Keen to understand how the nature of international business has changed during the pandemic, Grant Thornton interviewed around 5,000 mid-market leaders across 29 countries mid-way through last year. We started by asking them whether their key interactions in the sales and servicing process were now done primarily physically or primarily virtual and how this had changed. The research showed that most international companies had shifted to virtual interactions, with 57% primarily relying on virtual for international sales and 54% for international servicing, a swing of 11 and 9 percentage points respectively against levels pre-pandemic.
That’s a big bang change that sets implications running in many directions. In our research we scratched the surface on some of these. Encouragingly, many of the immediate implications look to be positive, with 41% of mid-market leaders highlighting ‘greater opportunities to expand internationally’ and a similar percentage citing ‘faster speed to market and improved customer responsiveness’.
But there were real concerns about the pressure on pricing that virtual brings, with 30% saying it was already putting more focus on prices in the sales process. There was also concern about accessing new customers virtually and keeping existing clients.
To really explore these changes and implications for the mid-market, we spoke to Elaine Daly, global head of business consulting at Grant Thornton International Ltd.
What do you think this move to more virtual sales and servicing means for the nature and pace of internationalisation?
COVID-19 has resulted in a paradigm shift in the acceptance of virtual as a means of conducting business. It has changed opinions on the feasibility of doing business remotely and has reduced geographic barriers to sales and servicing across the globe. The ability to connect and provide services to customers in any part of the world has levelled the playing field for ambitious companies keen to grow their international business.
What do you see as the major limitations of more virtual interactions for companies?
Virtual has not reduced traditional barriers to internationalisation such as language barriers, time zone issues and currency volatility. Additionally, the reduction in geographic barriers has exponentially increased the degree of competition mid-market firms face, both domestically and abroad. COVID-19 has hardened barriers against traditional travel through travel restrictions, vaccination requirements for travel and more expensive air travel. As building lasting relationships will still rely on face-to-face meetings, this is a barrier for firms that don’t have the budgets to absorb these extra costs.
How do virtual opportunities differ according to whether a company is more product-orientated or service-orientated?
The virtual environment can enhance opportunities or create barriers for product-orientated and service-orientated organisations. Operating virtually can make it more difficult to demonstrate the qualities of a product, particularly if it’s a physical product.
Service-orientated organisations can benefit from the ability to deliver their service remotely to a wider range of customers. Where companies were previously limited to certain geographic areas due to limitations in the cost and feasibility of travel, services can now be delivered at zero additional cost anywhere in the world, time-zone dependent. However, sales of services are largely relationship-dependent and virtual can’t beat face-to-face when it comes to relationship building.
How does the size of a company impact the opportunities in a more virtual world?
On balance, the virtual world favours larger companies with existing brand acceptance and large marketing budgets. However, smaller product-orientated companies can leverage the use of social media, influencers and word-of-mouth online.
You mentioned the importance of face-to-face interactions when it comes to relationship building, and this was also reflected in the research. Is this where virtual falls over?
Generating a pipeline of customers is challenging in a virtual world and requires a move towards the full range of marketing approaches including both inbound and outbound strategies. As the world continues to reopen, service-orientated organisations should continue to build on the virtual approaches to sales that they developed during the pandemic, to accentuate the traditional face-to-face approach.
An associated concern about the growth in virtual sales and servicing is customer loyalty and more of a focus on price. How can companies protect relationships and margins in a virtual world?
The risk of the commoditisation of a product is higher in the virtual selling world. The ability to easily compare a range of products can push customers towards a less expensive option. It’s vital that companies focus on the quality and perception of quality of their products and services. The democratisation of the virtual world drives the importance of reviews and word-of-mouth brand perception. Consumers are still influenced by the perception of products and companies must focus on maintaining the quality and utilising the opportunity to highlight any differentiators to justify a higher price point.
So, it’s not just about perceptions, real quality still matters in a virtual world?
Absolutely. It’s tempting to protect margin in this inflationary period by sacrificing the quality of a product but this can be a false economy in the virtual world. Perceived reductions in quality can quickly spread into online reviews which can cause a vicious cycle of reducing sales and cost-cutting measures. Companies must focus on optimising their approach to delivering their offering, to allow a maintenance of quality while reducing costs. As relationships with customers are critical and more difficult to maintain virtually, it’s key that quality is not sacrificed in the pursuit of margin. Both supply chain and inflationary pressures require companies to automate and adapt their approach to product and service delivery. Margin and relationship protection will require a similar, whole-company approach.
How do you see the nature of international opportunities and risks for the mid-market at this stage in the pandemic and economic recovery?
The world is entering arguably the most optimistic phase of the pandemic. The Omicron wave appears to be milder than previous variants, especially in highly vaccinated countries. Travel and social restrictions are being unwound in many countries, which will lead to more opportunities for companies. The economic recovery has been rapid in many economies, providing capital and consumer spending to drive business revenues. Large economic stimulus packages and supports have allowed major economies to avoid mass unemployment and economic damage. This all points to a rapid and comprehensive recovery.
However, there is still significant macroeconomic uncertainty which contains significant risk for mid-market companies. Supply chains are still under significant pressure which impacts product delivery. Inflation continues to rise with higher interest rates increasingly probable. There are likely to be further COVID-19 variants with uncertain impacts, which may cause the reintroduction of restrictions and disruption.
In one sentence, what should international companies be doing to navigate these challenges?
It’s critical that companies closely manage their cost base, invest in technology to increase automation and efficiency and do not overextend themselves in the rush to exploit international opportunities.