It might be time to consider abolishing outside sales.

Simple business math tells us that it all comes down to sales:
No sales = No business
Lots of sales (with healthy margins) = Successful business
Growing sales (with decent margins) = Growing business

It doesn’t matter how “Lean” your warehouse is, how many long-term contracts you have with vendors, how quickly your trucks can deliver orders - if you don’t have any sales, you go out of business.

Despite its primary importance, we treat sales as an art, not a science. And we treat sales guys as “artists,” some kind of “breed apart.” We get sucked into the mystique and allow salespeople liberties that defy logic, the argument being: Our salespeople should be doing more selling, not writing up reports or attending meetings, etc.

Meanwhile, what is every CEO’s favorite topic for lamentation? Sales!

“Sales are flat.” “Sales are declining.” “The sales staff isn’t bringing in the big clients.” “Our salespeople are giving stuff away.” Fretting, worrying and complaining about sales is a national pastime for company owners.

Often the response to weak sales is to shake up the organization by bringing in a brand new hotshot sales guy. And sure enough, it works (for a while). Mr. Hotshot brings his book of clients and a fresh perspective, as well as a “go get “em” attitude. In the beginning, his enthusiasm carries the day, but a few years later - not so much. He has become part of your organization - and your organization didn’t change, he did. Now you are right back to where you started, with flat sales and lots of lamentation.

New people are good. They come with fresh ideas and enthusiasm. They are the means by which you break the same old patterns. But their impact is only temporary. Eventually they become part of the system. If you really want to shake sales, shake up the system - not just the personnel.

There are many sales models out there. Some industries break out sales by industry, others by geography and others by account managers. The typical PVF company follows the split model of outside and inside sales. I have never totally bought into this arrangement, but I feel it merits some examination and analysis.

First, the two sales groups are quite different. Inside salespeople usually have a longer history with the company. They don’t churn like outside sales. Because of their longevity, the inside salespeople have more experience with your products and services. They also know the customers better.

By definition, inside salespeople work 40 hours a week. They are in the office, right there under your nose. One never really knows how the outside guy spends his day. How much time is devoted to sales? Or to “visiting” clients? How much of it is not doing company work at all?

Then there’s a hand-off problem. The outside salesperson “makes the sale” and then turns it over to the inside salesperson to handle the account. Hand-offs are inefficient. Something is always lost - there are delays or incomplete information that involves some going back and forth.

I am still a firm believer that your best customers are your existing customers. Selling more goods and services to them is the way to go. Who is best suited to sell more to them? Answer: The inside sales staff. They know both your customers and your products best.

Here’s another question to consider (this goes against all old-school sales views): How many of your existing customers require face-to-face visits in order to buy something from you? I bet the number is a lot smaller than you think. I’ll wager many are neutral about the sales visits (they don’t care one way or the other) and quite a few probably think the visits are a total waste of time.

There is still a need for prospecting new accounts and the face-to-face sales call. This is one of many techniques for bringing in new customers. Somebody needs to think about where the next bunch of clients is going to come from. Many companies use a marketing team to research which markets are growing and to check out what the competitors are doing. Who does the new account want to see on that first sales call? Some outside salesperson who hasn’t been with the company for long? Or the inside salesperson who will be handling his account going forward? I think the client would opt for door number 2. I also think it would do the inside salesperson a world of good to get out of the office from time to time to meet real live new customers. The prospective client would get a good feeling from meeting the inside salesperson who has the knowledge to answer most of the client’s questions.

The role of the outside salesperson has been diminishing over the years. With Web sites and online ordering there is no longer any need for someone to drive around to various sites handing out glossy brochures. The days of taking clients out for the three-martini lunch are long gone, too. Sure, clients still like to go golfing or to a baseball game - but do you really need an outside sales force to give stuff away?

I think it is time to consider abolishing outside sales (now that will really shake up the sales organization). It is time to have one sales team, made up of hybrid outside/inside salespeople. This isn’t something you can do overnight. The transition will take time. Inside people will need to go out on sales calls, say once a week. Outside people will need to learn more about account management in the office. A whole new way of compensating the sales team will have to be developed.

Customers like familiarity. They want to build a relationship. To that end, they prefer dealing with one person, the same person for all their purchasing requirements. Truly shaking up the sales model can do just that. Give the customer what he wants.

Here’s some more simple business math:
Happy customers = Increased sales.