Outside Sales, Virtual Sales, and Ian McKellen

August 3, 2020

In-person sales meetings are a powerful opportunity to connect and garner a prospect’s full attention but they consume a massive amount of time for both parties. When meeting in-person is less of an option, and efficiency is highly valued, virtual sales is more approachable than ever. Companies who embrace virtual sales as an opportunity rather than a compromise will see far greater productivity, be able to connect with many more leads, and drastically increase their sales without needing to hire more reps. Let's discuss the advantages and challenges of outside and inside sales, and how they translate to their offspring; virtual sales.

Let’s start with some advice from Sir Ian McKellen, best known for his role as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, and for being such a talented sales person that he was Knighted, in 1991, for excellence in his service to sales. Yes, we’re taking a leap there, technically, Sir Ian McKellen was not Knighted for his service to sales, though he sold us on his spellbinding portrayal of Gandalf. In actuality, Sir Ian was Knighted for his service to UK theatre, but his talents draw many interesting parallels to sales that we can learn from.

Take this clip where Sir Ian contrasts stage acting vs film acting. We recommend watching until 4 minutes.

If you can’t watch the excerpt right now, we’ll summarize it for you. Film acting is similar to having a conversation with a person sitting next to you. Their attention is zoomed in only on your face. All of your acting needs to come through your facial expressions and the words you say. Now we’ll let Sir Ian explain the difference when you’re acting on stage:

“The trouble about the stage is that the audience sees the whole body. They’re far enough away from it, even in a small theatre, to take it all in. … You, trying to impress the audience will have to be aware of what your feet are doing, in a way that you don’t, talking to me, have to be aware. I think that’s the initial problem that an actor has to solve.”

We hope that the parallels to sales are apparent but they are worth a deeper discussion to understand what we can learn from Sir Ian and what associated skills we can apply to sales. 

The theatre of outside sales - how you will fail yourself

It’s often the most successful people that are the worst at explaining their success to others. This is why great sales people make poor sales trainers. They can tell a trainee what they would say to a client, how they would convey a specific point, or how they guide the conversation to understand the problems that the client needs to solve. Unfortunately, the trainee doesn’t seem to be able to put it all together and close deals. While these sales tips and scripts might be helpful they are only a small portion of what makes a sales person effective.

The trouble is that most sales people aren’t aware of the other skills they are using, they don’t realize that their body language, positioning in the room, speech patterns, eye contact, are all contributing to the effectiveness of the language they use in their pitch. 

There are subtle signs that betray the amateur that you can’t quite pick out. Not as obvious as jiggling your hand, something’s just a little wrong. -Dick Cavett

This is especially true for in-person sales. With outside sales, like stage acting, your entire body is visible to the client there are many more opportunities to accidentally betray yourself. Before going into a sales meeting you’ve likely checked your hair in the rearview mirror, cupped your hand over your mouth and nose to check your breath, or mentally rehearsed your handshake. This wide array of factors that face-to-face sales brings can be viewed as pitfalls or opportunities. While a film actor might see having to focus on their entire body as a distraction the stage actor sees this as an opportunity, they think of their body as a toolbox to use, to develop a connection between their message and the audience.

By looking at these as opportunities, let’s talk about some of the tools we have and how to use them. The first task is to assess your advantages and disadvantages. Many we can change, but some we cannot and knowing that can help us adapt. Height, for example, has been shown to have an effect on earning potential with taller people earning an average of 1.3% more per centimeter taller they are than their counterpart. It might not sound like much, but that equates to a nearly 20% difference between someone 5’6” and 6’. While we can’t just decide to be taller we can make adjustments in our environment to augment how we present ourselves. More on this later.

Most items that you should be concerned with are potential hazards. They are the baseline expectations to make a sale, but if missed can ruin your chances. If your breath is good, a client will not notice because it is expected. Minty-fresh breath is not going to help you close a deal, but if your breath is offensive it may be noticed and may become a distraction that can hinder your ability to close. Clothing can be the same, stained wrinkly clothes will likely hurt your sales but a crisp, bright red dress shirt might also hurt your chances. A bright red shirt can be a distraction, and color can influence peoples’ reactions. The safe bet is to stick with white, light blue, light grey, etc. Something that is crisp, professional, and simple, to keep the focus on you and your pitch. 

