The harsh circumstances presented by the pandemic offered a monumental opportunity to overhaul sales, and many of those alterations are here to stay.

Key Takeaways
  1. The pandemic prompted the biggest sales experiment of all time: suddenly every seller was pulled out of the field and virtual selling became the only option. The dramatic event offered companies an opportunity to completely rethink their sales approaches.
  2. Alexander Group’s research shows that inside sellers cost significantly less than field sellers per dollar of revenue generated in 2022, underscoring the immense value of the inside approach in the post-pandemic world.
  3. The hybrid model is here to stay. Although travel is a viable option again, salespeople aren’t rushing back to the field, and sales leaders aren’t unanimously pushing them to get face-to-face with customers. Rather, they are opting for more strategic and measured approaches geared at more effectively meeting the needs of the post-pandemic customer.

Finding the ideal mix of Inside and Outside Sales is a critical formula that commercial executives have grappled with for years, a balancing act intended to maximize revenue while minimizing costs. But when the pandemic struck, it inflicted the most dramatic and rapid makeover of sales organizations in history.

As COVID prompted mass shutdowns nationwide in March 2020, nearly all B2B sales turned virtual. Despite the chaotic shifts, salespeople rallied and continued closing deals.

The world is finally emerging from pandemic turmoil and selling in the field is gearing back up. But it isn’t reverting to how it used to be. Alterations to sales approaches have taken root, and all indications show they are here to stay. One key development is the diminished importance of field selling as companies have grown to depend more on Inside Sales to generate revenue. For two years, all sellers became de-facto inside sellers, proving how organizations can drive growth through virtual engagement.

Seismic Shift

Alexander Group’s research indicates that sales organizations with Inside Sales will reap the benefits for years to come. When matched to the right opportunities, inside sellers bring significant efficiencies by carrying similar revenue quotas as field sellers but cost 40% less on average. That cost efficiency explains why approximately one-third of companies reported field sellers would own a lower share of revenue in 2022, while more than half said inside sales will own more.

Alexander Group’s Research also shows that sales organizations are also relying more on inside sellers: 71% of companies across a variety of industries are increasing their inside sales headcount this year. That compares to only 51% that plan to increase Field Sales headcount.

The move away from in-person selling is a seismic shift. The downside is that companies that are not adapting will surely be left behind if they do not act quickly. Customer expectations and demands have changed, and businesses must adjust rather than resist these changes if they want to consistently grow.

Rethinking Sales Approaches

As the head of sales for B2B payments for Capital One, Vice President Andy Stearns was one of many leaders across the country who guided and supported his team through the global health crisis. In an interview with Alexander Group, he recalls the “hard pause” the bank put on Outside Sales.

“We entirely ceased outbound sales efforts in addition to pulling the team out of the market physically,” Stearns said. “In the very early days, all of us were scratching our heads. Sales folks were no different trying to understand what the future would look like, and what their role would look like. All of us at the time also underestimated how long this would go on.”

Prior to 2020, 100% of sales made by Stearns’ team were conducted in the field, aside from some initial prospecting that was done partly by phone, and partly in person.

“Fast forward to today – even as we’ve created opportunities for folks to be back in person when it’s safe in their markets, we’re finding that both clients and sellers are preferring Zoom,” Stearns said. “We have really rethought our sales process in a virtual world, in a Zoom-driven world.”

Adversity Has Birthed Opportunity

The shutdown offered a unique opportunity born from necessity – the chance to test what would happen in a virtual-only world. This turbo-charged a trend towards digital selling that was already in progress. Now that selling in person has become possible again, Stearns was surprised to see how his representatives reacted.

“My expectation early on was that people would rush back into the market and we were worried that we would lose productivity because associates were so tired of sitting in their spare bedroom that they wanted to get out and see customers,” Stearns said. “What we’ve seen in reality is a very measured approach. Associates are out, they are traveling to see customers, but they’re being really thoughtful around when they do it, why they do it and making sure that it’s adding value to the sales process.”

Tiffani Bova agrees with Stearns, and she is an expert on this topic. As Salesforce’s global growth and innovation evangelist, she studies how companies leverage technology to fortify customer relationships and accelerate growth. Salesforce is the world’s largest customer relationship management (CRM) software with a 24% market share in the CRM space, generating revenues of $26.5 billion in the fiscal year 2022, which ended January 31st.

Sellers used to believe “it has to be face-to-face,” Bova said. “I need to take them to lunch, take them to dinner, play a round of golf, whatever it might be. Now that has completely been disrupted. And we’re going to probably land somewhere in a hybrid environment.”

