Waxie Sanitary Supply in San Diego has adopted Zoom as its standard video conferencing platform. Eric Keller, director of corporate accounts, says that his supervisor requires employees to have their cameras on at all times.

“The benefit of the camera is that you’re watching the person you’re interacting with, so you can tell where their focus is — and if you lose it, you can say or do something to re-spark their interest,” says Keller.

Although video calls are said to be twice as effective as phone calls, distributors prefer to follow their customers’ lead when choosing a mode of communication.

“Have a conversation with the customer about how they want to interact, because it’s going to be very different for each one,” says Mercer Stanfield, president and chief operating office of Brame Specialty Company, Durham, North Carolina. “We’re at that point where we can introduce them to a lot of new technologies, so reach out to them — even if they say they just want to use your ecommerce platform.”

Although the majority of customers and suppliers have accepted video conferencing as the new way of doing business, some are suffering from what Keller calls COVID fatigue.

“I’m finding a lot of customers have less and less interest in being on camera,” says Keller. “They’ve gone back to conducting business over the phone or in a Zoom meeting without their cameras on.”

To keep customers or employees engaged during a video call, distributors offer the following suggestions:

Stage the call — When speaking to customers over video, make sure the salesperson's face is positioned in the center of the screen, the background is appropriate, and the lighting is such that people can see facial expressions.

Make eye contact — “If you’re giving a presentation, make sure you’re not looking away or at your notes or your phone,” says Clark. “We can still connect to a person emotionally through a monitor if we keep eye contact with them.”

Appoint a leader — “If you’re having a group meeting, let someone take ownership to make sure things are moving along and so you don’t have any awkward silences,” says Morris.

Mix it up — “Salespeople love to hear the sound of their own voice — including me,” says Keller. “But you have to change that behavior in this environment. Learn to speak in bullet points, have shorter meetings and don’t just use the camera. Share data on the screen, play videos and direct people to external websites.”

Take a break — Not all video calls have to be work-related. Virtual happy hours and ice-breaker games can strengthen customer relationships and serve as a substitute for traditional team building activities.

Keller also recommends following up with a phone call, as needed.

“Personal relationship calls tend to take place on the phone,” he says. “I find that outside of Zoom meetings, I’m following up with a phone call to ask questions like ‘How is your family?’ and ‘Do you have anyone personally impacted by the virus?’”

Virtually Hired

No doubt social distancing practices have taken a toll on every facet of a distributor’s business — and hiring new employees is no exception. Fortunately video apps are proving their worth as an acceptable substitute for in-person interviews and training.

At Kelsan Inc, more than 50 percent of training and onboarding takes place virtually.

“It hasn’t been more difficult than onboarding in person,” says Clark. “I would argue that it’s actually been easier because there’s a lot of travel time involved when you onboard a new hire.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, Brame Specialty Company has hired a lot of new people virtually as many of its employees reached retirement age.

“It was unusual and difficult at first,” Stanfield admits. “You run into connection problems and you have to get used to potential disruptions in people’s homes. Now we interview everybody virtually first — usually a couple of times — using Zoom or Microsoft Teams.”

After initial interviews, candidates come into the office for a socially distanced, in-person meeting. Onboarding takes place either virtually or in the office — usually socially distanced.

“For sales, the new hire will be in an office, and the person training them will be in a different location in the same building using Zoom or Microsoft Teams,” says Stanfield. “We do training with suppliers and employees the same way, and it has worked really well.”

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