Article

Inside vs outside sales: What is inside sales?

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

By Lauren Funk

Published September 17, 2019
Last updated November 8, 2021

While salespeople used to visit corporate offices or knock on doors to show off their company’s latest products, they have far more ways to sell now. Thanks to the Internet, much—if not all—of the sales process can be done remotely, no face-to-face meetings required. This type of selling is known as inside sales.

Inside sales is a crucial part of a modern sales strategy in today’s virtual world. It allows for a fast, efficient sales process that saves reps time and money and provides added convenience for potential customers.

What is inside sales?

Inside sales definition: The process of selling remotely over the phone, email, messaging, and other digital channels.

Inside sales essentially means selling products or services via telecommunications. The activities of an inside sales representative predominantly occur behind a desk at their place of employment. This form of selling is especially common in tech, SaaS, and B2B industries.

Inside sales used to primarily happen over the phone or email. But as technology grew, inside sales reps began to embrace digital forms of communication like messaging apps, social media, and video conferencing. You may also hear inside sales referred to as “remote sales,” “virtual sales,” or “social selling” because of the digital focus.

Inside sales agents spend their days prospecting and connecting with leads who’ve expressed interest in the company’s products or services via sales calls, online forms, messages, and more. They don’t travel to meet with prospective buyers face-to-face.

Inside sales vs. outside sales

The main difference between inside sales and outside sales is where and how agents work.

As noted above, inside sales representatives can communicate with customers asynchronously and spend most of their day behind a desk. Outside sales reps, on the other hand, spend a lot of time “in the field,” traveling and meeting customers in person at offices, conferences, and networking events. Outside sales is considered to be the more “traditional” sales approach—like the typical door-to-door salesperson you might think of when someone mentions sales.

The line between what differentiates inside and outside sales is continually blurring.

But the line between what differentiates inside and outside sales is continually blurring. Thanks to technology, outside sales reps have access to various communication tools through their smartphones and other devices while on the go, allowing them to connect with customers wherever they are. Meanwhile, inside sales reps are now able to put faces to names and make more personal connections with potential buyers (like outside sales reps) through real-time video chats.

Pros and cons of inside sales

Before becoming an inside sales agent, be sure that you understand both the good and bad aspects of the role. You should also think about what is most important to you in a working environment—do you thrive on routine, or do you thrive out in the field? Consider the following pros and cons to determine whether inside sales is the right fit for you.

Pros

Many inside sales agents enjoy a solid work-life balance and stability. Inside sales also tends to be more efficient and cost-effective for the business at large than outside sales.

  • Consistency. Inside sales representatives typically have more consistent working hours because they’re not traveling and dealing with unpredictable factors like traffic, weather, and flight delays. Plus, they have more control over how they structure their day when communicating with customers asynchronously rather than scheduling multiple in-person meetings.
  • Access to more resources and communication tools. Because inside sales agents spend most of their day in front of a computer, they have easier access to the necessary tools, supplies, and files. In an office setting, they can also go directly to sales managers and colleagues when they need support.
  • Can work from anywhere. Technology gives inside sales teams the freedom to work where they want. Remote work has become popular, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. And according to Owl Labs, remote employees note feeling less stressed and enjoy the flexibility to work when and how it suits them best.
  • Lower costs. Inside salespeople incur fewer incidental costs, such as travel and lodging, than outside sales agents. Additionally, they only require a basic set of tools to do their job: access to a computer, Internet, and a phone. If your company allows reps to work from home, it also may save on overhead costs.
  • Quick and efficient. When you’re not spending hours traveling every day, you can dedicate more time to selling. Asynchronous communication tools like messaging platforms and email also allow inside sales reps to speak with multiple prospects at once. Plus, you can use automation to schedule follow-up messages, set reminders, and handle repetitive tasks.

Cons

The biggest challenges of inside sales involve building relationships remotely and dealing with repetition.

  • Monotony. For some, sitting behind a desk all day and connecting virtually may become tedious or unfulfilling. Outside sales reps get to spend much of their time on the road exploring new locations and meeting with people in person, which may be more invigorating.
  • Difficult to build strong customer relationships. While everyone is more familiar with Zoom due to COVID-19, video meetings with leads may still feel somewhat unnatural. The technology is relatively new, so some reps (and/or customers) may prefer meeting in person. And building those relationships might just take longer when most conversations are virtual.

3 inside sales tactics to increase your chances of success

Inside sales may be more convenient for reps, but that doesn’t mean the process is easy. You can’t meet with leads in person, so you have to work extra hard to understand what your potential customers are looking for and connect with them in compelling ways. Here are a few tips for keeping your inside sales methods customer-centric and successfully closing deals.

  • Do your research
  • Make sure you perform plenty of research to learn about your leads and their specific pain points and needs.

    Start by exploring leads’ company websites and reviewing their social media platforms. Understand what the company does, what role your point of contact has within the organization, and what values are important to them—both on a personal and company-wide level. Read the “About Us” page, staff and team pages, blog, and social bio. You can often find interesting tidbits to help you hone your sales pitch and find common ground as you begin to build the relationship.

    Once you’ve thoroughly researched your lead and their company, take some time to research their competitors, too. What are they doing well? Where are they struggling? Use that information in future conversations to showcase how your product or service will help your potential customer outshine the competition.

  • Focus on relationships, not sales
  • Not everything has to be a sales pitch. Inside sales requires establishing rapport and fostering trust, which naturally leads to sales.

    Get to know your leads by connecting with them on social media platforms like Twitter or LinkedIn. Comment on their posts, like a few things here and there, and share helpful content to build rapport over the long-term.

    Initial conversations may be less sales-focused and more friendly and educational. Practice active listening and ask the right questions to understand your leads on a deeper level. Then, you can naturally segue into talking about how your business can help them overcome the challenges they’re facing.

  • Find your selling persona
  • Because most of your sales interactions are virtual, you have the unique opportunity to find the tone, voice, and selling style that works best for you. While you should always be true to who you are, asynchronous communication allows you to fine-tune responses.

    Unlike outside sales reps, you don’t have to come up with witty jokes and responses on the spot. You can easily send memes, emojis, and other humorous content that helps build connections. The same is true if you really want to showcase your expertise by sharing educational resources, stats, and data.

    Like any form of selling, inside sales centers on the prospective buyer. The three customer-centric sales tactics described above will help you close more deals more efficiently.

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.

Learn more about account-based selling and explore our sales blog.

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.