Field sales has died, and no one noticed. Witness the dawn of inside sales. The last three years (2020-2022) have been hard for salespeople and hastened the decline of field sales. What was once normal was turned upside down during the pandemic and a new normal established. The pandemic forced field sales teams to operate like inside sales teams. Social distancing and work-from-home placed significant burdens on the ability of field sale teams to operate face-to-face. Virtual meetings replaced in-person meetings. Inside sales teams have always operated this way. The phone has always been an inside salesperson’s friend – for years. Buying and selling has been fundamentally changed forever. When it comes to buying or selling, calling has always been faster than walking, now digital is faster than calling.
For both the field and inside sales, the role of the salesperson has evolved as technology has advanced. It has become much more complex. The boundary between field sales and inside sales has blurred. Technology has enabled inside sales teams to sell to prospects via any number of channels – phone, chat, email, and social. And they are doing it more effectively and efficiently than their field counterparts. Buyers do not want to engage with salespeople unless they absolutely must.
Inside sales was traditionally telephone-based work wherein the sales team made mostly outbound cold calls in an all-out effort to prospect for buyers. Cold calling, as we previously knew it, has been replaced with a modernized and revamped approach which is best characterized as informed outreach. With the widespread deployment of webforms and chat, the inside salesperson’s role has expanded to include both traditional inbound (think “Thank you for calling [company name], how may I help you?”) as well as traditional outbound (think “This is [salesperson’s name], may I please speak with …”). Many companies still define the role of these teams as that of customer service. They focused their efforts on solving customer’s problems and operational issues. Only after dealing with the customer’s problems are they able to focus on retention and renewals, cross sell, up sell, replenishment, reengagement, and win-back campaigns.
A fundamental transformation has occurred wherein cold outreach has progressed from “smile and dial” to informed outreach using a data driven approach that leverages first party and third-party intent and interest data. Today’s sales teams work with very advanced customer relationship management (CRM) systems and sales enablement platforms (SEP) that can be coupled with click-to-dial, predictive dialers, and power dials. Further transformed by lead scoring algorithms, inside sales is a powerful driver when companies understand the role it plays in accelerating their growth.
Modern cold calling – informed outreach – is an essential business activity that companies can leverage to jumpstart weak sales or catapult sales results to successively higher levels. Inside sales teams can be deployed quickly, can rapidly scale up or down based on business needs, and can pump massive amounts of energy into the marketplace in support of the company’s go-to-market strategy. Furthermore, inside sales teams can be in-house, fully outsourced, or a hybrid configuration with both in-house and outsourced support. Additionally, inside sales can be located anywhere in the world, either on-shore or off-shore depending on the company’s preference.
Calls are just one communication channel in the inside sales team’s arsenal when conducting informed outreach. There is also email and social media. It has become more difficult to find a prospect’s phone number, but less difficult to find their social media presence. In-app messaging on social media platforms has displaced cold calling as a desirable way to connect with prospective buyers. Prospects have their mobile devices at the ready to receive a call, but blocking unknown callers is easier than ever; this assumes that sellers can find the cellphone number in the first place. Junk mail filters easily reroute email directly to the electronic trash bin from any unknown senders. Junk mail filtering has become so sophisticated that some enterprising sellers are using generic email accounts (such as email@example.com) for cold email engagement. Having removed links and images and the like, unbranded email flies under the radar of the most sophisticated filtering mechanisms; so much so that it is rapidly becoming the norm for cold email outreach.
In every type of sale, from simple to complex, inside sales teams are often right in the middle of things. The ever-increasing availability of information found on the internet long ago shifted the balance of power between salespeople and buyers. Salespeople are no longer the sole gatekeepers of information that they once were. Buyers are far more informed and knowledgeable than they have ever been thanks to the internet. By the time buyers connect with a seller these buyers are far along their buyer journey. And the salesperson these buyers are going to encounter is an inside salesperson.
