5 lessons inside sales reps need to learn from field salespeople

You’ve heard me say it before and you’ll hear me say it again: Sales is changing, fast, and nowhere is this more evident than in the decline of field sales.

Think about it: It wasn’t long ago that sales cycles began with a knock on the door, not a cold call. But with the rise of technology and the prioritization of efficiency, field salespeople are quickly being replaced by inside salespeople.

That’s not a bad thing, per se. But there are aspects of field sales that modern inside salespeople fail to properly appreciate, and that could help them be better inside salespeople.

Sure, a door-to-door field salesperson may not be as “efficient” or “productive” as inside sales reps making 300+ calls every day, but that doesn’t mean they’re obsolete. Far from it. A recent study has shown that face-to-face requests are 34 times more successful than email requests. In fact, some of the most powerful sales lessons I learned took place across a door frame, not a phone line.

If we don’t take steps to preserve those lessons, we’re going to lose them. And if we lose the lessons of field sales, we lose the heart of all sales: Relationships.

So before they’re gone for good, let’s take a look at the lessons of the past and talk about how to apply them to the future.

Want more tips to win at inside sales? Get started with our free Startup Sales Success course here.

The disappearing art of field sales

When I say “field sales,” what comes to mind? I don’t know about you, but the first thing I think of is the stereotypical door-to-door vacuum sales guy.

You know the type: He knocks on your door, invites himself in, throws a bunch of crap on your carpet, and blows you away with the power of his vacuum (which is much better than yours, by the way).

Many of you are probably glad this era of sales is coming to an end. After all, there are a lot of negative connotations attached to it. At the very least, it’s highly inefficient by today’s standards:

  • Today, you can sell to many people at once through phone calls, text messages, and emails. Back then, you could only pitch to one family at a time.
  • Today, you can take your product to the entire world through advertising, webinars, and content creation. Back then, you were often limited to your zip code or, at best, your state.
  • Today, you can analyze real-time sales data for you and your inside sales team at any time. Back then, you probably barely knew your own metrics, let alone the guy’s upstate.

And yes, those limitations were very real and often very frustrating. But beyond the negative stereotypes, something good came out of field sales, too: Humanity. Connection. The ability, the necessity, to build genuine relationships, one prospect at a time. And if we’re not careful, we’re gonna lose that humanity in our endless pursuit of efficiency.

Let’s take a closer look at what this humanity looked like in a field sales environment.

1. Unparalleled context

There’s something immensely powerful about selling to someone in their own home: You get a rare glimpse into who this person is as a human being, not just as a prospect.

You see their photos on the wall, meet their family, and really experience the way they live. All of this provides an unparalleled level of context. It helps you understand this person on a deeper level and builds a very personal, very close relationship.

You lose these things over the phone. Sure, they can tell you about their family or what’s important to them, but that just isn’t the same as experiencing it firsthand.

2. Instant referrals

As you build relationships with field sales prospects, you also have the opportunity to build relationships with those closest to them. For example, maybe they’ve got friends or family over during your pitch, immediately introducing more potential customers.

If not, all you gotta do is walk next door and you’re selling to their neighbor: “Hey, I just set your neighbor up with an amazing new vacuum and I’d love to do the same for you. Do you mind if I come in for a few minutes?”

Or think about old-school enterprise sales, where you’d spend 3+ years golfing with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company before finally closing that $15M deal. In most cases, you weren’t just golfing with him; you were golfing with him and his buddies, immediately opening the door for new deals.

3. Undivided attention

I’m just going to lay this out plain and simple: Inside sales breeds distractions.

When you talk to someone in person, you’ve got their full attention. But when you talk to them over the phone? Not so much, especially if they’re sitting in front of their computer (and who isn’t?). Even if you do all the right things to hold a prospects’ attention on a sales call, they still have dozens of other things on their mind.

Even worse, inside salespeople are just as prone to distraction as their prospects. Between a bombardment of Slack messages and the 20+ tabs they’ve got open, undivided focus isn’t likely (unless you practice these tips).

But when you’re sitting in front of your prospect? In their home or office? You’ve got their full attention and they’ve got yours.

Humanizing inside sales techniques (before it’s too late)

In field sales, the gap between prospect and salesperson is minuscule. But as we utilize more sales technologies and adopt more inside sales processes, that gap grows wider.

Left on its own, this gap will eventually grow so wide that the emotional connection and commitment between prospect and salesperson will be lost. And once it’s lost, sales won’t be relational anymore; it’ll be transactional and when sales becomes purely transactional, you as a salesperson become fully replaceable.


All of that said, let me be clear: At Close, we love inside sales. It’s why we’ve built our own inside sales software. I’m not saying you need to give it up, but I am saying you can’t be so driven by the efficiency of inside sales that you lose the heart of field sales.

And here’s the good news: You don’t have to. Let’s take a look at five ways to preserve the spirit of field sales as we march into the future of inside sales.

1. Separate sales cycles from life cycles

How long is your average sales cycle? Two, maybe three months? And what happens when that cycle ends and the deal closes? Does your prospect-turned-customer ever hear from you again?

In most cases, no, because modern salespeople often confuse sales cycles with life cycles. Don’t make that mistake.

