The Changing Sales Landscape: How Successful Companies Use Inside Sales

Five women with headsets smiling

by Valerie Schlitt, CEO, VSA, Inc.

When I was growing up, sales was the business of salesmen. That sounds obvious — but I’ll explain.

Whether large or small, most companies relied on the efforts of a small team of representatives to handle their entire sales process, from gathering leads at conferences or while canvassing to developing time-consuming and manual systems for nurture and follow up — all the way through finally closing a sale.

My Uncle Jack was one such generalist; when our family got together, I used to love hearing his stories about the outings he’d attend and the people he’d get to meet. But he would also talk about all of the files he had to keep, and the late nights he’d spend in the office, working on proposals for his secretary to type the next day. It all sounded like a lot of work — and it was.

Still, this arrangement worked well in an era when sellers controlled the market. Generally speaking, businesses who had a need for a product or service would be inclined to consider the first solution they became aware of.

How the digital age has changed sales

In the age of the internet, though, the tables have turned on sales people. With more information at their fingertips, prospects are doing lots of research online before making purchasing decisions. And with the process becoming less relationship-based, more people are getting involved in it. When it comes to major purchases, the average number of decision makers is now 6.8; in my Uncle Jack’s day, it was usually just 1 or 2.

Thus, it simply isn’t practical to leave the whole process in the hands of generalists anymore. Even the best salespeople struggle to juggle all of the complex demands placed on them; and besides, many would rather focus on what they do best — actually closing the sale.

While some companies still run their sales operations like this, these companies usually can’t keep pace. So how do you adapt?

Since starting my business in 2001, I’ve continually asked myself that very question. Even since then, the sales world has changed tremendously. Most notably, more and more companies are implementing sales specialization by breaking up their process into several discreet tasks, each of which is handled by a team of people working cooperatively together.

The growing trend towards Inside Sales

This change is evident across all sectors of sales and marketing, but perhaps nowhere is the trend increasing more rapidly than in the world of inside sales — the shifting of work that was previously done by a field sales rep like my Uncle Jack to a team of business development reps who stay in the office and use the phone and a computer. In just the past few years, companies have created, developed, or partnered with inside sales teams to take on a hugely expanded array of complex services and campaigns.

Some inside sales teams are small, maybe just one or two people. Others can be hundreds of people large. In fact, the fastest growing companies are able to leverage the expertise of specialized inside sales teams to dramatically improve their performance across all segments of their sales pipelines.

Here are just a few of those processes, along with examples of how companies have successfully used specialized inside sales teams to improve them.

1. Lead Generation

Everyone knows that in order to close sales, you have to start at the top of the funnel — that’s why cold calling to generate new leads has always been common. Today, however, the level of sophistication used by “inside sales teams” to generate qualified leads and set sales appointments is unparalleled — and can even help companies to forge connections across continents.

Recently, a European company that offers a technology-enabled learning program to elementary schools wanted to enter the US market. Though company’s internal sales and marketing teams had successfully marketed the program in multiple European countries, they faced several challenges in the US: they had no name recognition, had yet to develop an effective pricing strategy, and didn’t know what messaging would resonate in the North American market. Not to mention, the purchasing process for American school districts was entirely unfamiliar.

The company partnered with an inside sales team that provided an extensive knowledge of the education market. Working together, they developed a lead generation campaign targeting the principals and assistant principals of K-12 schools in New York, San Francisco, and Houston.

In addition, the inside sales team utilized a dialing software tool that allowed them to increase their volume of calls exponentially, enabling them to create a pure A/B test that the company could use to evaluate messages and pricing strategies.

By collecting and analyzing these results, the company was able to determine what pricing strategy and messaging would produce optimal results across 3 distinct regional US markets. Not only did they generate leads that converted to new business, they developed their Go-To-Market strategy for an entire continent.

2. Moving Prospects Through Your Funnel

While using an inside sales team for lead generation is now relatively common, what many companies don’t realize is that following up with existing leads is also something that a specialized inside sales team can handle effectively.

One distribution company discovered this when they found that their existing sales team stopped pursuing orders when clients didn’t respond after two or three follow up attempts. Instead, they went on to the next group of high-probability clients. They closed new sales, certainly, but promptly stopped following up on these non-responders, too, also, after a few attempts. The company realized that while their team was busy closing the quick-turnaround leads, the neglected outstanding proposals still had worth. They were essentially money sitting on the table.

The company, which sold varying grades of steel at different sizes and cuts, decided to create a small, separate inside sales team whose sole focus would be to follow up on the old proposals and attempt to close them.

Simply by making due-diligence follow up calls, this team was able to reengage a large percentage of potential customers who the company would otherwise have forgotten about. They ultimately increased sales by 30% each month in repeat business — all for half the cost of hiring a field sales person.

This company used an inside sales team to unclog a bottleneck in the middle of their pipeline, releasing an even stronger current of new revenue in the process.

3. Client retention

Even client retention efforts can be improved significantly by an inside sales team.

For instance, one software company was able to avert a potentially massive loss of customers by using such a team to act proactively rather than reactively.

Concerned that they didn’t know much about the loyalty of their customers, the company decided to implement a “Net Promoter Score” survey to learn if their clients were likely to refer them to others. Meanwhile, the company was also in the process of upgrading their software, and wanted to find out which customers intended to upgrade.

Instead of waiting for the results of the survey before targeting customers for upgrades (or vice versa) they decided to create an inside sales team that could gather information about the upgrade and give a heads up to clients about the survey. First, the team made calls to current customers to notify them of the software upgrade. Then, while they had them on the phone, the team also asked those customers to keep an eye out for the survey, and to please rate them a 10.

To their alarm, this inside sales team quickly realized that most of the company’s supposed customers were in fact no longer using their software; they had no intention of upgrading, nor of giving the company a high rating.

While this information came as an unpleasant surprise, the company was thankful that it had learned about its customers’ frustrations sooner rather than later. They were able to refocus their efforts on customer service and ultimately recapture much of the market.

In summary

Aided by technology, profound shifts to the buyer side of the equation have permanently altered the sales landscape — and the pace seems to pick up each day. Particularly in the world of inside sales. The most successful companies are using specialization strategies to improve their performance across the entire sales’ funnel.

Though it can feel overwhelming to keep pace, there’s nothing that the fastest-growing companies are doing that you can’t also. No matter what segment of the process you’re trying to improve, you’d be surprised how thorough, efficient, and cost effective an inside sales team can be!

Valerie Schlitt created VSA after 22 years in the corporate world. The firm is a premiere B2B lead generation and appointment setting firm. Started in Valerie’s family room with 2 part-time helpers, VSA is now a 100+ person firm with offices in Philadelphia and Haddon Township, NJ. VSA works across industries. VSA was named Best Places to Work in Philadelphia Area and recognized on the Inc. 5000 list in 2018 and 2019.