In the pre-Internet age, field sales was the primary means by which sales reps not only gained new accounts, but the venue through which customers gained most of their information about products and services. That’s obviously changed since then, and the outside sales reps of today face challenges and responsibilities that would astound Willy Loman even in his prime.
A 2017 study by InsideSales.com, the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals, Top Sales World, and the Association of Professional Sales found that while field sales are still king (71.2%) for companies with more than $50 million in revenue, inside sales are expected to increase to 30.2% this year, with a long-term target distribution of 60/40 split between outside and inside sales. For firms earning less than $50 million, inside sales reps comprise almost half of the sales force, with an expected even split between inside and outside sales over the next few years. As an aggregate of non-retail sales, 43.5% are inside sales reps, 56.5% field sales, further supporting the idea of an eventual balanced divide.
More to the point, outside sales reps are spending 45% of their time selling remotely, further reducing the amount of travel and face-to-face interactions between sellers and buyers. But this makes sense – after all, as we’ve said repeatedly over the last several years, today’s customers are informed and connected, and an increasing comfort with technology has bolstered the importance of video-conferencing and other methods of remote communication.
But fear not, field sales reps. Outside sales isn’t going anywhere. Despite the increasing usage and adoption of inside sales, face-to-face meetings are still the most powerful form of sales communication, and frequently necessary to close deals. Nor is this a zero-sum game – most organizations are finding that the convenience afforded by inside sales’ automation and technological outreach supports and strengthens the position of field sales. Research shows that by the time prospects reach out to sales reps, they’re upwards of 60% of the way through the buying process. That means a lot of the early steps have been bypassed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a shorter sales cycle – frequently, customers either have misinformation and/or require sales reps to provide the necessary context for clients to understand the research they’ve conducted.
We’re also seeing another shift in the field sales industry – while customers do their research and gather information beforehand, for technologically sophisticated products and complex services and products, there’s an increasing need for technical specialists who can demonstrate and explain these offerings to potential clients who themselves may not be fully familiar with the given technology or service. Thus, a potential for field sales reps to add value to their personal brand is to become intimately and deeply knowledgeable about the type of product or service they’re selling, and able to teach it to less aware prospects and customers. This is a particularly important knowledge and skillset to acquire because requests for technical explanations and support will far supersede calls for proposals and/or presentations in many industries.
Yet another transformation we’re seeing in the marketplace is the addition of an ever-larger layer of sales support staff in successful companies. By delegating administrative activities such as order management, complaint handling, and sales collateral development to the support layer, frontline sales reps are three times more productive and able to devote their time more exclusively to directly sales-related tasks.
None of this points to the death of field sales, as some prognosticators have so gloomily predicted. Instead, the accumulated weight of evidence paints a picture where, yes, multiple sales channels are emerging, but with an accompanying focus on field sales reps specializing in outside sales activities – or what they do best. They’re able to enter the sales process further into the timeline, add value via technical expertise, and are freed of the fetters of administration and support duties in smartly run organizations.