When you think about the lifecycle of your relationship with a prospect, think in decades, not weeks or months. Sure, you may close this one deal in the next two months, but the relationship shouldn’t end when the deal closes.

After all, this person may move up in the company. Their needs may expand. Maybe they’ll meet someone who needs your product. Or maybe they’ll even launch a new business altogether. Don’t you want to be there when that happens?

Then, stop treating relationships like sales cycles. Every relationship has a potential lifetime of value if you treat it that way.

Note: This is especially true for prospects who don’t immediately become customers. If all you see is a three-month sales cycle, you’ll give up after your first rejection. But if you think about working with them over the next 10-20 years, you’ll follow up relentlessly until you get the deal.

2. Infuse personality into your communication

By nature, inside sales has a degree of disconnect and distance. In most cases, you’re closing deals without ever having met your prospects in person. It’s hard to relate to a disembodied voice over the phone as businesses have started using text-to-speech software, so find ways to give your prospects something more “human” to connect with.

Your social media profile pictures are a great place to start. That picture of you in a nice suit against a green screen background might impress executives, but it probably isn’t going to score you any points with prospects.

Try something more personal and relatable, something that creates a picture of who you are as a person, not just a professional. For example, make your profile picture of:

  • You and your family
  • You doing something you love
  • You in your favorite team’s jersey

Got your social media accounts optimized? Great! Now infuse some personality into that bland email signature.

3. Produce engaging personal content

For the more creative among you, content production is a great way to form a genuine connection with your audience. When you share what you know, believe in, and care about, you allow prospects and customers to get to know you as a person, not just a salesperson.

The most obvious way to do this is through blog posts, but that’s certainly not the only way. For example, you could run a podcast, produce videos, engage on social media, or curate high-quality content.

Predictable Revenue’s Aaron Ross (@motoceo) masters this practice with his sales and revenue-focused newsletter. Since I’m already pretty familiar with those topics, I’d probably have unsubscribed long ago if not for one thing: A large portion of every newsletter is dedicated to his personal life.

Whether it’s an update about his travels in China, an inside look at the challenges of adoption, or a story about an adventure with his daughter, there’s always something that makes me feel connected to him as a human being.

So ask yourself: What’s important to you? What are you passionate about? What makes you "you"?

Find your passions and wear them on your sleeve. Your prospects will relate to them a lot quicker than a sales pitch.

4. Mix up your communication channels

Whenever possible, ditch phone calls and emails in favor of video calls, even if the setting isn't ideal or the lighting isn’t perfect. Just being able to see the person you’re talking to provides a lot more context and connection than a standard phone call.

That said, video calls aren’t always realistic. In those instances, experiment with the channels you use to communicate with your prospect. Don’t just focus on phone calls or emails; switch it up and throw in a few curveballs. For example, social media pings and text messages can be a great way to break through the noise and get their attention.

Be creative. Experiment. Take risks. Find the communication channel that works best for your prospect and leverage that. For example, if you’re one of the few sending them text messages (and they don’t mind the texts), you’ve got a direct line to their full attention.

5. Demand attention when you need it (because you won’t have it for long)

In field sales, it wasn’t unrealistic to expect your prospect’s full attention. But in inside sales? It’s not gonna happen. Attention is a scarce commodity, and it only becomes rarer the greater the distance between yourself and your prospect.

Instead of trying to fight the inevitable, accept the reality of the situation and work around it. After all, you don’t need their full attention for the entire pitch, only the most important parts. So identify what those parts are and, when they come up, ask for your prospect’s attention. For example:

  • “What I’m about to say is the most important thing you’ll hear from me today.”
  • “If you forget everything else I say, remember this one thing.”
  • “This next part’s important and I think you’re gonna want to hear it.”

Once you’ve asked for their attention, build up the anticipation by silently counting backward from three, then drop whatever bomb you’ve prepared. This ensures that if they were distracted by email, Facebook, Slack, or any number of other channels (and they probably were), you’ve got their full attention—at least for the moment.

Be a salesPERSON, not a SALESperson

All of this said, I’m not saying you need to start every sales conversation with 30 minutes of excruciating small talk. Trust me, I hate wasting time as much as your prospect would. Be respectful of the other person’s time. What I’m saying is this: Focus on the “person” half of “salesperson.”

As we step into the future of sales, it’s important we don’t forget the lessons that brought us here. The only way to thrive in the new sales environment is to keep reinventing and reinvesting the relational side of sales.

So be real. Be you. Be relatable. That’s what made vacuum salespeople successful 50 years ago, it’s what makes SaaS salespeople successful today, and it’s what will make the next breed of salespeople successful 50 years from now.

Want more sales advice? Join our free Startup Sales Success email course. Every week, you'll get an email showing you how to improve your sales process.

Recommended reading:

Startup culture is killing sales teams. Here’s how to save yours.

The sleazy, high-pressure salespeople of the past are gone. However, in an effort to shake their past reputation, have today's sales teams lost their edge?

Sales in an AI world: How human is your sales process

More people are now using AI applications to automate sales. However, AI challenges the fundamental principle of sales. Will AI displace humans?

5 sales trends you must ignore to succeed in 2017

AI. Machine learning. Outsourced sales teams. These are all hot sales trends promising to change the way we sell, but are they worth the fuss?

Table of Contents
Share this article