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What the growth of inside sales means to B2B marketers

I heard an arresting comment at the LeadsCon conference in New York in August.  The speaker claimed that inside sales has outstripped outside sales in B2B, a statistic that both surprised me and got me thinking.  Turns out, the statement was based on a recent study showing that inside sales is growing 7.5%, compared to field sales at only 0.5%, and that as of 2013, 53% of the B2B sales rep population sells by phone, instead of face-to-face.  It strikes me that this development bears enormous implications for B2B marketers.

On reflection, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, since phone-based selling is so much more efficient than hitting the road to make face-to-face sales calls. Inside sales has graduated over time from the role of inbound order-taker to a full-fledged territory rep with a full sales quota, but one who can handle a lot more accounts.

Interestingly, inside sales reps appear to be more effective as well.  The same study shows their quota achievement levels at 85%, compared to field sales, who only achieve their quotas 81% of the time.

Many large enterprises have moved to a tiered selling model, where field sales cover large accounts, inside sales manages the relationship with mid-level accounts, and the smaller, less active customers are served by distributors, catalogs, or e-commerce.

Another common model is pairing up one or more field reps with one inside rep, who handles tasks like appointment setting, and in effect extends the reach of the field reps by keeping in closer contact with their accounts and nurturing the relationship. The efficiencies of both sales coverage models are apparent.

Another driver of this trend is changes in buyer behavior, where business buyers are researching online, and demonstrating buying signals.  The first human interaction with these researchers is likely to be over the phone, in a lead development role.

But where does marketing come in to the mix?  Very similarly to the traditional field sales model: by providing qualified leads, lead qualification and nurturing programs, sales materials, opportunities for sales contact–like webinars, events and online communities.  So, as inside sales takes on the role of account management, marketing needs to provide them with the support known as “sales enablement.”

But there are differences, as well. Marketing needs to recognize the constraints that characterize a phone based relationship, and seek creative ways to overcome them. Here are some ideas:

Digital contact tools, like text chat and video chat, to supplement the inside salesperson’s traditional phone and email interactions. Also it’s a good idea to provide reps with email templates and robust content libraries so they can easily craft informative email messages.

Video.  B2B video applications are wide ranging today.  For an inside sales rep, video can be an easy and efficient way to deepen customer relationships. Reps can not only create self-introductory videos, but also product reviews, helpful analyses—the possibilities are endless.

Social selling tools.  IBM, for example, provides social selling tools and training to its inside sales reps.  Each rep has a web page, containing a social media feed, a video self-introduction, and links to content; some are provided by marketing, and some are selected personally by the rep.  Reps can also monitor social conversations to identify trends and opinions.  One IBM inside sales rep reported connecting with a CIO through LinkedIn and ending up with a $500k deal.

Community. Phone based sales reps may find online communities a productive environment for interacting with customers and attracting prospects.

Face to face opportunity.  Just because the rep is on the phone doesn’t mean there’s never a chance to meet the customer in person. Send your inside sales people to the trade shows where their customers are in attendance. Make sure they book appointments in advance.  Organize meeting opportunities at the show, like breakfasts or coffee events.

Reasons to call.  Inside sales reps are always looking for good excuses to contact individuals in their accounts. A steady stream of good quality content is essential to this mission. Conduct regular statistical modeling of customer purchase patterns to identify “next best product” ideas. A rep will welcome the chance to call a customer with a relevant suggestion for cross-buying.

Do you have other ideas for how marketing can provide leverage to the inside sales team?

Ruth Stevens

Ruth Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, for both consumer and business-to-business clients. Ruth serves on the boards of directors of the HIMMS Media Group, and the Business Information Industry Association. She is a trustee of Princeton-In-Asia, past chair of the Business-to-Business Council of the DMA, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York. Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain’s BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She serves as a mentor to fledgling companies at the ERA business accelerator in New York City. Ruth is a guest blogger at AdAge, HBR.org, and Target Marketing Magazine. Her newest book is B2B Data-Driven Marketing: Sources, Uses, Results. She is also the author of Maximizing Lead Generation: The Complete Guide for B2B Marketers, Trade Show and Event Marketing, and co-author of the white paper series “B-to-B Database Marketing.” Ruth is a sought-after speaker and trainer, and has presented to audiences and business schools in Asia, Australia, and Latin America. She has held senior marketing positions at Time Warner, Ziff-Davis, and IBM. She studied marketing management at Harvard Business School, and holds an MBA from Columbia University. Learn more at www.ruthstevens.com.

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Discussion

  1. Avatar Mike Barlow

    Fabulous article on growth of inside B2B sales! It strikes me that the success of inside B2B sales will depend (at least initially, and to varying degrees) on the reputation of the brand being sold, since inside sales rep usually don’t take clients to lunch, etc … In other words, if the brand has a great reputation, then the inside reps will have a leg up. If, on the other hand, the brand has a lousy reputation, then the inside sales reps will face an uphill struggle, since it’s generally harder to be charming and persuasive over the phone than it is to be charming and persuasive in person. The net takeaway is that as inside sales grow, managing brand reputation becomes even more critical.

  2. Avatar Miguel

    Dear Ruth, thank you for sharing such an interesting article with relevant data about the direction sales are taking. I got the same sort of thoughts as you mention above. Surprise at first… but it soon fades away.
    When one think about the tools we have nowadays to communicate with customers (I am thinking about Webex, for example), plus having a CRM open on the screen, with all the data available on Linkedin & other social networks about the prospect at sight…
    Well, in my opinion, having both such resources and tools, sales becomes something different, creativity still plays a crucial role, but freshly updated data gets as important on the play.

  3. Ruth Stevens Ruth Stevens

    Mike, great point about the importance of the brand. Reminds me of the famous McGraw-Hill ad, “I don’t know who you are…”
    Miguel, I appreciate your point about creativity. The tools are there–it’s up to us to use them wisely!

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