The Inside Track to Sales

By Henry Canaday

It’s a growth industry. It relies on the latest tech and social-media tools. It’s often combined with other sales efforts. It’s inside sales, and today, inside sales teams are selling remotely or virtually using smartphones, Web tools, email, or social media. No matter how it’sa done, inside sales is exploding, partly due to intense pressure to hold sales costs down and new sales tools that make the inside-sales effort more productive.

While inside-sales expert Kevin Gaither agrees that the new tools are first rate, he emphasizes two other keys to success: getting the right people and having a well-defined and structured sales process. He believes smart hiring to be the single most important factor in inside sales. He treats hiring like a sales funnel, taking candidates though steps toward the right combination of characteristics.

Gaither develops a benchmark of traits he wants in an inside salesperson. “I’m not looking for the gift of gab, good looks, or to clone my top rep. I want objective characteristics, like high need for achievement, competitiveness, optimism, good organization, and resourcefulness.”

He lists the characteristics for each position, then writes questions to test applicants for those characteristics. Then the “funnel process” begins. Each candidate is engaged in a 15-minute phone screen and then a 45-minute phone chat. Those still in the running undergo a 45-minute phone interview, then an online assessment test.

Only a third of the applicants make it through the online assessment and then three hours of face-to-face interviews with Gaither, a top rep, and several managers. Eighty percent of those brought in for interviews will be hired.

Gaither does not mind spending time or money on thorough hiring. Unsuccessful hires cost him three to six times their annual base salary. Thoroughly considered hiring is much less expensive than the Darwinian approach of hiring 10 candidates and expecting one to survive. Moreover, Gaither can follow his multistep plan in two weeks and believes candidates are attracted by a rigorous hiring process. Two-thirds of Gaither’s hires meet or exceed goals, and 90 percent are successful within six months.

Thorough hiring applies to both inside reps who execute the entire sales process and the sales development reps who qualify leads and set appointments. “They are not going to be appointment setters for the rest of their lives,” says Gaither. “I want people who want to move up to be closers.”

Next, “you have to have well-understood steps in the sales process,” Gaither stresses. This process need not be extraordinarily complex; there may be only four steps in a highly transactional sale.

“Whatever [steps] customers go through in the buying process should be the sales process,” Gaither urges. The sales process need not be perfect – it never will be – but it must be written down.

Reps’ observance of this process should be monitored and coached. Gaither points to knowledge shared by CSO Insights, which found that high-performing sales organizations have well-defined sales processes, but low performers mostly do not.

Gaither defines his process by looking at what successful reps do. Often, top reps cannot explain their process, but “they have a series of if-then steps at each stage, and it’s the sales leader’s job to understand these steps, write them down, and teach them,” he explains.

Paying close attention to best (and changing) practices of top reps keeps the sales process dynamic. CSO Insights found that, in the best firms, the sales process is always evolving. Gaither says, “It’s never perfect. Leading companies look at how the buyer’s journey changes, and that changes the sales process.”

Anneke Seley, CEO of Reality Works, stresses the variety of inside-sales roles: “There are quota-carrying reps, just like field reps, except they do not fly and drive most of the time. They fill blended roles and use technology most of the time but can have a [face-to-face] meeting when it is important. There are sales-development or business-development reps who don’t carry a quota. There are inside salespeople who manage the chat function when prospects are navigating the Website. Inside reps do inbound lead generation from the Web or phone, and they do outbound prospecting for major accounts. Inside reps assist the field team in complicated accounts. Some focus on renewals and preventing customer churn.”

New salespeople entering any of these roles may be groomed for higher responsibilities as they learn and practice sales skills. “You have the ability to bring in sales talent for a nonquota position and then set a career path that will incentivize and retain them,” Seley says. “Plus, they will have the technology skills that are going to be very important in the future.”

Combining these various inside-sales roles well is the secret to holding costs down and speeding up sale cycles, notes Charissa Franklin, Reality Works’s vice president of client success. Smart use of inside reps means that companies utilize field reps’ (expensive) time only when necessary. One global client of Reality Works is reducing its field-rep head count as customers indicate they prefer to communicate using technology for many steps of the buying cycle. Field reps will be reserved for critical steps in deals worth more than $1 million.

Seley says training and enablement are essential in all sales roles, inside or out. Furthermore, technology is evolving daily and is not just for communicating with prospects. Internally, recruitment and coaching are also becoming more data driven. “Companies are using more predictive profiling for hiring the right people with the right culture and the right potential,” she says.

Seley continues, stressing that peer coaching is becoming more important: it is based on real-life experience and likely to be adopted by less experienced reps. Informal sharing among peers is now being enabled by technologies that formalize and boost its effectiveness, such as those that use video.

A common mistake in inside selling is treating the inside reps as a second-class resource, or as Seley says, “putting handcuffs on them and letting them sell only up to a certain amount.” She recalls that CEO Marc Benioff once worked inside sales with her at Oracle, where he closed deals above his $50,000 limit.

Franklin says it can also be a mistake to pull a field rep inside and expect him or her to succeed purely on the phone or by email. The skill sets are too different. “It’s a different world from selling across a table. It’s very difficult to build a relationship over the phone.”

Some very traditional firms still prefer to buy face-to-face, but even these organizations can still prepare and support their inside reps. Though “traditional,” these firms are growing increasingly comfortable with technology and the much more efficient inside approach.

Ken Thoreson, head of Acumen Management, sees inside sales increasing in two areas. First, former outside reps are using Web tools to virtually gather together selling and buying teams at much less expense and much more frequently than was possible with in-person meetings. Second, when outside reps try to open a new territory for a complex product, inside salespeople “can populate the territory with new ideas and set up appointments,” he explains.

Thoreson emphasizes that inside reps must have a customer relationship management system that is easy to use, as they constantly enter and retrieve data when on the phone or computer. He strongly agrees with Gaither and Seley that inside reps must have critical skills, as well.

He says, “Listening and discovery are tougher over the phone because they are based on voice only. Determining prospect personality and where they are in the buying cycle are tougher on the phone with no physical presence. It’s hard to generate emotion over the phone. You must do it with voice. It’s not like face-to-face.”

Calling in outside salespeople is usually better when a product is complex or must be demonstrated and prices are high, but Thoreson says Webcasts may let engineers demonstrate products virtually, after an outside rep has broken the ice. He recommends using Web tools whenever possible in inside sales, and firms should try to personalize relationships between inside reps and prospects as much as possible. Inside reps can use Webcams when the prospect is online. The rep may not see the prospect, but the prospect can see the rep. That helps develop trust, along with pictures and bios of reps on Websites, which put a face to the voice a prospect hears when contact is made only by phone.