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opinion

Wojtek Dabrowski is managing partner at Provident Communications Inc., a strategic communications firm based in Toronto.

In the span of just a few days, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how business is being done and how services are bought and sold.

As recently as a couple weeks ago, my colleagues and I were meeting with prospective clients face to face, shaking hands and sharing lunches without a second thought. The novel coronavirus and its resulting COVID-19 were just words on everyone’s lips back then, still a distant outbreak at least a continent away.

Fast forward to now.

Last Monday, my strategic communications firm delivered our first business pitch over Skype, the video-conferencing platform owned by Microsoft, to a large Canadian regulatory agency. We were nervous. Would the tech hold? How would our presentation look? With a significant amount of potential revenue on the line, could we still close?

I kept reminding myself that people can see my facial expression and my body language even when I’m not speaking. I sat upright and put my hands in my lap. I balanced my laptop on a stack of blank office paper so that the computer’s camera wasn’t pointing up my nose. The internet connection was okay for me, but not for our head of strategy, who cut out a number of times during his part of the pitch. Then it was over.

Three days later, we found out we won the mandate.

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After a few virtual high-fives with the team, the reality sank in: This wasn’t a one-off. It’s very likely how we will sell the bulk of our work from now on. And if this fundamentally reshapes how we sell, what does it mean for the broader business world?

It seems inevitable now that face-to-face relationships, the bedrock of how business has been done and services and products have been sold over the past century, will fade in importance because of COVID-19.

If you’re a managing director in an investment bank who has spent decades closing deals on the golf course, at a hockey game or over a steak dinner, an unfamiliar new day is dawning. Now, more than ever before, how you show up online and on professional platforms such as LinkedIn will determine your ability to attract prospects – not your expense account.

Even if you apply the most optimistic forecasts, social-distancing measures will remain in place for many weeks, if not months. That means this transition to nearly exclusively virtual selling will not be easy for everyone, and as in many crises, some groups will be affected more significantly than others.

There’s an inherent ageism at play here. Older professionals who spent decades building face-to-face networks and travelled frequently for sales calls face a particularly abrupt change. That expensive private club membership isn’t worth the plastic the membership card is printed on when the club is closed and your prospective client has no interest setting foot inside it anyway.

Trust and credibility are no longer going to be built using fancy Bay Street offices or lunches at swanky restaurants – at least not to the same extent that they used to be in the past. Instead, they will hinge on the quality and track record of success your team has achieved, as well as their digital presence and ability to influence opinion online.

On the other side of this shift are younger, digitally native companies with a remote-first work force. The transition will be much easier for them, because flex work – often working from home or other remote locations – is the best dry run for COVID-19 that a salesperson can get.

These younger companies also have smaller budgets to compete with established incumbents, so this new era of digital selling could also level the playing field to some extent. After all, if your ability to wine and dine prospects at fancy restaurants is no longer a factor, then your small competitor with a fraction of your business development budget could soon start to feel a lot more formidable.

The main takeaway for any salesperson is to get comfortable with socially distanced selling, video conferencing, talking on the phone and creating compelling content to share with prospects, whether that’s blog posts, vlogs, videos or podcasts and slide presentations.

We all have to work with the assumption that we won’t see our clients – both current and prospective – for some time to come. With the physical business handshake now a thing of the past, many will have no choice but to learn how to shake hands digitally.

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

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