It seems so obvious.

If that team member has a Blackberry and a company car; if they call on customers and help resolve their problems; then they must be a salesperson, right?

Well, maybe not!

Sure, that’s the way things have traditionally been done: the person in the field is automatically the salesperson. But, in many cases, today, this assumption needs to be challenged.

To understand why, let’s walk in our customer’s shoes for a moment.

Historically, a salesperson would come calling (in person). They’d develop an understanding of your situation. They’d diagnose your problems and propose solutions. And they’d be your single point of contact with the firm they represented.

Today, however, it’s unlikely that your needs are adequately served by the traditional salesperson (in spite of the nostalgic appeal of that concept).

Two things have changed:

  1. The market has become more efficient — which means that:
    1. stuff happens faster, and
    2. most of the products you purchase are (essentially) commodities
  2. Technology has provided numerous alternatives to face-to-face communication

In today’s environment, then, the traditional salesperson relationship may be less than ideal for a few reasons:

  1. The salesperson visits infrequently — meaning that you, either need to carry more inventory, or purchase from multiple vendors
  2. Because of the faster pace of enterprise, the salesperson is ill-equipped to serve as your single point of contact with the vendor (they simply don’t know what’s become of the item missing from this morning’s shipment!)
  3. It often takes more time to transact with the salesperson face-to-face than it does to communicate via alternate channels

It’s for these reasons, then, that I’d like to propose that, in many environments, the salesperson should not be the person in the field — rather it should be a person on the phone.

Inside Sales becomes the new front line

That’s right; I’m suggesting that the front-line (to use a military metaphor) should move from the field to the phone, meaning that, in future, the salesperson is not the person with the Blackberry and company car.

Tomorrow’s salesperson is office based (situated close to operations). They can be recognized by their casual clothing and their ever-present wireless headset. They earn less than a field representative but they have comparable product knowledge and communication skills. Where a field representative can, at best, perform four to five meetings a day with customers, tomorrow’s salesperson can perform 30 to 40!

Now, at this point, I’ll forgive you for being a little skeptical. After all, isn’t it true that I’m describing Inside Sales — a function you likely already have installed in your firm.

Actually, I’m not. My vision of Inside Sales differs from standard practice in a few critical areas:

  1. Inside Sales owns ALL sales opportunities. They do not help field reps prosecute sales opportunities (in fact, the opposite is true but we’ll get to that shortly)
  2. Inside Sales owns ALL accounts. Your customers no longer have a single point of contact but they do have a primary contact — and this is a person in Inside Sales, not a field representative
  3. Inside Sales makes outbound calls to both existing and potential accounts

Before we discuss what is to become of your field representatives (and yes, there’s a cunning plan!), let’s consider how our customer benefits from their relationship transitioning from the field representative to a person in Inside Sales.

  1. The contact frequency increases. If it makes sense to interact twice daily with the vendor (as is the case in pharmaceutical retail, for example), this is possible.
  2. The inside salesperson is a more capable primary point of contact. Because they are plugged-in to the ERP (your operations technology), they can answer most questions and process most transactions on the spot. On the occasion that an issue arises that the inside salesperson can’t personally resolve, they will route a task to the appropriate party, while still maintaining ownership of (and responsibility for) the issue.
  3. Because the inside salesperson is office-based, your customer is not forced to choose a single communications channel. In fact, within the course of a single transaction, it’s possible for your inside salesperson and your customer to communicate using a mixture of telephone, e-mail, and instant messaging.

Field representatives subordinate to Inside Sales

So, what is to become of field representatives?

In most situations, you will still have a requirement for field representation:

  1. Some sales may be significant enough to warrant face-to-face customer contact. For example, a client of ours in Kentucky sells packaging supplies. Individual transactions do not require face-to-face contact. However, this company is migrating its customers from a standard supply relationship to vendor-managed inventory. The transition is a large and complex transaction and definitely does benefit from face-to-face visitation.
  2. Field representation may be required for technical reasons. In order to diagnose a problem and propose a solution (for either potential or existing accounts) it may be necessary that a vendor’s representative performs one or more site visits.

My argument, then, is not that field representatives aren’t required. They clearly are.

I’m proposing that, in many (certainly not all) environments, field representatives should not be regarded as the salesperson.

In such environments, it makes more sense for field representatives to subordinate to Inside Sales. What this means is that:

  1. Sales opportunities are originated and prosecuted by Inside Sales
  2. On those occasions that field representation is necessary, field representatives are dispatched to perform a discrete activity

The words discrete activity are important here because they suggest that field representatives do not take ownership of the workflows (sales or customer service) that contain the activities they are dispatched to perform. For example, if a field representative visits a customer to perform a needs analysis as part of the prosecution of a sales opportunity, the field representative will perform the site survey and report the results to the inside salesperson. It will be clear to all parties (including the customer) that the inside salesperson is running the show.

While this is counter-intuitive, there are many parallels in other fields. Consider an operating (surgical) theatre. The surgeon may well be the most valuable team member but it does not follow that the surgeon runs the operation. This is generally the responsibility of a senior nurse. In fact, in most cases, the surgeon is not even present for the entire operation!

A practical example

We are currently implementing this model for a client of ours, headquartered in Washington DC. They manufacture consumable parts for big industry. An average transaction is somewhere in the five-figure range.

Here’s how the model operates in practice:

  1. Marketing (promotions) generates sales opportunities for Inside Sales
  2. Where possible, Inside Sales attempts to prosecute those opportunities without the assistance of field representatives
  3. Inside sales also fields customer service issues
  4. Inside salespeople have clerical and technical support resources — enabling them to spend all of their available time on the telephone
  5. Field representatives’ calendars are managed by a small team of sales coordinators
  6. When Inside Sales has a requirement for a field visit (of either a customer-service or sales nature) they liaise with the sales coordinator responsible for the appropriate region to schedule this visit
  7. Field representatives’ travel is determined primarily by these visit requests from Inside Sales. However, if field representatives have spare (not protective) capacity, sales coordinator will work with promotions to fill this capacity with opportunistic sales or support field activities

This model benefits all parties because:

  1. It enables a high contact frequency (which improves customer service and shortens opportunity cycle time)
  2. It reduces the effective distance between the customer and operations (improving the quality of both sales and customer service processes)
  3. It enables field representation when (and only when) it is actually required
  4. It reduces costs (and, of course, some of those cost savings can be passed — directly or indirectly — back to customers)