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15 min read

Inside sales vs. outside sales: What are the key differences?

Learn the differences between inside and outside sales—and the responsibilities, skill sets, and tools for each—so you can adopt the right sales model for your business.

By Lauren Funk, Contributing Writer

Last updated September 1, 2023

Evolving technology means customers are no longer limited to shopping locally. Buyers are just a few clicks away from purchasing a product from a small business on the other side of the globe.

These convenient online shopping options breed fierce competition between brands and create pressure for sales teams. No longer are they just selling products or services—they’re building relationships and selling a great customer experience.

Though the sales landscape has changed drastically over the years, the fundamentals of sales remain the same. In today’s virtual world, inside and outside sales teams play crucial roles—making it important for your business to incorporate them into your modern sales strategy. Our guide will define and compare inside vs. outside sales so your sales teams are equipped with the tools to build a loyal customer base for your brand.

Table of contents

What is inside sales?

Inside sales is the process of selling remotely over various communication channels, like phone, email, messaging, or social media.

This type of selling is sometimes referred to as remote sales, virtual sales, or social selling because of the digital focus. As communication channels evolve, inside sales reps embrace digital forms of communication like messaging apps, social media, video conferencing, and traditional channels like phone or email. It’s prevalent in tech sales, business-to-business (B2B) industries, and software as a service (SaaS) sales.

What do inside sales reps do?

Inside sales agents work in a centralized location, like an office, and do not travel to meet with prospective buyers face-to-face.

They spend their days sales prospecting and generating leads, connecting with those who have expressed interest in the business’s products or services. Inside sales reps engage with prospects in two ways:

  • Inbound sales: Leads make first contact with your business with questions or interest in your products or services.
  • Outbound sales: Inside sales reps reach out to prospects to gauge interest in products and services.

Agents can communicate via live methods like sales calls or live chat, or asynchronously through online forms, messaging, or SMS.

What is outside sales?

Outside sales is when business representatives travel and meet with prospects in person, at business offices, conferences, and networking events.

Outside sales is considered the more “traditional” sales approach, like door-to-door sales. In addition to face-to-face meetings, reps connect with customers across their preferred communication channels—live and asynchronous. These communication tools include smartphones and other mobile devices, allowing agents to connect with customers wherever they are.

What do outside sales reps do?

Outside sales representatives spend the majority of their time in the field. They meet with customers to discuss solutions to the customer’s pain points, demo products or services, and form stronger relationships to build customer loyalty.

Common business impacts: Inside vs. outside sales

Inside sales processes are inherently more time- and cost-efficient than outside sales. As a result, it’s important to remember how implementing inside sales vs. outside sales strategies could impact your business. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Cost: Inside salespeople typically require one-time purchases and small fixed costs to do their job—like a computer, internet access, and a phone. As at-home and hybrid work models become the norm, companies with remote inside sales teams save on paying for office space.

    Outside sales incur costs like travel, lodging, and meal stipends. Transportation costs range from the cost of company cars, fuel, and flights to sales meetings, trade shows, and conferences.
  2. Efficiency: Without the need to travel and with ready access to internal tools and processes, an inside sales approach can lead to a greater number of sales opportunities and a shorter sales cycle.

    Selling to enterprise companies involves interactions with multiple decision-makers. Depending on where customers are in the buying stage, sending an outside sales rep to meet with the entire buying group can be more efficient and impactful.
  3. Scalability: This has a dual meaning concerning sales. Remote inside sales teams can reach customers regardless of their time zone or geographical limitations, so your business can hire from a deeper talent pool. It also means inside sales teams can connect via video conferencing apps instead of spending a boatload of dough to make unnecessary trips.
  4. Buyer preferences: A recent McKinsey & Company survey shows that “customers still want an evenly divided mix of traditional, remote, and self-service channels, such as face-to-face sellers, inside sales, and ecommerce.” The survey also found that two-thirds of customers chose remote sales interactions or self-service when placing an order.

    The LinkedIn State of Sales Report 2022 shows that virtual sales are effective, with 40 percent of sales professionals saying they have “closed deals over $500,000 without ever meeting the buyer face to face.”

    However, many enterprise companies prefer to work with outside sales reps. On-site visits put the decision-makers in the same room, allowing for more focused meetings with fewer distractions and better collaboration.
  5. Relationship building: Digital interactions between sales reps and customers may not feel as personal as face-to-face conversations. Meeting in person humanizes the salesperson to the customer, and vice versa, making it easier to build a relationship.

    If your company sells physical products, field reps can demo products and invite potential customers to interact with the items. Customers can try out product features and understand how it can benefit their business in real time.

    Outside reps can also provide on-site training or consultative services that can’t be performed through virtual channels.

Inside sales vs. outside sales team structure

The difference between inside and outside sales team structures are sales territories. Territories are based on the geographic location of customers relative to the field rep, but also can include individual business circumstances. For example, if your company is in danger of losing business or sees an opportunity to earn more through in-person visits, that customer can be assigned to an outside sales team.

Sales managers oversee teams assigned to different regions. Sales teams can vary in size depending on your business’s industry, product, and size. Otherwise, the outside and inside sales team structures are the same.