These small elements when thought of in advance help build trust and get past that initial comfort barrier with a client. In person you have this advantage, when selling over the phone, you don’t have these tools and it is much more difficult to build trust. When in person, you can lean in to show interest, spread out with your arm around the chair next to you to take up space and show confidence, nod to show agreement without interrupting. The ability to lean in and speak softly to grasp the client’s attention is a powerful tool, letting the client feel like they are being granted access to something special will make them want more. Examples like this are what most successful outside sales professionals fail to realize they are utilizing and why most are poor sales instructors. They may think it's all about their script, but a script is only as good as its presentation.

Film actors on the telephone

Now, we’ve talked about the advantages available to outside sales, there are many advantages to inside sales too. Bringing this back to Sir Ian McKellen’s on film vs stage acting, selling on the phone can be equated to acting on film. The client's attention is only focused on your voice. Since they cannot see your body, any doubt or nervous energy you have can be let out physically without the client knowing. Go ahead, bounce your legs like you’re in Riverdance. You’re free to walk around the room, take notes as they speak, mute your line and wave a coworker down to answer a question without the client knowing. You can be referencing a script or a pitch deck to remind you of technical details that may be difficult to remember or searching the internet for an answer all outside of the client’s lens. Selling over the phone gives you access to more answers, and information, expanding your knowledge toolbox but in exchange making you give up presence, body language, eye contact, and other social connection tools.

Let’s look at just one point in the call, ending it. It is far easier for a client to end a phone call by telling you “I’m sorry I have to go, someone just showed up to my office” or simply “Sorry, I’m not interested” when they don’t have to then walk you to the door and say goodbye. In-person selling has the advantage of social norms that cause people to want to be polite and allow you to get in another word. They can’t simply push a button and hangup. 

Let’s not forget about the time commitment and barrier for entry. Getting someone to agree to a phone call is easy. It’s a low social energy commitment, it’s quick to fit in among other meetings and duties, and as mentioned before, it’s easy to end if you’re not interested. It also has benefits for the sales person because they don’t have to spend time, money, and energy traveling, getting to the office early and waiting in the parking lot until it’s the right time to come in, chatting with reception while they let the client know that you’ve arrived. Inside selling has the advantage of speed and flexibility. If someone cancels a call you can get a new call scheduled much faster than you can coordinate an in-person meeting. And even if you can’t schedule a replacement you're not on the road and you’re able to work on other tasks. Your time commitment for a call is also only the pitch itself so you can fit many more calls in a day.

So… Long live Stage or Film?

Where does this put us? Should you invest in a team of inside sales reps or outside sales reps? Why not take the strengths of both? What would Sir Ian have to say about virtual sales, via Zoom or any of the other video conferencing apps? Unfortunately Dick Cavett didn’t ask Sir Ian McKellen about this in their 1981 interview so, if Sir Ian will grant us the pleasure, we’re here to fill in the gaps.

The camera is very like somebody just in the room with you. It concentrates very partially on you, usually on the face. And the body can be doing what it wants. -Ian Mckellen

With virtual selling you still have non-verbal communication tools, ie how you dress, and your personal presentation, you can still use body language, you can keep the client talking by nodding along and using hand gestures to let them know that you agree without breaking their rhythm. You get to make eye contact and hold a connection with the client. At the same time, you get the advantages of not having to worry about what’s out of the camera frame. You can tap your nervous feet to keep the rest of you focused, you can have someone sitting to the side to coach you, you can look something up or have notes available to you without the prospect knowing. A study from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and reported in the HBR showed that in-person requests were 34 times more successful than email requests. With video calls we gain a portion of that in-person success back, compared to standard phone calls. The additional connection and accountability of seeing a person’s eyes causes people to engage in the conversation to a greater degree and adds a level of social pressure to agree. Even though there are these benefits we know that while it may be close, a Zoom call is not the same as being in-person.

