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Inside vs. outside sales: a guide for today’s B2B sales leaders

Take a look at how inside and outside sales differ so you can adopt the most powerful sales model for your company’s growth.

By Lauren Funk

Published September 17, 2019
Last updated March 3, 2021

Implementing the right sales strategy is vital to the success of a business. For some companies, however, deciding between an outside vs. inside sales approach is a confusing process. Now more than ever, with the global pandemic affecting how businesses sell to customers, the lines are increasingly blurred.

In 2020, the majority of B2B companies shifted sales models from traditional, in-person selling (outside sales) to mostly digital (inside sales). Nearly 90 percent of companies expect their newly adopted digital sales models to become permanent. But for some companies, going 100 percent remote just isn’t an option. Others see the value in supporting both types of sales models.

Understanding the differences between inside and outside sales will help you determine which sales strategy will be most profitable for your company based on its unique characteristics and needs.

From there, you can ensure your current sales team (and future hires) knows what’s expected of it and has the proper skills to effectively carry out whichever sales strategy you choose, even if it’s a combination of both.

What is the difference between inside and outside sales?

If you were to ask about the difference between outside and inside sales a decade ago, the contrast would be obvious. Outside sales happen “outside” of the office—that is, salespeople travel to meet with customers. Inside sales happen “inside” the office, meaning salespeople sell to customers from behind a desk, usually via email or phone.

But with advances in technology and the demands of a COVID-era world, the line between the two is continually evolving. That being said, some universally accepted definitions help explain the two concepts.

Inside sales is the process of selling via telecommunications. The activities of an inside sales rep occur predominantly behind a desk at their place of employment or from home. Initially, inside sales happened primarily over the phone or email. These days, telecommunication can also include videoconferencing via platforms like Zoom and live chat and social media platforms, like LinkedIn and Twitter.

Outside sales, also known as field sales, is often considered to be the “traditional” sales approach. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an employee is considered an outside salesperson if their primary duty is to make sales, and they spend most of their work time away from the office. Because they meet with clients face-to-face in order to close a deal, outside salespeople spend the majority of their workday traveling.

Which sales model works best for your business?

The decision over what type of sales model to adopt for your business isn’t as straightforward as it used to be.

Traditionally, B2B companies based their decision on the type of product or service they were selling. Selling physical products to large companies required an outside sales force. Selling to small businesses and closing deals on low-cost services took an inside sales team.

But the global pandemic of 2020 turned those traditional assumptions on their heads. Companies around the world had to find new ways to demonstrate products and close complex deals through remote sales alone. Other B2B companies adopted self-service sales models with inside salespeople on standby via live chat.

“The technical barriers to change are falling rapidly,” a recent report by Harvard Business Review states. “Salespeople and customers are ready to change, too.”

In a recent survey by Forrester, 40 percent of B2B reps said “they plan to modify their tactics to adapt to remote selling activities.”

That isn’t to say the outside sales model is now obsolete. In some business scenarios, there’s no replacement for face-to-face interaction. But given our new remote-heavy environment, sales leaders will need a clear understanding of each model’s pros and cons to decide when outside sales is appropriate.

Inside sales: best for high-volume selling

Inside sales processes are inherently more time- and cost-efficient than those of outside sales. As a result, implementing an inside sales strategy may result in:

    Lower costs. Inside salespeople incur fewer incidental costs, such as travel and lodging. Furthermore, they only require a basic set of tools to do their job (access to a computer, Internet, and a phone). As working from home becomes the new norm, companies with remote inside sales teams save on paying for office space.

    More efficient sales cycles. Without having to travel and with ready access to internal tools and processes, using an inside sales approach can lead to a greater number of sales opportunities. The 2020 LinkedIn State of Sales report shows that 81 percent of sales professionals “are conducting more videoconferencing with face-to-face meetings limited.”

    Greater ability to sell to customers around the world. A distributed inside sales team can reach customers regardless of their time zone or geographical limitations.

    Aligns with self-service sales channels. A recent McKinsey report shows that 62 percent of B2B buyers prefer to use self-service options to order products and services. The same study shows that 33 percent of buyers rate live chat as extremely important to their buying journey. An inside sales process, combined with live chat and self-service, offers a low-touch approach to providing excellent digital experiences.

While the inside sales model is more efficient and cost-effective, it still presents some drawbacks. Digital interactions between reps and customers may not feel as personal as face-to-face conversations. Plus, following up remotely with distracted buyers is a big challenge. Inside sales reps need to do a lot of work to stay top-of-mind.

Outside sales: best for high-touch, old-school selling

Not every company can successfully shift to a 100 percent remote sales model. In a post-pandemic world, outside sales reps may benefit their companies in the following ways:

    Physical product demos. If your company sells physical products, field reps can present the benefits and features and invite prospects to interact with the items. Outside reps can also provide on-site training or consultative services that can’t be performed through virtual channels.

    Fewer distractions. In virtual meetings, participants often check their email, respond to Slack messages, or scroll social media. Face-to-face meetings demand the undivided attention of your audience. You can make a more lasting impression when it’s time for your buyer to decide.

    In-person support for enterprise B2B buying journeys. Selling to enterprise companies involves interactions with multiple decision-makers. Depending on the buying stage, it can be more time-efficient and impactful to get the entire buying group into the same room for a meeting. A Zoom call just doesn’t support the spontaneity of working together at a whiteboard or pulling other key stakeholders in to answer last-minute questions. Likewise, with account-based selling, it’s ideal to travel to the target company headquarters for in-person meetings where you can personally connect with customers.

