Pre-COVID-19, I began researching and writing about why inside sales really matters in a business-to-business (B2B) sales environment and the powerhouse this channel can be to support a sales strategy and a great customer experience. Globalization and a virtual world had made the sales landscape more complex to navigate while spurring leadership to question the best go-to-market model including the design of an organization to support growth of brand-new business opportunities while retaining their existing business and accounts.
In this new series of articles on “The Future of Sales” I want to help guide you through the journey of rethinking sales by providing a framework that includes the big go-to-market and operational considerations to support a successful transition into the future.
As I delve deeper into my research, I was surprised to learn that “inside sales” can mean something very different depending on whom you ask. To keep it simple, I am referring to salespeople who are employed by a company to sell products and services to the buyers of another business (called accounts) with limited or no face-to-face interaction. Today the typical inside sales professional leverages the phone, email, video, and the internet to make this happen. Most importantly, prior to the pandemic of 2020, inside sales professionals primarily worked in a centralized location in a team environment referred to as a call center or the inside sales “center of excellence.” At the time I started my research, inside sales was becoming the fastest growing area of the sales profession in terms of new hires, with a hiring rate of 15:1 over customer-facing sales roles according to a July 2018 CSO Insights report. Customer-facing sales roles are typically referred to as “field sales” by the company they work for. Their primary job is to sell products and services with a high priority of building relationships to grow revenue by understanding their customers’ needs primarily through face-to-face interaction. This can happen at a customer’s place of business, conferences, and industry events—or even over lunch or dinner. When not traveling to visit customers, field salespeople commonly work out of an office environment where they can touch base with their managers and other team members.
Then came an unprecedented pandemic in modern times that shut down businesses—and inside sales was redefined forever. As of this writing, we are still dealing with closed borders, travel limitations, social distancing rules, and people working from home. Add to that the complexity salespeople have been facing with supply issues due to manufacturing, ports being shut down or slowed for high demand products, and the inability to sell products that have become irrelevant or are in low demand. By the second quarter of 2020, 90 percent of sales organizations in the United States and beyond had shifted to remote selling with many industries shifting to 100 percent, according to data from Statista. For sales, this meant a massive shift in how people do their jobs, and most notably how they are interacting with their customers and one another.
What started out for me as a quest to help companies understand how they could best leverage inside sales and field sales teams as part of their go-to-market strategy, literally changed overnight. At its best, an inside sales function (or channel) operates within a team-oriented sales environment where people learn from one another and where openly acknowledging and celebrating success is part of the culture. It’s a place that is bustling with noise and activity; it sounds a lot like a day trading floor. There are leaderboards, contests, bells that ring, shout-outs, and other demonstrative rewards for high performance. Wins are celebrated. Rewarding both individual and team accomplishment is commonplace. It’s the best combination of collaboration and competition in sales.
Compare that with field sales, the other primary sales channel supporting B2B selling. Field salespeople are primarily responsible for their own sales efforts, although they are in close contact with their managers, other salespeople, customer service, and various support roles to help them achieve their goals. People in a field sales role have limited time in the office and are more than likely spending most of their time traveling to their customers’ places of business. These people are most notably standouts when it comes to meeting new people and building relationships. They tend to be gregarious and outgoing, and those who are really good at their job enjoy the challenges of building new business by breaking into new accounts and coming up with long-term solutions to their customers’ problems.
The roles of inside and field sales are not intended to be interchangeable when it comes to serving customers, and both can successfully complement the sales strategy and coverage model of a sales organization. Before COVID-19, the problem I was solving for was helping sales professionals, from the leadership to the front-line, understand and navigate a sales landscape where technology and informed buyers were rapidly changing how salespeople needed to service and sell to customers. At the time I was focused on helping companies understand how inside sales and field sales could be leveraged together in a changing sales environment to drive new revenue and build upon an existing customer base. The responsibilities and expectations of both roles were getting confused and at times unrealistic; a lot of unfounded conclusions were being formed by buyers, sellers, and the companies that employed them.
Until COVID-19. Suddenly, everyone was selling not just from the inside, but from their homes!
Companies abruptly closed their offices. Gone were the centers of excellence. On-site meetings, conferences, and other events were canceled. Sales organizations that wanted to educate, inform, and encourage learning and sharing among their customers were forced to find new ways to facilitate these activities. And then there was the challenge of building new relationships.
Virtually all sales transformed to selling “from the inside” but with a completely different dynamic of selling from a home environment. Both internally with employees and externally with customers face-to-face contact was abruptly halted, leaving many questions that companies and salespeople are looking to answer.
Arguably, there are more questions than answers.
“What is the right sales organization design for my business once the pandemic is behind us?”
“Will inside salespeople return to the office as a team again?”
“Will field salespeople travel to see customers again?”
“How has the pandemic changed the way we sell to our customers, and how will we interact with them moving forward?”
These questions and more encompass the overarching question:
“What does the future of sales look like for me and for my company?”
For the first time in modern history, the sales landscape has been turned into a level playing field without any set rules of play. What was thought to be a short-term crisis has turned out to be a long-term change. New habits have developed for both buyers and sellers, businesses are seeing the financial impact both from an expense and revenue perspective, and I don’t believe things will ever be “as they once were” for the world of sales.
But let’s face it: in sales, from forecasting and quotas, to placing bets on new products and services, uncertainty has always come with the territory (no pun intended). Even with all the planning and market research a company does, sales projections and market opportunity remain uncertain and subject to change.
The pandemic layered in a new global crisis that we have not seen before, and it comes with no guidebook or history that we can learn from. Sales leaders who now have teams of people selling from their homes (often to customers who are working from their homes) are trying to determine the best path ahead. The pandemic forced people “inside,” but without the ability, for any company to reflect and plan for how this should work. This has become a problem for companies and their people as they have been put in a position of rethinking the future of sales without much track record to rely on as a starting point. If you are a leader redesigning your team, or a manager rethinking how your team will navigate a new and rapidly changing sales environment, or an individual in sales thinking about your own future, the future of sales is already here.
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