Converting Outside Sales to Inside Sales

Thursday, June 4, 2020
Jack Rhodes

Jack Rhodes

Senior Lecturer
UW Foster School of Business


It is well-known that the only constant in business is change, but the change businesses have had to adapt to in the past two months has been drastic and abrupt. Different businesses have had to adapt in different ways, but many businesses are facing a common change in how they conduct outside sales activities in a time when in-person meetings may not be a possibility.

Jack Rhodes, the founder of the Professional Sales Program at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, discussed some of the challenges that conventional outside sales professionals may have trying to conduct sales remotely, and some practices that can help them adapt to the new sales landscape.

Jack began by mentioning the example of Willie Loman in The Death of a Salesman. In the play, Willie is mentally and emotionally tied to the ways of working and selling that he understands and to which he has become accustomed. His inability to adapt the changing world leads to his professional demise. In today's world, the "old school" salesperson who is most comfortable with lunch meetings, "drop-ins", and closing schedules based on in-person appointments will not survive if he is unable to master new ways of communicating with clients.

This uncomfortable fact is one that Jack stressed: many sales people will not be able to succeed in the new environment created by the pandemic. Companies will lose some of their sales people, some will thrive in the new environment, and some will only succeed with support and training. Jack offered one quick tip to help some of the "old school" sales people succeed in remote sales: pair them with a "new school" salesperson who can help train on the technology, while the senior employee can share some of their more advanced sales psychology experience.

Every so often new technologies or business models arise which are predicted to make the salesperson obsolete. While they have never actually made the salesperson obsolete, they have demanded that salespeople adapt in order to remain successful. Companies will need to replace any Willie Lomans in their sales department, and embrace any changes in technology and business to stay successful.

Knowledge of customer needs is an unchanging requirement of the sales professional, but awareness of changing needs and demands (consultative selling) is the new standard to which they should aspire. This is essential for sales people to progress past transactional selling to becoming a valued resource for the customer.

Jack pointed out that the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on customers and employees in all areas of life. Businesses should take this opportunity to connect personally with their customers and employees to find out how they are adjusting to the changes, and what their concerns are. Connecting to customers on a personal level can be a great opportunity to gauge their readiness to discuss business, but business should not be discussed during this initial "re-connecting" phase.

Similarly, connecting with employees on a personal level, and allowing them to voice their concerns, can reveal issues that may prevent your team from adapting successfully to the new sales methods. Now is the time to address any deficiencies or difficulties being experienced using new communication tools.

As an example, Jack mentioned that the UW business school hired an on-call technology expert who was available to respond to any issues staff were having using teleconferencing platforms, or making remote presentations. While this was a significant expense, it dramatically improved the ability of staff to adapt quickly to the new requirements for remote learning.

Because of the uncertainty in everyone's lives right now, over-communication is preferable to under-communication, and may even be helpful. Companies need to encourage regular communication and open discussions of successes, failures, breakthroughs, and setbacks to ensure that weaknesses can be addressed. But it is also important that teams set aside time to interact on a personal level, talk about their families, and just enjoy some leisurely conversation to create a connected team that has an emotional interest in supporting its members. In this uncertain time, people are especially anxious to know how they fit into their team and what their role is in it. Good communication reduces uncertainty and allows people to commit to pushing the team toward its shared goals.

Jack shared a story of a winemaking company that has recently seen sales plunge due to the absence of restaurant business. The company decided to run a "Family & Friends" sale for employees, their family members, and friends. The sale produced revenue that exceeded their normal revenue by 800%. When a company has a great team spirit or has a sense of being like a family, its employees will go out of their way to support it.

Frequent communication with employees and customers is essential, and has the added benefit of reducing the necessity of email. Encourage departments to hold regular teleconference meetings, but also encourage frequent one-on-one teleconferencing or phone calls to work through complicated projects or problems. Direct communication will usually be more efficient than email, so companies should encourage it as much as possible during this time.

Lastly, Jack touched on the importance of transparency. Now is a time where direct and upfront communication is essential. Business owners are harried by ever-changing requirements, lost revenue, and an uncertain future. Salespeople need to bear this in mind with every call, and understand that they can't be another source of uncertainty for their clients. They must be completely honest about their company's capabilities to deliver products and services, and provide accurate information that the customer can depend on. As a result of the pandemic, many things are out of our control. The salesperson responds professionally to such a situation by clearly understanding and stating what is in his control, so his clients and teammates can collaborate with him, empowered by having some certainty about what they can accomplish together.

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