by Michael Idinopulos
on April 30, 2015

Why Inside Sales is Trending Up: Reflections on 2015 AA-ISP Leadership Summit

If you haven’t looked at inside sales lately, look again.

I spent last week in Chicago at the big national conference of AA-ISP, the leading association for the advancement of inside sales.

These folks are on fire.

Traditionally, inside sales has been seen as the poor stepchild to field sales—entry-level kids locked up in call centers closing small deals over the phone.

The inside sales leaders in Chicago presented a very different picture of the modern inside sales function. They had the easy confidence of a group with the wind in their sails (sales?).

The hallway chatter in Chicago was all about the meteoric rise of inside sales. Attendees told us their inside sales teams now routinely close five-and six-figure deals that would have been reserved for field sales just a couple years ago.

“People thought there was no way inside sales could close deals this big,” one sales director from a Fortune 100 tech company told me. “But we proved them wrong.”

It was a refrain I heard again and again.

Inside sales has always played the David to field sales’ Goliath. Just like in the biblical story, the underdog is doing a whole lot better than anyone expected.

Here’s another revealing quote from Chicago: “People told me I was crazy to go into inside sales, that it was a career dead-end. Now, I look like a genius.”

When you compare those comments to the mood at Forrester’s Sales Enablement Summit just six weeks ago, the contrast is fascinating.

It’s a tale of two sales organizations.

The mood at Forrester’s event, which focuses on field sales, was far less rosy. Forrester analyst Andy Hoar presented research which predicted that one million U.S. B2B salespeople will lose their jobs by the year 2020.

That’s a staggering prediction and the polar opposite from inside sales, which is growing 5% to 8%, depending on whose numbers you believe.

The best of times, the worst of times.

Driving both the rise of inside sales and the (predicted) contraction of field sales is a single, unstoppable force: technology.

Buyers don’t want to buy from people anymore. According to Forrester’s research, nearly 75% of B2B buyers say that buying from a website is more convenient than buying from a sales rep.

Forrester isn’t talking about shoes or music here. These are B2B buyers, executing considered purchases on behalf of their employers.

Every step of the buyer’s journey—from awareness, to interest, consideration, and action—are all going digital.  

The new buyer’s journey is the driving force behind the shifting outlook for both inside and field sales.

For field sales, it’s a race to the top. Forrester predicts that only salespeople who can manage complex sales processes of complex products will thrive for the next five years. Sales reps will need to add value for customers as never before. Everyone who can’t do that will struggle to survive a shrinking labor market.

For inside sales, it’s a land grab. As buyers gravitate to self-service, they’re happy to complete transactions remotely that they used to do with field sales. That windfall is driving the growth of inside sales.

Technology is driving a “downshift” in B2B buying behavior. Deals that used to go to inside sales are closing online. Deals that used to go to field sales are now going to inside sales. That forces inside sales to go after what’s left at the top: the most complex sales of the most sophisticated products.

So where is all of this going? Is inside sales going to take over the world?

Yes…and No.

Just as technology is downshifting buying behavior, it’s also blurring the difference between inside and outside selling.

A few short years ago, there were two ways to engage a buyer: In person (field sales) or over the phone (inside sales).

Today, there’s email, phone, chat, videoconference, screenshare, and social media.

Even so-called “field reps” now spend a great deal of time interacting with buyers remotely. Do you really need to fly someone to Boston for that demo, or can you just hop on a screenshare? What’s the point of flying to New York for an in-person meeting when most of the participants are dialing in from Phoenix, London, Berlin, and Tokyo?

Already we’re seeing a breakdown of the hard-and-fast division between inside and field sales. According to AA-ISP research, inside sales organizations are investing heavily in team models (47%) where inside and field reps work together to close accounts and hybrid models (27%) where inside reps travel on-site as needed.

I expect the blurring to continue. I seriously doubt that in 2020, we’ll still be talking about field sales and inside sales. We’ll just be talking about sales. Some salespeople will travel more, others less, some not at all.

Regardless of frequent flyer status, one thing is certain about salespeople of the future: they’ll be technology-enabled.

Tomorrow’s salespeople won’t be inside or outside; they’ll be multi-channel. They’ll email, screenshare, visit, text, friend, like, share, and videoconference. They’ll use technologies that haven’t been invented yet. They’ll have an incredibly fine-tuned sense of which channels to use at which points in the sales process with which buyers.

In AA-ISP’s Day 1 keynote, IBM’s global GM of Inside Sales, Judy Buchholz, announced that the company has officially renamed the function to “Digital Sales.”

If that’s not a sign of the times, I don’t know what is.

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