My latest Harvard Business Review article titled The Trend That is Changing Sales was based upon in-depth research with over one-hundred vice presidents of sales at leading high technology companies and business services providers. Please click here if you would like to receive the full 29 page report on the latest sales organization strategies and key sales performance metrics.
Over the past several decades the structure of sales organizations have remained largely the same. They have been primarily based on outside field salespeople who make face-to-face sales calls with prospective customers and current clients. In turn, the field salespeople would be supported by inside sales representatives who helped them complete their daily tasks.
Today, the traditional sales organization structure is undergoing a significant change. Many sales organizations are transitioning from a field sales model to an inside sales model, where the inside salespeople work independently from the field and are directly responsible for closing business. In order to understand the magnitude of this trend, in-depth interviews and extensive surveys were conducted with over one-hundred vice presidents of sales at leading high technology companies and business services providers. The resulting researchprovided detailed insights about the evolution of sales organizations along with the following key finding:
Over the past two years, forty-six percent of study participants reported a shift from a field sales model to an inside sales model. Twenty-one percent reported a shift from inside sales to a field sales model. More than twice as many study participants reported moving to an inside sales model.
There are three key factors that determine when a sales organization will utilize a field or inside sales model. They are the sales organization’s stage of development, the complexity of the products that are sold, and to a lesser extent, the sales leader’s perception of inside and outside sales model effectiveness.
Sales Organization Development Stage
Every sales organization can be classified into a "Build," "Compete," "Maintain," “Extend,” or "Cull" stage based upon its development. The Build stage is when the sales organization is first establishing itself. If successful, it will proceed to a high-growth Compete stage and then to Maintain stage that is contingent upon predictable success. As the sales organization ages, it will enter either the Extend stage and enjoy longevity or the Cull stage, where it declines and is forced to reduce its size. The ratio of outside or inside salespeople changes as the organization moves from the Build to Compete to Maintain development stages.
The challenges sales organizations face is dependent upon the stage of their development. The top sales challenge in the Build stage is creating sufficient sales coverage to push the product into the market. The Compete stage challenge revolves around quickly scaling the sales organization so it can compete effectively against larger established competitors. The focus shifts to maximizing sales productivity by lowering the cost of sale and increasing the average sales price in the Maintain stage. The Extend stage challenge is to attain widespread customer adoption so their solution becomes the de facto standard. The Cull stage challenge is to revitalize a demoralized and marginalized sales force. These challenges directly influence the sales organization’s structure and whether a field or inside sales model will be deployed.
Sales Cycle Complexity
The complexity of the sales cycle determines the evolution of the sales organization and at what point outside field or inside-based sales models will be implemented. Sales cycle types can be classified by complexity as Enterprise, Platform Cloud-based or Point-specific. Each of these sales cycles vary in complexity depending upon the number of individuals and departments involved in the selection process, the size of purchase, and sophisticated nature of the solution offered.
Enterprise sales typically are large capital expenditure purchases that involve long sales cycles. Multiple departments of a company and all levels of the organization (C-level executive, mid-level management, and lower-level personnel) are needed to approve the solution’s functionality and its purchase. A point-specific sales cycle is usually targeted to solve the business problems of single department within an organization and the purchase decision is made by a small number of decision-makers usually at the lower-level of the organization. The Platform Cloud-based sale provides a turnkey business solution for the customer over the internet and is sold directly to the business users of an organization. There is a preferential field and inside sales model strategy for each of the sales cycle types. For example, a field sales model is preferred for enterprise sales cycles and an inside sales model is preferred for Platform Cloud-based sales cycles.
Sales Leaders Perception of Field and Inside Sales Models
While the goal of this study was to gather quantifiable metrics based on surveys and interviews with sales leaders, there is another aspect of sales model decision making that cannot be ignored. Ninety-eight percent of study participants responded that the characteristics between inside and outside salespeople are significantly or somewhat different.
Most sales leaders believe that outside salespeople have superior sales skills and the most accomplished sales professionals are in the field as evidenced by the sales leader comments below. This in turn can influence their decision and whether they implement a field or inside sales model.
“Field Sales is more strategic, meeting with C-level executives and developing strategic business innovation to help them grow their business versus inside which is more quantity and not as in depth majority of the time.”
“Inside Sales is a transactional engagement and the focus is on opening opportunities. Outside teams are solution and relationship based.”
“Outside sales requires far more emotional intelligence, situational awareness and planning. Our inside sales, while equally demanding, requires persistence, research, and back end work.”
Furthermore, many sales leaders have a personal bias toward deploying outside salespeople over inside sales. In some cases, this inclination was based on their own experience from many years ago when they were in field sales. However, this historical disposition is being offset by the changing nature of how customers buy today. Customers are smarter and information is not only easier to find, but available in greater detail than ever before. In addition, technology has become a way of life and completely disrupted the buying process. Via the Internet, customers can research products, prices, and opinions.
This situation is driving more sales leaders to consider and then deploy an inside sales model. For example, study participants were asked to rank the influential factors that are responsible for the migration from field to inside sales. Sixty percent responded that it was due to the increasing pressure on business performance and profitability. Fifty-four percent said it was due to technology advancements. Forty-seven percent felt that buyers more readily accept the remote selling process and thirty-four percent believed it is because of societal changes such as a mobile workforce and personal online purchasing habits.
Study participants also cited the following advantages of an inside sales model compared to field sales model. Eighty-four percent believe it is easier to onboard new salespeople and share best practices. Seventy-nine percent responded that inside sales allows the organization to scale faster. Increased call activity and selling volume was cited by seventy-eight percent of responders. Seventy-six percent acknowledge that inside sales provides a better strategy to penetrate small businesses and mid-markets.
Today, there is a changing perception among sales leaders about the strategic role inside sales performs. This change is due to the benefits that sales leaders believe the inside model provides in terms of scaling activity, growing the organization, and attacking specific markets.