Salesforce discovered that “70% of organizations are now retraining field reps to sell from home.” To reach this conclusion, Salesforce gathered insights from nearly 6,000 sales professionals.

Data gathered by Alexander Group and Chief Executive magazine reveals that 34% of companies across industries expect field reps will spend the majority of their time (>50%) selling virtually in 2022. An additional 26% of companies expect sellers will spend at least a quarter to half (26-50%) of their time selling virtually in 2022.

These figures indicate the hybrid model is here to stay. Reps are choosing to go into the field less frequently than they did pre-pandemic. They have new freedom to perform tasks remotely that were previously accomplished in the field.

Retraining Sellers for the Hybrid Future

There are positive and negative aspects to both in-person and virtual selling. Salespeople who work in the field tend to build strong client relationships because they benefit from visiting their prospects face-to-face. This personal touch can help them achieve higher win rates. Their sales cycles tend to be longer and their orders larger because they are often dealing with complex accounts, which can lead to larger payouts.

But inside sales teams have distinct and undeniable advantages. According to Alexander Group’s research, 17% more of their work hours are spent selling than field sellers, in large part because they do not have to factor in non-productive travel time. They also do not incur travel expenses, which can be substantial, and market pay tends to be significantly lower for inside sales talent. Furthermore, it’s easier to scale an inside sales team to meet demand, because the scale isn’t dependent on a seller’s contacts and relationships. Covering vast territories in person is a logistical challenge, and so is building a cohesive team. And adding headcount, introducing new selling tools and conducting training sessions is more seamless with inside sales people.

While Stearns acknowledges there were likely moments of “lost effectiveness” when virtual selling was the only avenue, he said the advantages made up for it. Sales managers with teams in several states can “co-ride” virtual meetings with their reps to help clinch the sale, making video appearances in various far-flung locations in a single day. Other employees can also more easily be pulled in to help close the deal, such as technical sellers, customer success managers and implementation specialists. Peers with expertise in particular industries can work together to help each other sell. This has increasingly turned virtual selling into a team event, with sellers collaborating to demonstrate their value and credibility to prospects.

Testing New Sales Methods

Bova said that leaders tasked with growing sales should be taking time regularly to reevaluate processes and be willing to self-disrupt. She suggests companies allocate a small segment of the staff and designate them as a “pop-up sales team” to pilot and test new methods.

Bova recommends observing the pop-up team performing in their natural habitat to see “how they use the technology, where they get stuck, where the integration of data is not so easy that it takes them more time, because the average seller spends about 66% of their time on non-selling activities.”

Effective deployment of technology is imperative. Salesforce reports that the top five sales tools to become more crucial since 2019 are video conferencing, artificial intelligence, mobile sales apps for employees, CRM systems and sales prospecting tools.

“If you can watch them working and find ways to get rid of unnecessary steps or get rid of the friction between groups, between silos…then that’s really where you have an opportunity to push forward,” Bova said.

Sales, service and marketing departments should be communicating effectively and working in tandem to improve the customer experience.

“You have to build bridges, and one of the bridges you have to build is data,” Bova said. “The next is metrics. You must align people in a certain way so that they’re all moving in the same direction and understand how their role plays a part in acquiring revenue, maintaining revenue, upselling and cross-selling in the overall customer experience.”

Seller’s Dilemma

The pop-up team is a dynamic strategy that addresses and resolves the age-old seller’s dilemma, Bova explained.

“You must maintain the revenue in the existing selling organization, while at the same time you’re transforming and innovating, and you can’t do it with the same human because I will always, as a seller, default to what’s going to get quota. Otherwise, I’m going to lose my job. But if you put me in the pop-up team and you remove some of those things that actually hold me back from doing what I could be doing differently because of the limitations, you’ll uncover that, and it will be so beneficial for the remainder of your selling organization.”

Once the results are in, company leaders can be confident that applying a revised strategy to the sales process won’t be catastrophic.

“If it starts to take off and fits the environment and customers and you have positive results, roll it out to the remainder of the organization,” Bova said.

No matter what mix of inside and outside sales representatives each company determines to be ideal for their organization, one thing is clear – the harsh circumstances presented by the pandemic offered a monumental opportunity to overhaul sales, and many of those alterations are here to stay.

Alexander Group assists companies with commercial model transformation alongside major industry changes, such as establishing a hybrid virtual sales model. Our research produces data-driven insights that enable us to design customized plans of action for companies across a wide range of industries. Contact us today to explore how we can help your organization maximize efficiency while driving revenue growth.

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