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Inside/Outside, Is It Even Relevant Anymore?

by David Brock on February 10th, 2016

Sometimes I wonder about the discussions I hear about Inside versus Outside/Field/Direct sales.  I suppose, at one point in time the distinction was relevant.

Or at least it reinforced stereotypes of what we thought each was and the value they represent to the organization.

In ancient times, when I started selling (the ’80’s), I started as a direct/field sales person.  We were the people that “pushed big iron,” we did the multimillion dollar deals.  Supposedly, we were out in the field everyday, in customers’ offices doing deals.  We tended to think of inside sales as those people sitting in the office, waiting for the phone to ring, just focused on small deals, doing very high volumes.

It’s hard to remember so far back, but I recall being in customers’ offices a lot.  But I also recall being on the phone a lot.  Many of my customers were in remote locations, or across the globe.  I couldn’t see them frequently, but they still needed to buy the “big iron,” and I still had the opportunity to do big deals.  A lot of the customers were literally around the corner (I had an office in my customer’s facilities).  But it was often easier to pick up the phone to have a quick conversation.

In those ancient times, inside sales started changing a lot, primarily with new phone and computer technology.  We field guys were a little mystified, and frankly thankful that we weren’t in the “sweatshops.”  The image of the inside sales was very high volume, transactional types of sales.  Inside sales people were measured on average call duration, number of calls per day, average transaction volumes.  We became familiar with scripts (though we field sales people had scripts–we just called them pitches).  I’d visit some of the call centers, and see people with head sets, boards at the front with call tallies, queues, and all sorts of minute by minute data.  People would try to complete a call as fast as possible, hang up, move to the next.

Movies memorialized the negative side of these (Boiler Room, even the more current Wolves of Wall Street).  Comedians would joke about annoying telemarketers–that’s what a lot of inside sales people were called, even though they were doing no marketing, just pure selling.

We field sales guys were, honestly, relieved.  Many of us thought about, “how do you build a relationship, what about all those ‘really important’ customer lunches.”  Everyone, inside/outside alike, had the stereotype that inside sales did the high volume, low value transactional or commoditized stuff.  They focused on taking orders, “one-call closes.”  The heavy lifting, big/complex deals that had long sales cycles were where the action was–that was the realm of the outside/field/direct sales person.

While all that was long ago (80’s-9o’s, even now).  The stereotypes emerged and still persist.  We still think transactional versus complex.  We still think inside for transactions/high volume/fast cycle/low volume—inside.  We still think complex/low volume/high value–field.

Field sales was changing as well, but we tend to gloss over those changes.  More and more time was being spent on the phone–though we didn’t have leaderboards in our offices with call queues, call duration, and so forth.  As a sales manager/executive, I wanted to maximize the productivity of my sales people.  I didn’t want them jumping into cars or onto planes, without a lot of meetings set up.  I wanted to maximize the value of every minute they spent with the customers.  So a lot of work was being done over the phones.  More and more was being accomplished without having to be face to face with the customer.

In the mean time (we’ve moved from ancient times to olden times–the 90’s), there was a quiet change going on in inside sales.  I remember the DEC Telemarketing Center in the outskirts of Boston  (Some of you will have to go to the history books or Wikipedia to look up DEC).  I started working with them.  We started seeing “inside sales” people working on very big, long cycle, complex deals.  Not all of their deals were like this, but also very few of their deals were transactional/one call closes.  The leaderboards were less important.  We started working with teams on deal reviews, pipeline management.

Hmmm, this was starting to look a lot like field sales, but they were sitting in an office complex off Route 128–actually, I think it was I-95, but somehow it seems more tech cool to say Route 128.  There was another change with these teams.  Every once in a while, maybe a couple times a year, they’d get on planes and go visit their customers.  Not often, but to build relationships and to start talking about their future plans.

Another thing started to happen at the time.  B2B web-stores and ecommerce was emerging.  Organizations were leveraging the web in building websites where people knowing what they wanted to buy could order–without having to talk to an inside sales person.  Much of what had been viewed as “transactions” were moving out of the call centers and onto the web.

On the field sales side, we kept looking at how we could increase productivity.  But the concept of “face time” was changing.  We looked at how we could leverage time in the field, time on the phone and other things to maximize the productivity and efficiency of those field sales people.  Being in the customers’ offices was important, but increasingly focusing those moments on the most impactful discussions, moving other discussions to phones was good.  One of the biggest shifts was in prospecting.  The old method of going office to office, asking for a meeting was being abandoned as quickly as possible.  Calling, setting appointments, prospecting over the phone drove much better use of sales people’s time.

Fast forward to today.  It’s hard to distinguish between inside and outside/field/direct sales–other than the outdated labels and stereotypes we still cling to.  Yes, there are still call centers doing a lot of the same things we have traditionally thought of with inside sales.  Yes, there are folks that spend most of their time in customers offices.

But more frequently, we see sales people working from all sorts of places, in offices, in their customer locations, Starbucks, home, remotely.  They leverage many technologies, whether the phone, conferencing tools, video, or mobile tools.  Engaging our customers is less about physical presence but connecting with them in ways that create great value.

The old stereotypes are no longer valid.  Yet many still leverage them in discussing inside and outside sales, promoting one or the other.  But that’s not the really important discussion.

It seems the more relevant discussion is how we most effectively and efficiently engage our customers in helping them achieve their goals and grow their businesses.  The models of how that is done will vary and will continue to evolve, partly enabled by technology, partly based on how customers want to be engaged.  We will look at how we segment the work differently, including models with SDR’s, specialists, account development, opportunity, territory management.  (Another outmoded idea is hunter-farmer.  Everyone’s a hunter.)

Executives need to understand how we to do this, at scale, growing our own businesses and assuring we achieve our own goals–while simultaneously driving great value to customers.

Work has changed, not just for sales, but for everyone.  It’s not very useful or productive to reminisce about the “good old days,” or to apply dated sales models.


  1. Dave Bard permalink

    Firstly your chronology of this Darwinian Evolution of the sales role is excellent. And, yes, using carbon dating I’m an old (not to be confused with old school) sales guy as well. That said my biggest takeaway is:

    “It seems the more relevant discussion is how we most effectively and efficiently engage our customers in helping them achieve their goals and grow their businesses.”

    And guess what, that has always been and will always be our role….

    • Great observation Dave. That has and always will be the root of selling. We need to keep focused on that. Everything else facilitates our ability to achieve that goal–which enables us to achieve our goals.

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