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As the COVID-19 pandemic slowly subsides and the selling environment normalizes, financial services leaders are highly focused on enabling the frontline to engage clients and prospects effectively. But challenges remain. A recent poll of financial services executives revealed that only 45% are highly confident in their ability to “build a sales pipeline optimized for growth.” As recently as a year ago Gartner was actively discussing the future of work and what it would mean in a hybrid or virtual world.
What we’re seeing today is that the new management practices required must now be fully integrated into not only sales processes but also associate behaviors and supporting technologies.
To better understand how these challenges are shaping the world of financial services, we sat down with senior executives from consumer banking, wealth management, and commercial banking in August 2022 to discuss how to boost sales enablement in the current environment. Leaders shared their experiences and insights on the evolving world of sales and what it will take to position bankers, advisors, and branch staff to succeed.
Selling Processes and Work Preferences Lean Toward Virtual
Virtual work and selling are here to stay. This is despite the fact that pandemic safety considerations are subsiding, and the fact that different generations of associates have different views on hybrid work. The impacts of this shift are far reaching into the nature of client engagement. Although successful sales strategies translate across virtual and live formats in theory, in practice there are material differences between the two settings. Findings from our conversations with industry leaders include:
- Hybrid and Virtual Client Engagement Remain Common – Many firms are pushing frontline staff to return to the office, but associates enjoy the flexibility of hybrid work. Moreover, the level of in-person client engagement varies by geography. One executive we spoke with reported that branch and financial center traffic has rebounded strongly in rural and suburban markets, but less in metro areas. Executives were mixed on the extent to which clients want to meet in person.
- There are Factors Supporting a Return to the Office – Although many associates enjoy working virtually, there are a number of forces driving employees back to the office. These include the need to build connections with team members, improved collaboration quality, and the ability to communicate more effectively using tone and body language.
- Less Experienced Staff are More Likely to Seek a Return to the Office – Younger, less experienced associates prefer in-person work more than experienced staff. These younger employees have yet to build their book of business or connections to the organization, and being in-person provides a better platform to accomplish those objectives. Team members want a feeling of community that virtual work does not necessarily provide.
- Live and Virtual Sales Interactions are Not the Same – In theory, sales and service conversations with clients are similar across virtual and in-person settings. The crucial difference however is the few minutes of small talk that occur at the beginning of the meeting. Clients and prospects are often very honest about their feelings in those informal moments and these unguarded interactions do not easily replicate virtually. Moreover, the ability to read body language and facial expressions is crucial to strong sales conversations. Those nuances are best captured in person.
See our latest research on Unlocking Virtual Sales Success in Financial Services and Top practices in Virtual Sales.
Soft Skills Increasingly Matter for both Sellers and Managers
Insight remains crucial to successful sales interactions. But other competencies become uniquely important in a virtual or hybrid environment. These include the ability to convey empathy in a virtual setting and to collaborate effectively with product partners or SMEs who might be in different locations.
- Relevant Insight Matters – Delivering relevant advice to clients and being knowledgeable about the bank’s products are more important than ever for the frontline. In addition to standard coaching and training in these areas, some organizations are investing in collaboration tools to enable the frontline to quickly get hold of a subject matter expert when the client’s needs are more specialized.
- Sales Managers Must Evolve Too – Frontline staff are not the only ones who need to cultivate new competencies for sales and client engagement. Managers and sales leaders need to build their skillset too. It is much more difficult to track team members virtually and gauge their job satisfaction and engagement levels. Managers need to touch base much more frequently with their team to assess engagement.
- Soft Skills are a Differentiator – Developing soft skills is increasingly a focal point of training and coaching efforts. In virtual interactions with clients and prospects, frontline staff cannot always detect and respond to verbal cues. It is increasingly critical to lead with the right tone and empathy given inherent limitations of virtual interactions. As part of the focus on empathy, firms are training frontline staff to listen to client challenges and frustrations before jumping too quickly to solutions.
- Complex Needs Require Collaboration – Several executives discussed creating decision trees to guide escalation of complex client needs.
- Preparation for Virtual Meetings is Key – Leaders shared that the choreography around virtual client meetings must be more intentional. Ensuring that collateral is fully ready, planning handoffs between call participants, and scripting different elements of the conversation are critical for virtual meetings. The risk otherwise is a disorganized call with participants talking over each other.
See our Ignition Guide to Building an Onboarding Plan for Financial Services Frontline Sellers.
Organizations are Investing in New Technologies for the Near- and the Long-Term
In the near-term, financial providers continue to work through technology glitches and compatibility issues to connect with clients virtually. For the medium- to longer term, AI has the potential to transform financial services sales.
- Virtual Engagement Tools Remain Challenging – Leaders continue to try to identify the best platform for virtual client engagement, even more than two years after the onset of the pandemic. Nearly every virtual engagement platform has pros, cons, and connectivity issues depending on compatibility with the client’s systems.
- AI Powers Sales Enablement at Scale – Firms are investing in AI and machine learning platforms that can listen to and provide feedback on client and prospect conversations. This enables sales leaders to deliver coaching and feedback at scale to exponentially more staff.
You can learn more new ideas for client acquisition in financial services here. For insight on new competencies required for industry employees, including selling skills, click here. For more support, please schedule an inquiry with our experts to discuss how Gartner can help boost sales enablement at your organization.
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