As many companies have discovered in the past year, there are some drawbacks to having an outside sales team:

    More costly. If you support an outside sales team, be prepared to pay for travel and lodging, company cars, and entertaining clients.

    More time-consuming. Because in-person interactions involve travel time and aligning meeting schedules, outside sales teams take longer to close deals than inside sales.

    Changing buyer preferences. Millennial buyers pre-pandemic wanted to have fewer face-to-face meetings with sales reps and more interactions via email. That attitude is increasing across generations in the face of pandemic-era health risks. McKinsey reports that pre-pandemic, 52 percent of B2B decision-makers preferred traditional sales interactions. Today, 66 percent prefer virtual sales interactions. Once the pandemic is over, it’s likely that buyers will have adapted to digital channels and be less likely to shift back to older modes of buying.

Align your sales strategy to the buying journey of your target decision-maker. Ideally, you’re meeting your customer where they’re willing to buy, whether it’s in-person or at a distance, while staying safe.

How do tactics and processes differ for inside vs. outside sales?

While the steps of a clear sales process remain universal, the tools and tactics reps use vary depending on the model. As you may have guessed, outside sales tactics involve more analog communications, and inside sales tactics rely on technical tools.

Sales stage

Outside sales tactics

Inside sales tactics

Prospecting
  • In-person cold-calling (going door-to-door)
  • Live events (trade shows, networking events)
  • Following up on leads from marketing (free trials, webinars, virtual summits)
  • Social selling (outreach to social media connections)
  • Cold emails/cold-calling via phone
Qualifying
  • In-person consultative selling (meeting over coffee to discuss customer needs)
  • Automated lead scoring
  • Questionnaires
  • Virtual meetings
Presenting
  • In-person visual presentations, such as slide decks
  • Interactive demos
  • Brochures, handouts, business cards, and other paper collateral
  • Physical product demonstrations
  • Virtual, interactive demos (slide decks, software demos)
Closing
  • In-person meetings with decision-makers
  • Electronic contract signing
Following up
  • On-site training
  • Entertaining clients (delivering catered lunches, taking clients to sporting events)
  • Virtual training
  • Setting up a referral program
  • Sending gifts/handwritten notes via mail

Outside selling tactics are centered on establishing rapport through live conversations and delivering impactful presentations. What inside sellers lose in the richness of interactions they make up for in volume. Inside sellers can chase down many more leads per day with their phones than outside sellers can in person.

What to look for in inside vs. outside reps—and how to track their performance

Certain qualities are the mark of a good sales rep regardless of the model you adopt. But there are distinct factors—like willingness to travel or technical ability—that distinguish outside from inside sales reps.

Qualities to look for in a sales rep

Inside sales rep

Outside sales rep

Both

  • Persuasive writer
  • Comfortable with repetitive tasks/desk work
  • Tech-savvy
  • Persuasive speaker
  • Excellent live presentation skills
  • Comfortable traveling
  • Excellent communicator
  • Team player
  • Self-reliant
  • Resilient: can bounce back from rejection
  • Coachable
  • Competitive

As a manager, your coaching tactics will change depending on your team’s model. Outside sales managers need to hit the road with reps to see them in action and provide feedback. Inside sales managers review call recordings with reps and communicate feedback asynchronously.

Inside vs. outside sales: coaching

Inside sales rep

Outside sales rep

Both

  • Call recording reviews
  • Ride-alongs
  • Pipeline reviews
  • Team standups
  • Seminars/workshops

Inside vs. outside sales: performance tracking

Inside sales rep

Outside sales rep

Both

  • Outgoing call/contact volume
  • Territory penetration rate
  • New contacts
  • New opportunities in pipeline
  • Percentage of appointments set
  • Conversion rate
  • Average deal size

The main differences in measuring performance lie in tracking inside and outside sales activities. Outside rep performance is often measured by the territory penetration rate—that is, how many places reps have visited in an assigned area. You can use route-planning software to keep track of where your reps have been and where they’re going.

Inside sales activities are measured in outgoing call or email volume. Use tools like Zendesk Talk to monitor calls and track outbound call volume.

Today’s sales leaders are shifting to a new “hybrid” model for B2B sales

In a time where the B2B sales landscape has seen dramatic changes, a hybrid model can help your company overcome unique challenges. We asked 25 B2B sales leaders what model they’re currently using, and while 44 percent said they were supporting an inside team, 66 percent said they are using a mix of both outside and inside sales.

“[B2B] sales teams are adopting a hybrid approach that incorporates in-person for those who are comfortable, but also Zoom, call, text, and email,” says Trey Gibson, CEO of SPOTIO.

Even after the pandemic is over, 80 percent of the companies surveyed plan to stick to a combination of inside and outside sales.

Mosaic CEO Bijan Moallemi says the hybrid model will help his company get the most value out of outside sales calls.

“Face-time is important, and we’ll probably travel less, but we’ll make those trips longer and more impactful,” Moallemi says.

Other companies have realized the inside sales benefits of reaching more buyers while applying the outside sales mindset to building relationships.

“Our sales will become even more international now no one is expecting us to visit their offices,” says Roger Rois, commercial lead at Storyteq. “We have to keep focusing on the personal aspect of sales. In the end, people are buying from people.”

In today’s world, it’s best to stay nimble and be prepared to support both types of sales motions. Learn how Zendesk Sell equips modern sales teams to be proactive and act fast as they respond to a changing market.