Inside Sales, Outside Sales, or In Between? Two sales models in flux.

by Margery Murphy on September 10, 2020

Sales work falls into two big categories: inside sales and outside sales. As the name implies, inside sales is based in an office with the majority of prospect and customer interactions happening over the phone or email. Outside sales, in contrast, tends to involve travel to meet with customers and prospects, within a portion of one metropolitan area or entire time zone or more. Reps visit prospects’ and customers’ facilities and attend events in “the field.”

In this post, we’ll look at inside sales vs. outside sales and how they’re changing.

Two approaches to the same goal

In industrial sales, both types of reps sell highly technical products to a specialized audience. Because of this, inside or away from their home office, they must be able to explain their knowledge of the specific industry, relevant challenges, and how their solution can solve problems. Often these reps have some technical or engineering background and are familiar with manufacturing processes (e.g. welding, metal fabrication, injection molded polymer characteristics) as well as common challenges with production lines, skilled trades, etc.

Both inside and outside reps also rely on customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation tools to record notes about interactions and streamline nurturing process and keep in touch via template email messages.

The exact responsibilities and types of customers and products inside and outside reps focus on depend on how a company structures its sales department and how large or small it is. But there are some basic differences that hold true in most organizations:

Outside sales

  1. Serves as a designated contact for prospects and customers in a given territory or industry or “vertical” segment
  2. Attends events like trade shows, conferences, lunch-and-learns, and workshops
  3. Works independently and schedules their own visits and meetings with each customer
  4. Travels to factories or corporate offices to give demos, check in on equipment, make and close deals
  5. Works a range of hours and times of day (e.g. breakfast or dinner meetings)
  6. May meet with several people in an organization or work closely with an individual decision maker, or may participate in speaking engagements in front of groups
  7. Engages physically and verbally, and may bring samples for onsite demos
  8. Uses email and phone for follow up and nurturing, but primary communication is in person
  9. Observes first-hand any potential issues with equipment/layout/access at the facility

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Inside sales

  1. May work with a less well-defined territory
  2. Must communicate verbally about manufacturing challenges and how their solution helps, usually without seeing what the facility looks like
  3. Works standardized hours in an office with other sales team members for support
  4. Must find ways to counteract the inability to use nonverbal communication cues that can set prospects at ease, build relationship, keep them engaged, etc.
  5. Knowledge of the prospect’s needs is usually limited to what he or she is willing to divulge
  6. Relies on nurturing and follow up to check in and inquire about needs and challenges
  7. Uses email and phone for communication and may make heavy use of online content (e.g. brochures, eBooks, whitepapers)
  8. May place cold calls or speak with a series of people on the phone, seeking referrals to the correct contact (learn more about inside sales calling here)

Disruptive forces at work

The boundaries between these two sales models have changed drastically since the COVID-19 pandemic began just a few months ago. But change has been in the works in the last several years, and only amplified by the virus, mass layoffs, and workplace shutdowns.

Growth in digital and inbound marketing in the last few years has expanded the overlap between these types of sales representation. Prospects and customers have shown a strong preference for finding product and vendor information and even placing orders themselves online, only approaching a rep when they’re ready with specific questions.

Results from a 2019 survey by McKinsey found that in B2B settings, most buyers want a well-designed experience similar to B2C online shopping:

“Those suppliers who provide outstanding digital experiences to their buyers are more than twice as likely to be chosen as a primary supplier than those who provide poor experiences, and about 70 percent more likely than those providing only fair ones.” 

Now that the pandemic has severely limited in-person sales meetings and site visits, the online buying experience is more important than ever, and companies with a strong digital presence have an advantage.

Outside sales has had to adapt quickly, pivoting to video conferences, webinars, and other traditional inside sales methods. Additional challenges are reaching people who might be working from home and using a different phone number, and scheduling video calls between participants scattered in several locations.

It’s tempting to think that when the pandemic ends things will go back to how they used to be. But the virus is unpredictable, and there really is no definitive endpoint to the current situation. Reintroducing traditional outside sales methods is not as simple as turning light back on when a power outage ends because we’re more likely to see the public health situation change gradually over time. Add to that customer preference for self-serve information and minimal in-person interaction with reps, and some of the current changes could become permanent.

The researchers from the McKinsey study suggest that instead of trying to fit sales into two distinct categories it’s better to focus on getting information to the customer when they need it. “Re-orchestrating the customer experience and the accompanying sales processes across channels should be at the top of the list for sales leaders trying to manage effectively through this crisis and plan for recovery. So should determining how best to deploy sales professionals across channels to help customers and provide support when it is most needed.”

The takeaway is there’s more than one way to fill your pipeline and no time like the present to make sure yours is in good shape. Whether your team structure emphasizes inside sales, outside sales, or a combination, they need the right tools and techniques to communicate with prospects and each other. If you’re ready to get started or just want to be more effective, let us know.



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