Video calls had a rocky start, with telecoms trying over and over again to make consumers want it but the technology was often too expensive, poorly adopted, and required new phone lines to be installed. Bell introduced the Picturephone I at the 1964 World’s fair, but at a cost of $27 for a 3 minute call ($224 adjusted for inflation in 2020). AT&T tried again with the Picturephone II in 1970 but fell to the same ending. Today we have a forward facing camera in every phone, laptop, and desktop abound us. Software like Zoom has made joining a call as easy as clicking a link. The barriers for entry have been removed for you and your clients. Now we can reap the benefits. 

Through virtual selling you eliminate the costs and time associated with travel. You eliminate the time spent in lobbies and chatting with reception. Sales people can now schedule their days as efficiently as inside sales reps. Virtual sales brings with it some new challenges as well, but if we address these challenges as opportunities, those who step up and adapt will be the ones who close sales. In addition to your clothes, hair, etc affecting how you present yourself, with virtual sales you are adding your environment to that list. This is an especially critical point with the increase in working from home. A bed or couch might be a comfy place to sit but it is an unprofessional place to hold a meeting. Your background is now a tool that should be considered and addressed, the same way a wrinkled bright yellow shirt could hurt your rapport in person. The ideal scenario for your background is a clean and tidy office or home office without distractions (moving objects or people walking behind you). If that is not an option, where in your house can you fake it? Do you have a bookshelf you can use as a backdrop? This could be another opportunity to build a connection with your client by placing books in sight that they might appreciate. Are they a sports fan and you can put some memorabilia behind you. This environment is now a tool to help you gain the prospect’s trust because it provides more context about the person they are speaking to. If all else fails, find a blank wall in a room with natural light. 

Speaking of windows, let’s talk about lighting. Position yourself with a light source in front of you, not too close to your face, and diffused. Soft, natural light shining through a sheer curtain to diffuse it is great because it will fill a room and will not cast harsh shadows on your face. If your light source is too close the harsh shadows will make you look like a villain. If you don’t have good natural light, learn from YouTube beauty influencers and get yourself a ring light or a few good, diffused lamps to place on both sides of you.

With a good background and a good lighting taken care of the next detail is framing. Nobody wants to look at your chin. If you use a laptop, do not place it on your lap. This is an unflattering angle and makes the prospect feel like you are looming over them. It also makes you look unaware of how technology works and it impacts your credibility. Get your camera at eye level so that it feels like you are sitting face to face. Also be sure that you’re not too close to the camera. If all they see is your head, they may feel crowded and you lose the advantage of using hand gestures, body language, background, and personal presentation. If you have the space, make sure that there is a gap between you and the background. A gap of 4-8 feet is perfect.

Be sure to look into the camera when you speak. Place your client’s Zoom window as close to your camera as possible so that when you look at their video they see you looking back at them. This will make them feel like you are maintaining eye contact through the call and add to that in-person connection we’re after.

Last, be sure that your audio quality is high. When on a phone call we know what to expect and the speaker is jammed against our ear. When interacting with a computer we are used to consuming movies and YouTube videos that are often recorded with professional equipment. Poor, crunchy, thin audio will only distract from your conversation. Guaranteeing that you have a quiet environment and that your microphone is good quality can make a huge difference. Investing in a basic microphone with a pop filter will make you sound better and more confidence inspiring. It signals how serious you take your job and connecting with your clients, that clear communication is important to you. 

Virtual sales combines the best of in-person and phone sales. We believe Sir Ian McKellen would agree that being excellent at virtual sales comes from recognizing your medium, analyzing the way that your audience can be told your story, and thoroughly addressing each aspect of how you present yourself.

If you’d like to discuss Sir Ian McKellen, virtual sales techniques, or how to manage a virtual sales team, get in touch with us here. We’re happy to jump on a Zoom call.

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