Technology Is Blurring the Line Between Field Sales and Inside Sales
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Field sales and inside sales have traditionally had their own domains. Field salespeople did the heavy-lifting, working with customers in person. Inside salespeople sold over the telephone and web, and were responsible for the uncomplicated products, small and remotely-located customers, and simpler sales tasks, such as lead generation and renewals.
But in today’s digital world, field sales is tapping into the tools of inside sales. At the same time, inside sales is invading the turf of field sales. Consequently, companies must rethink how they structure, hire, support, manage, and incentivize field and inside sales forces.
The blending of field and inside sales is driven by the digital revolution in three related ways.
First, digital is powering freemium and subscription sales businesses which steer customers to buy from digital and inside sales channels, rather than from expensive field salespeople.
Second, digital communication tools have become ubiquitous, as the quality of technology continues to soar. Increasingly, customers and salespeople (both inside and field) use email, live video, online tools, and websites when sharing information, developing and evaluating alternatives, and completing sales transactions.
Finally, data and analytics are informing more decisions for salespeople, sales managers and sales leaders, both for field and inside sales.
Impact on Field Sales
We estimate that most field salespeople interact with customers remotely more than half of the time. Many of these contacts serve simple purposes such as prospecting or following up on in-person conversations. Yet increasingly, these remote communications are focused on more complex issues. At a software company, field salespeople now do most product demos using online tools rather than at the customer’s site. The online demos make it easier for people in multiple locations to participate. For example, the customer can invite users from regional offices and the company can bring in an expert from across the globe to address the customer’s questions.
Customers and field salespeople are interacting over live video more and more. Customers frequently prefer this, especially when they are already knowledgeable about their purchase. Virtual meetings allow field salespeople to be more efficient (sell at lower cost), while still being effective.
Impact on Inside Sales
Inside sales has muscled its way into serving larger customers with complex needs. Also, inside salespeople who once performed only simple tasks (generating leads, getting renewals) are doing more complex steps, including assessing customer needs, crafting solutions, and closing sales.
At an education technology company, the inside sales role evolved to a hybrid inside/field role as the product offering became more complex. Although the company’s salespeople still do most selling over the phone and web, they visit customers when warranted by the complexity of the customer situation and the size of the opportunity.
Improving technology and increasing digital savvy of customers and salespeople make inside salespeople more effective (generating more sales for the effort), while still being efficient.
Implications for Sales Management
Sales managers should consider three changes to help their organizations deal with these changes by helping field salespeople leverage digital tools, while enabling inside sales teams to move up the complexity ladder:
Flexible sales organization structures. Field-heavy sales organizations such as W.W. Grainger and Oracle are shifting sales responsibilities from field salespeople to inside salespeople and digital self-service channels. At the same time, digital native companies such as Slack and Zoom are adding inside and field salespeople. These and other subscription sales companies are also doubling down on adding customer success managers, a hybrid field/inside role for helping customers realize ongoing value, thus driving usage and more business. In all cases, structures are evolving to give customers flexibility to connect using field sales, inside sales, digital channels, or all three simultaneously. The choice depends on each customer’s level of knowledge and the complexity of needs.
In the past, companies revisited sales organization structure every two or three years, or when faced with a major opportunity or crisis. But today, waves of change in customer knowledge, markets, and the digital landscape are colliding against the traditional rigidity of sales force structures. The number and mix of field and inside salespeople need to adapt almost continuously.
New enablers of sales activity. Field salespeople at a pharmaceutical company use a “suggestion engine” to get recommendations about what information to provide each physician and how to share the information (e.g. with an in-person visit, phone call, or digital message). At an airline, a digital assistant prompts field key account executives to offer the benefits (e.g. ease of booking, upgrades, expense management) each customer values. Such tools are business-as-usual for inside salespeople. But field salespeople are used to a more organic and self-directed approach which relies on their own judgement and experience for adapting sales activity to a customer’s style and needs. As field salespeople become more data-driven, silos of field sales, inside sales, and marketing are crumbling. A computer technology company has customer teams for large U.S. enterprise accounts. Each team has a U.S.-based field sales team leader, assisted by a U.S.-based inside salesperson and an India-based inside salesperson. The teams rely on a system that captures customer histories and profiles, tracks all customer-company interactions, and provides insights about the best offerings and channels for serving each customer.
As data and tools support more data-driven field salespeople, inside salespeople also need new tools to help them venture beyond scripted customer interactions and engage in more autonomous problem-solving. And as inside salespeople have a more direct hand in closing sales, their performance metrics and incentives must align. Results will get emphasized compared to productivity metrics such as talk time and number of contacts.
Changing sales talent. Field salespeople still need face-to-face interpersonal skills. But to win in the changing world, field salespeople must also excel at leveraging data-based insights and communicating virtually, using methods such as online video, email, and social selling. At the same time, inside salespeople need new skills for succeeding in customer acquisition roles. These include a higher-level of problem-solving abilities for partnering with customers to address complex business issues. Sales force hiring and training must adapt to these new success profiles.