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To be sure the outside sales reps understood the importance of their work, a clever CEO said to his team, “Even your mother will forget you if you don’t stay in touch.” Reps are accustomed to working remotely. However, the cornerstones of their success are face-to-face communication with the customer, social engagements that build relationships, and their ability to use perceptual skills to understand how the customer feels about the companies they represent and the products they sell.
We understand there are five forms of communication: write, read, speak, listen and — the most important one we don’t think about — body language. How we use each one helps explain what has changed because of the pandemic. Research shows that we communicate 80 percent of the time while we are at work and only 20 percent of our messages arrive without distortion after traveling about the company.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a greater need to write, which we only used about 16 percent of the time and frequently in snippets, known as text messages.
We, and our stakeholders, have been forced to read at a much greater rate during the past year to handle orders, product problems, contracts and payments. Historically, we only needed to read about 9 percent of the time; research tells us the average American can read at the 8th-grade level. This explains why being forced to rely on reading and writing has caused many communication problems, especially in a multi-lingual workplace.
Technology helps us continue to meet and speak to all our stakeholders. Still, it has been hampered by limited skills to video conference, technology problems created by bandwidth, and interference that results from lack of control over the environment where telephone and video conversations are held.
Since we speak to communicate 30 percent of the time, the inability to enjoy meaningful face-to-face dialogue has driven business away to more sterile buying practices, such as DIY with an online catalog. Notwithstanding how much we speak directly with our customers and co-workers, listening remains a critical skill because we use it 45 percent of the time, we do it badly, and we are seldom trained how to listen.
Restoring In-Person Communication
Perhaps the most important reason we must restore in-person communication is our inability to use our most critical communication skill, which is understanding body language. It does not matter what our customers tell us; we read their true feelings through their gestures, expressions and actions. We also express our own the same way.
Sales professionals with high perceptual skills are invaluable because they pay attention and truly understand their customers’ feelings and needs.
Professional sales representatives have a cemented role and refuse to be replaced by technology since the catalog cannot replace their legacy knowledge, skills and abilities to serve their customers. Most importantly, it cannot replace the sincerity to ensure their customers succeed.
Although sales reps know they need to continue to hone their communication skills, what they truly need is to get back to meet in person with their customers. The fast-track to that end is a vaccination. Some companies are mandating vaccination, some are encouraging it and a few are taking no position.
Sales representatives need no incentive because they will find they are prohibited from visiting some customer sites unless they have a COVID-19 vaccination card. They may be banned from traveling to some countries or using their preferred transportation. The vaccination card increases access.
Even when reps are allowed entry with a mask and social distance, the ability to use their most important communication skill, body language, is compromised. The customer needs to see that smile and feel that firm handshake.
Companies cannot be arbitrary. The government will only impose vaccinations if there is a severe public health crisis, such as when President Theodore Roosevelt ordered smallpox vaccinations in 1905 or when the health department of New York City ordered measles vaccines for a limited number of people in 2019. Federal and state laws protect those with medical issues and those with a sincerely demonstrated religious objection, but it does not guarantee a job.
Some employees will say, “I know my rights,” or “This is America and I don’t have to put anything in my body.” Those comments are the basis of a philosophical objection that has been around since the founding of the country and we learned we are a land of the free. A company may accept philosophical objections, but it cannot overrule the requirements of the customer.
If the customer bans those without a vaccination card, the employee will be “disqualified” from working with the customer. Sorry, but the customer is in charge.
Companies taking no position on COVID-19 vaccination need to be certain they are on solid footing, with a legal opinion that they will incur no liabilities for those who may become infected. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is focused solely on a “safe and healthy workplace.” It will address actions by any employer with one or more employees to ensure the company satisfies the regulations to keep employees safe and healthy.
Ignoring the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services may be impossible to explain if there is a COVID-19 outbreak where safety practices are lax or missing.
Outside sales professionals have been profoundly affected by the pandemic. They are looking for whatever they can do to restore their ability to cultivate strong, continuing relationships with their customers. They know they are a key revenue generator, their partnership with manufacturers is critical, their continuing relationship with the supply chain is invaluable.
Sales reps will do whatever it takes to ensure the continuing success of all those they represent, work with and serve. The future of their profession depends on it; you can be sure they will be in the queue to get that vaccination.