Research has determined that salespeople spend just 30% to 40% of their time selling. A Forbes article from 2018 by Ken Krogue pegged the number at 35.2% for inside salespeople and 38.3% for field salespersons. That means salespeople spend 60% to 70% of their time on non-revenue generating activities such as administrative and service activities. Overall inside sales people are slightly more efficient than their outside sales counterparts. Inside salespeople incur no travel time between appointments. LinkedIn’s 2022 State of Sales report shows just how the sales industry has changed post-pandemic. Salespersons are now spending less than one-third of their time selling. Key stakeholder turnover has resulted in more lost and stalled sales than ever before. Both teams are spending more time updating the company CRM and SEP to progress leads through the pipeline.
Sales remains a complicated process with many competing activities that distract from revenue generation activities for both inside sales and field sales teams. So, it should be no surprise that sales targets have been lower to compensate for this over the last decade. At the same time companies have resorted to setting stretch goals in hopes of motivating salespeople to think big and attain higher performance levels. As a result, many salespeople have simply disengaged. Andris A. Zoltners put it best in his September 2011 Harvard Business Review article, “Especially in today’s economic doldrums, we often see company-level sales goals based on wishful thinking rather than on market realities. A higher sales goal can’t make up for a soft market.” A decade later the global economy continues to face fallout from the 2020-2022 pandemic with the labor market issues of quiet quitting and unemployment levels of 3-4%, supply-chain disruptions, and rising inflation peaking at 9.06% in June of 2022 that is expected to only moderate in the coming months, just to name a few current issues. All the while the sales process grows ever more complex. With companies setting ever higher aspirational targets for both the field and inside sales teams, they are hoping to make up for lost ground over the last three years. The new normal has been firmly established.
It is time to rethink just how sales works. Fundamental changes to the buyer’s journey shall compel companies to reengineer how field sales and inside sales should work together in their industry and for their product/service offerings. Sales and marketing automation allows for near real-time insights into the behavior of prospects visiting the company’s website, engaging with outbound email, interacting with online self-service product demonstrations, and so much more. Mix in third-party intent data with the first party information in the company’s CRM and companies can construct detailed and individualized prospect profiles. Scoring models help sales teams focus on those customers that have a high likelihood of purchasing. Artificial intelligence (AI) programs have eclipsed traditional scoring models using sophisticated machine learning algorithms to differentiate buyers from non-buyers. It also means rethinking who is doing much of the selling within the organization.
It is no longer about how many activities a salesperson completes. It is about what type of activity drives inquiries and results in closed-won sales. The goal then for any sales process reengineering project will be to tailor the sales process to how buyers want to buy. It will also be to design the communication sequences and messaging for calls, emails, and social conversations coupled with the frequency and pacing of that communication. Buyers increasingly demand personalized and tailored communication. Jim Lecinski, formerly at Google and now at Northwestern University, thinks B2B marketers need to treat the web like a giant call center. The goal is to show up at just the right time to answer the buyer’s questions thus reducing friction at the point where the buyer is ready to buy. At Google, they call it the Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT). This describes the moment at which buyers search for information online and make decisions about brands. The Zero Moment being the precise point when buyers have a need, intent, or question.
Inside sales teams to the rescue. Inside sales teams operate at a fraction of the cost of field sales and can achieve high levels of production. Inside sales teams can be ready for inbound engagement with buyers in the channel and time of the buyer’s choice. Field sales tends to disqualify aggressively and engage only with those prospects which they believe have a high propensity to purchase. This is great for conversion rates but terrible for the volume of deals. Field sales teams may always be needed to pound pavement and press the flesh to close complex and costly deals, but inside sales teams are ready to uncover the moments of truth that matter. They just need to show up at the right time with relevant answers and they will deliver a competitive advantage to their company.
Virtual selling by the inside sales team is here to stay including large complex deals where sellers never meet face-to-face with buyers. It is game over for field sales. It is time for inside sales to take the field. Those companies that recognize this will grow and prosper in ways in which their competitors will not.
About the Author
Stephen Howell is a multifaceted expert with a wealth of experience in technology, business management, and development. He is the innovative mind behind the cutting-edge Chatbot ChatGPT plugin for WordPress. Utilizing the robust capabilities of OpenAI's API, this conversational chatbot can dramatically enhance your website's user engagement. Visit Chatbot ChatGPT to explore how to elevate your visitors' experience, and stay connected with his latest advancements and offerings in the WordPress community.