One month into the first wave of the pandemic in North America, I argued that the way to sell to oil and gas customers was broken. Here’s how to fix it.
Selling To Oil and Gas Is Broken
The big idea here is that the way we sell stuff to oil and gas customers is tried and true, and it worked, up until the pandemic struck. It no longer works.
I first highlighted this problem in April in a post where I set out how a future oil and gas industry was starting to emerge from the planetary train wreck wrought by the micro terrorist we call COVID 19. To quote the article:
Selling to oil and gas has always involved lots of in person meetings, coffee discussions, site visits, practical demos, and collaborations. The sales model is now broken because of the ban on in-person meetings. Oil and gas buyers are quite accustomed to cutting back purchasing activity in response to cyclical changes in oil and gas, but they eventually return to the market. It’s not yet clear if sellers will replace their sales models with alternatives to the in-person experience.
I conclude that most if not all sellers have yet to fix their sales models. While I have not carried out a comprehensive review of sales methods across a wide range of companies to prove out my hypothesis, I have been on enough video conference calls with people who sell to oil and gas in the past 6 months to last a lifetime. Between the interview series for ADIPEC (15 separate sessions with interviewees in Australia, the Middle East, Europe and North America), my own podcast (170 shows, usually recorded using Google Meet), a dozen webinars and panel discussions, and lots of video calls in between, I have a pretty good base on which to draw my conclusions.
I have yet to meet anyone selling to oil and gas who have given much thought to how their sales approach needs to change. I think the problem may be that sales people tasked with selling do not have the time, tools, or motivation to confront what they actually do day to day.
For example, my two most recent deliveries of my virtual training course on digital awareness have been to companies that sell to oil and gas customers. The first was a general information management business for whom oil and gas is one of several industrial verticals. The other was a subsurface technology company narrowly and exclusively focused on the upstream oil and gas sector.
In both sessions, the participants highlighted how their use of technology to sell to their customers is woefully behind the technology I use to teach digital awareness.
If you accept that selling is teaching, then adopting some of the tools used to successfully instruct in a digital era should be helpful for your sales force.
Why Selling is a Classroom
Industrial sales (or business to business sales) are hard. The products are complex. The customers are multi-headed and sophisticated. The dollar amounts are large. Sometimes the budgets are entirely discretionary. The sales cycles from lead identification to close are long and twisting. The stakes—monetary, career, risk—are high.
As a result, good sales people spend a lot of time educating their customer, answering questions both explicit and implicit that the solution on offer is worth it. Customers need a lot of convincing, which involves lots of “show me”. They need to understand the financial and performance upside, the technical features, the fit with existing business processes, the consequences of not acting, the risks inherent in making a change, and the resulting impacts on their brand, both good and bad.
Industrial sales might not look like a classroom, with rows of students facing front and a lecturer going through materials. But it is a classroom of a different sort.
Equally, oil and gas customers are people, and they react emotionally to their experiences, including the sales experience. The best sales people know this, and factor into their engagement with their customers enough time and shared intimate experiences to build trust, create personal bonds, and foster empathy.
Those experiences, including shared meals, coffee meetings, patio sessions, golf, site visits, collaboration workshops, technical reviews, and sales presentations are all done in person. Nothing quite debits the emotional ledger than all this in-person activity. So much is important here, from having lots of eye contact, to detecting subtle emotional reactions, to reading gestures and the emotional tone. Conveniently, in person sales activity is also when the educational work takes place.
None of which can safely happen in a pandemic world. Oops.
Why Sales Technology Is Failing
The students in my digital awareness course had made the unexpected bridge between the combined educational and emotional experience they were having taking the course, and the sales experiences they want to have with their customers.
I was curious why they reached this conclusion, which prompted a follow up from me to share what I was doing differently. In return they revealed the now inadequate tools they’ve been assigned in their sales pursuits.
They are using their company-issued laptops, which generally predate the pandemic. Built in video cameras are poor quality with low resolution, no ability to adjust focus, insensitive to lighting changes, and fixed to the laptop. Their laptops usually have only WIFI connections, which limits the quality of the video signal. All fine for a casual video call.
They rely on the laptop’s built in microphone, which is like the camera—low quality, not adjustable, and picks up every sound including barking dogs and flushing toilets.
The laptops might be great for a road warrior, where the task is simply to project some slides on a screen in a meeting room, and to do email on the flight, but are really underpowered for a multi-media video world.
The only widely used feature of the many conferencing tools (Zoom, Teams, Skype) is screen sharing, to display some slides. But the minute screen sharing is turned on, the camera turns off, breaking the intimacy. Some try to use the built-in “replace background” feature now available, but the quality is childish, and not befitting a serious professional.
That was it. No white boards, no hand outs, no collaboration space, no shared documents, no variety. Nothing. And it’s the same everywhere, in all of my on-line encounters.
It’s no wonder that sales professionals are not hitting their targets. It’s like they’re showing up to play tennis with a hockey stick. Sure, you might hit the ball once in a while, but there will be a lot of high energy and pointless flailing about.
The New Sales Toolkit
If sales professionals have any hope of becoming great at sales and selling in a post pandemic world, they need a rethink of how they approach the sales encounters.
The sales messages don’t need to change, in my view. A key message before the pandemic that “our solution saves you money” still works. One plus one still equals two. What needs to change is how that message is communicated.
It starts with the technology, as it turns out, since the sales message isn’t different. And the most important discovery is that better technology actually makes the sales professional dramatically better. I discovered this as a life-long instructor who specialised in the in-person training course, and as a life-long business-to-business sales progressional. My ability to dramatically improve the in-classroom experience had largely stalled—there’s only so much you can do to transform the classroom. But the sales meeting is virgin territory for change.
Upgrade the suddenly-underpowered laptop.
Move to something beefier that can handle video processing. It needs to connect directly to the home router too so that the video quality doesn’t drop. That’s the new world.
Invest in a quality camera, better lighting and a green screen background.
I use a DSLR camera which has a video recording feature. Without HD, all those subtle facial moves—the raised eyebrow, the quizzical expression—are invisible to the sales professional.
Use a good microphone.
It’s hard to concentrate beyond a few seconds on the audio of a speaker who is barely comprehensible because of the sound quality.
Change the slide layout.
Slides now need to leave room for the presenter’s camera image. That way the presenter never disappears from the screen or the meeting. This mimics the classroom where the instructor is always in view. In sales, that constant presence reinforces empathy and creates intimacy.
Use a camera switcher.
It’s the switcher that handles the green screen, merges the camera feed of the sales professional with the slides, and creates the pathway for creativity.
Inject lots of variety in the sales meeting.
The camera switcher lets the presenter switch instantly to video (to pull in a short from Vimeo or YouTube), or to a drawing pad (I use an iPad and pencil to create an impromptu white board), or to a still image, or to a desktop display, or to a second camera. None of this is possible in a traditional sales meeting.
The pandemic has broken the sales model for complex industrial sales, possibly forever. But as usual, digital tools come to the rescue, and can dramatically improve sales for the better forever.
Contact me for more on how to overhaul your sales methods using digital.
Check out my book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.
Take Digital Oil and Gas, the one-day on-line digital oil and gas awareness course.