going to be a slow process. It’s going to be about maximizing the limited time made available to you by clients and customers.
One chief sales officer put it to me bluntly recently: the companies that win will be the ones that learn to leverage that time better than others. Because this exec, like a lot of people, knows we’re probably never going back to the days when it seemed like we had all the time in the world.