While COVID-19 has caused unprecedented stress in the travel industry, the coming recovery period will also be unprecedented. Varying property categories, geography, customer segments and management structures mean that every hospitality company’s recovery will be different. Nonetheless, every organization has a unique opportunity now to shape its own recovery curve, and that starts with agility. With limited resources, agility – the ability to learn, adapt and grow – will be a key driver for any sales team’s success.
But what does it mean to be agile? Take the following scenario: Let’s say that, pre-COVID-19, an account was locked up with one of your large competitors. In June, the account announced changes to its travel policy that align to your products more closely than your competitor’s, so you increased your focus on this account. By November, your competitor files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, calling their sustainability into question and letting you pursue the account aggressively and win it. An agile organization bubbles up market insights and has the necessary connective tissue across the organization to act on opportunities – the very kinds of opportunities that siloed organizations either aren’t aware of or are unable to act on quickly.
Agility starts with maintaining focus on the highest value opportunities as the environment constantly changes. Sales teams should change customer prioritization as the market shifts, both at the central sales function level and at the micro level by individual reps within their respective portfolios. In the example above, competitive developments resulted in a lucrative opportunity. Bankruptcies, reduced capacity, M&A activity and the like could create big opportunities across segments and accounts, making it more important to constantly evaluate and re-prioritize customers. Even with significantly less sales resources, sales teams should still be playing offense to keep a pulse of the market, build the pipeline and win new business. You need to think not only about how you can keep your current customers, but also about how you can hunt new ones.
So, how do you get there? Here are five key areas that will help sales organizations evolve and capitalize on the volatility and changing environment around them.
Let’s unpack each of these areas – agile sales force design, dynamic customer engagement, flexible incentives and goals and accelerated operations, all managed through adaptive commercial execution – that will be key for driving this success.
1. Agile sales force design: As described in the graphic below, agile sales force design starts with continuously prioritizing and re-prioritizing customers and segments as the internal and external environment evolves. This is a critical factor that must be considered when making design decisions now. In structure, enabling easy and timely pivoting to focus on the highest revenue opportunities through role design and responsibility definition is key. Or when thinking about sizing, using staffing options that allow you to easily “flex” capacity as demand fluctuates can help capture available demand or right-size to minimize cost. Implications of this new selling environment also include things like broader span of organization control to lower first-line manager or director costs, less geographically-rigid territories and more accounts (given less time spend on travel) and lower effort allocation per account resulting from the virtual sales model. It’s important to note here that we’re not suggesting you constantly change your sales force; rather, set it up in a way that allows you to adapt to changing circumstances.
So, how might this manifest in the travel industry? Is there an opportunity to combine roles that focus on different segments to drive flexibility, such as groups vs. transient? While this might not be optimal in under normal circumstances, combining these roles – especially in an environment where large groups and meetings travel are on hold and some companies won't be going through the RFP process this year – might provide the flexibility to focus on the current transient and small, more fragmented group opportunity. Or, remove silos: for example, you may have teams dedicated to different chain scales – can you eliminate those silos to drive flexibility?
2. Dynamic customer engagement processes: While an agile sales force design will set you up to win, a dynamic customer engagement process is critical to pull the win through. This area often doesn’t get the attention it deserves, as companies often feel that once they’ve redesigned the sales force, the rest will follow. But in this new environment, it’s critical that the sales team and supporting roles change their customer engagement process – everything from targeting to account planning to value proposition delivery. How much are reps keeping an eye on developments at their corporate accounts, or changes to competitive coverage? How much are they adapting their communication cadence as the environment changes? Are they bringing in senior leadership when they notice an opportunity or even a competitive threat? And most importantly, is this being done consistently? This will be critical for winning in the new world.
While many customers are not producing at all right now, in industries such as tech or consulting, you must spend the time and effort to differentiate between the ones that have future potential and ones that don’t. This information must be used to help your reps shift their time and targeting efforts. Depending on your account strategy – whether to defend or grow an account, pursue aggressively, optimize coverage or deprioritize – and its corresponding sales organization design implications, your customer engagement process must be adjusted to match and pull through on that strategy.
Given the significant decline in large group travel, the need to win smaller, more fragmented group business is greater than before. Given this change in dynamic, many hospitality companies are working on adjusting their value proposition to attract this business. For example, with the increase in potential in-person and virtual hybrid meetings, having the necessary technology in hotel meeting spaces is now critical in hotel selection. But is your sales team equipped with this information at a hotel level, and consistently communicating this value proposition to their customers?
3. Flexible incentives and goals: Make sure your compensation and sales targets will motivate your sales force, but hedge them to protect your organization overall. It's fair to say that this is how every comp plan should be designed, but in this uncertain environment, this requires creativity and clear buy-in of risks and trade-offs. It’s a tricky challenge. Here are some guidelines for each area:
4. Accelerated operations: Cuts in sales operations and enablement generally feel deeper because they tend to be stretched, even in strong economic times. As you’re now likely going to have to do a lot more with even less, it usually leads to sacrificing the important for the urgent. So, at a time like this (in fact, especially at a time like this), you should consider an accelerated operations approach, as illustrated in the graph below:
- Automating repeatable tasks: Companies too often put significant effort into keeping the lights on and not enough on strategy or other higher-value tasks. But automating more mundane, rule-based tasks can drive quality, improve service levels and reduce your costs over the course of a year. Activities that are ripe for automation include common customer service tasks like fixing missing loyalty points, common sales tasks like group leads and RFP responses, or those everyday tasks – like contract rate loading – that just have to be done, and done right.
- Using advanced analytics: AI, AI-guided selling and machine learning can streamline tasks like lead qualification to reduce costs and increase win rates while keeping your teams focused on the most promising opportunities. With limited resources, effort spent chasing dead end leads or longshot RFPs is more costly than ever, and advanced analytics helps companies make better prioritization decisions. Leading organizations use advanced analytics to tackle an array of challenges from optimizing rates for groups based on availability, to generating personalized offers through AI-guided segmentation, to detecting fraud in loyalty programs, and beyond.
- Prioritizing tasks for human brainpower: Automation and advanced analytics help free up your team’s time and resources. But think about how you can further prioritize tasks and workload to ensure that your sales and operations teams are working on the highest value activities that warrant their time and attention.
Times are challenging for the entire hospitality industry, but how you recover depends on your ability to be agile. Despite squeezed resources and demand fluctuations, by focusing on building a more adaptable, agile sales approach, your company can seize this opportunity to not only recover, but also win and emerge even stronger in the post-COVID era.