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The Eroding Distinction Between Inside And Field Sales

by David Brock on October 15th, 2015
inside outside sales

There’s a lot written about the shift from field sales to inside sales.  It makes sense–but I wonder is there really much of a distinction between inside and outside sales.  Perhaps our notions of inside and outside sales are outdated and we might be better served just focusing on sales.

In the “old days,” there were clear distinctions between inside and outside sales.

I started my career a field or outside sales person.  We were expected to be out of the office calling on customers, in fact for a while we were fined if we were in the office during business hours doing anything but entering an order (that summer, my colleagues and I saw a lot of movies.).

My life as a field sales person in New York City was easier than my colleagues in other parts of the world.  I had a very large corporate customer, I spent my days wandering from office to office meeting face to face with my customers.  My colleagues in “mid-America” spent long hours driving from customer to customer and meeting to meeting (not really very efficient).

The phone was a powerful tool, but mostly for short conversations.  We used it to set up meetings, confirm meetings, answer short questions, get information.  Some of the customers in my account were located around the world, so I’d have occasional conversations with them, but never really any “selling” until we met face to face.

In those days, we had the idea that what we sold were very expensive (millions of dollars), very complex solutions.  Lots of people were involved and the sales cycle was very long.  The way people wanted to be engaged was in face to face meetings–some one on one, some group meetings.  We were not only the “big deal” sales people, we had the highest quotas–multi million and up.

Prospecting also tended to be face to face–I’d go office to office, knocking on doors, asking for a few minutes time.  Or I’d go to the desks of executive assistants, trying to arrange meetings.  My colleagues in the hinterlands used to drive along the roads, “Smoke stack hunting.”  (I used that term recently and a sales person came up for an explanation–talk about feeling old.)

Inside sales existed, but it was mainly for highly transactional types of deals.  Typically, “one-call closes.”  The value of the deals was much smaller, the volume was very high.  Inside sales people typically had very scripted conversations, were under pressure for high volumes of calls.  A visit to the customer was never required.  They had quotas too, but their quotas were typically smaller, in the $100’s of thousands, maybe creeping into a million.

Over time, though, these distinctions have gone away.

I first started seeing the elimination of these distinctions in the mid 90’s.  I was doing work with the Digital Equipment (DEC) telesales team  (Those were the old days).  The team was quite remarkable.  They shattered a lot of the beliefs I had about field sales and inside sales.  I remembers, one day while I was working with them, a sales person came to me saying, “Dave, I just closed that $2M deal I’ve been working on for the past 6 months!”

Those things just didn’t happen–after all you had to be face to face with the customer to close those types of deals.  And no inside sales person ever made more than a few calls to close a deal–typically over a few days.  It was unimaginable to work 6 months on a deal as an inside sales person.  Even more amazing about that team was that every once in a while the inside sales people would go out to visit a customer.  It wasn’t every day or even every week.  But every few months, they would go to visit major customers, usually focusing on meeting new people, developing deeper relationships, and understanding long term plans.

Fast forward to today.  The traditional distinctions between inside and field sales have, largely, been shattered.

I look at our own company.  All of us are traditional hard core field sales people.  We close very large, long cycle, complex deals.  95% of the time, the first time any of us meet face to face with the customer is after we’ve closed a deal and are starting a project.  Most of our work is done on Skype, GoToMeeting, telephone, or through email.  We don’t have the time–It’s two days out one day back and a lot of money to meet with a prospect in Sydney.  Our customers don’t have the time or need for us to be face to face.

I look at our clients–mostly organizations doing very large complex B2B deals.  They are similar.  The customers for each sales person may be spread across the country or around the world, so it’s very difficult to meet face to face.  Much of what they do is on the phone, the ratio of face to face versus phone/video meetings is probably tilted toward the latter category.  Yes, they still spend a lot of time in the field, but the ideas of the old days, where we had to be constantly face to face have gone away.

The old notions of inside sales have changed a lot as well.  The pressure cooker, high volume atmosphere still exists for some organizations, but it’s not universal–or even in the majority.  The idea of inside sales only for low value, highly transactional, short cycle sales is no longer completely valid.  The lead “inside sales” person for one of my clients routinely books $50-100K deals, he’s been working on for months, and he does millions a year.

It’s become very difficult for me to distinguish between and Inside and Field Sales Person.  The old distinctions have gone away.  Face time with the customer has translated to “Face time” with the customer—hopefully you understand the distinction.  Short cycle, long cycle distinctions are less relevant, average deal size is less relevant.

Yet we cling to the old terms of Inside and Field Sales–all largely based on very dated models or mental images.

These models have been shattered.  They no longer serve us in looking at Go To Customer strategies, sales deployment models, or how customers like to be engaged.  Those models hold us back from designing the right buying experiences.  Sales executives I speak with tend to focus less on field versus internal, but more on how we design the most effective/efficient process, how do we define the roles/responsibilities to manage a wide range of needs, engagement models, how do we leverage our resources and spending to maximum impact.  Selling will always have a need for physical presence in certain situations and virtual presence in others.  But the stereotyped distinctions of this don’t make sense.

Yes they are useful if you want to declare field sales is dead and write articles about the shift to inside sales.  Have at it–but it’s not a terribly useful discussion.

It seems more useful to eliminate these old distinctions focusing instead on how we most effectively and efficiently engage our customers, creating great buying experiences, and driving our own profitable growth.

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  1. I like your statement about focusing on the best ways to effectively and efficiently engage customers, create a great buying experience and drive profitable growth.

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