Team structure for sales team

Each member has a specific superpower that contributes to the team’s success. The common structure looks like this:

  • Sales directors are responsible for sales operations, strategies, and revenue growth across the business.
  • Sales managers oversee day-to-day operations for their sales teams, ensuring reps are on track to meet their sales goals. Managers train and mentor team members and monitor the metrics behind their performance.
  • Sales reps (inside and outside sales) interact with prospects throughout the sales process. They nurture relationships to turn leads into customers.
  • Sales engineers are product experts who answer technical questions and handle complex product issues.
  • Customer service representatives comprise the support team that handles customer requests, issues, or inquiries after the sale.

Desired skill sets of outside vs. inside sales reps

There are distinct skill sets that distinguish outside from inside sales reps. Since inside sales reps work from a centralized location, most of their communication occurs through phone calls or messaging channels. Inside sales reps need to be able to form connections and build relationships with customers without meeting them face to face.

Outside sales reps should be comfortable with public speaking, leading presentations, and answering questions on the spot. They also must be willing to travel and work effectively while on the go. Outside sales reps should self-manage and motivate themselves since they spend most of their time working independently.

Whether you’re an inside or outside sales rep, all sales reps need to possess certain hard and soft skills to thrive in a sales role. This shared list of skills includes:

  • Sales and negotiation skills: Sales agents need to understand the prospect’s pain points, the best solution for the business, and the ability to strike a deal. They need to be able to describe a technical product so that anyone can easily understand it.
  • Account management skills: Inside and outside sales reps must manage several prospects at once, keeping customer profiles organized and following up at the right time.
  • Customer service skills: Sales reps need to make it easy for the prospect to reach them, provide personalized interactions, and communicate effectively.
  • Product knowledge: Sales reps must know the product inside and out so they can identify its strengths, weaknesses, and how it can solve the customer’s pain points.
  • Problem-solving skills: Not every sale goes smoothly. When problems arise, sales reps should think critically and find solutions to keep the sale moving through the pipeline.
  • People and teamwork skills: In addition to interacting with customers, sales reps must collaborate effectively with their sales team and adapt to different situations. This includes interpersonal and active listening skills.
  • Prospecting and lead generation skills: Reps must be savvy with lead generation tools and sales customer relationship management (CRM) software that initiate interest and automatically qualify leads to make lead management easier. Additionally, they should be able to determine if a prospect is a quality lead or tire kicker without true sales potential.

Sales models of inside vs. outside sales teams

Deciding which sales model to adopt for your business isn’t as straightforward as it used to be.

Traditionally, B2B sales teams based their decision on the type of product or service they sold. Selling physical products to large companies required an outside sales force, while selling to small businesses and closing deals on low-cost services took an inside sales team.

As technology evolves, businesses worldwide are finding new and innovative ways to demonstrate products and close complex deals through multiple channels. This includes virtual meetings and demos via Zoom and self-service sales models with inside salespeople on standby via live chat.

Here’s an example of how inside sales and outside sales models are typically structured within the standard five-step sales process:

Inside sales
Outside sales
  • Lead follow-up from marketing efforts (free trials, webinars, virtual summits)

  • Social selling (outreach to social media connections)

  • Cold emails and cold calling via phone
  • In-person cold-calling (going door to door)

  • Live events (trade shows, networking events)

  • In-person consultative selling (meeting over coffee to discuss customer needs)

  • Virtual, interactive demos (slide decks, software demos)

  • In-person visual presentations, such as slide decks

  • Interactive demos

  • Brochures, handouts, business cards, and other paper collateral

  • Physical product demonstrations

  • Electronic contract signing

  • In-person meetings with decision-makers

Following up
  • Virtual training

  • Setting up a referral program

  • Sending gifts/handwritten notes via mail

  • On-site training

  • Entertaining clients (delivering catered lunches, taking clients to sporting events)

Free sales pitch templates for inside and outside sales teams

Create an engaging sales pitch to pack your pipeline with high-quality leads with our free sales pitch templates.

Tools used in the inside vs. outside sales process

There are many tools sales teams use to enhance the sales process. Here are a few of the top tools to help you reach your sales goals.

Essential tools for inside and outside sales teams

CRM software

The right CRM software creates a great experience for your sales team and the prospect. It provides your team full visibility of the sales pipeline so you can follow leads through the customer journey. Contact and deal management and activity tracking help boost productivity while triggers and task automation help streamline workflows.

CRM software like Zendesk Sell plugs into your tech stack so you can start using it without learning a whole new system. It also features an app marketplace to connect apps and integrations to supercharge your platform with a few simple clicks.

Lead generation software

Lead generation software features sales engagement tools that help your team discover and organize leads and make communication easier. Prospecting tools can help you compile lists of leads, while enrichment tools allow you to create comprehensive customer profiles. With Zendesk, sales process automation tools allow you to build email sequences that send personalized communication during mass outreach.

Call tracking software

Talking to prospects on the phone will always be a leading communication channel. Call tracking software allows you to sync your voice software with other channels to connect with prospects more easily. It logs the conversations in a unified agent workspace, giving you the context you need when following up with your leads.

Inside sales activities get measured in outgoing call or email volume. Use tools like Zendesk call center software to monitor calls and track outbound call volume.

Communication tools

Your inside and outside sales teams need digital communication tools to meet the customer where they are. Video conferencing integrations like Zoom allow you to meet with customers in a virtual meeting room so you can put a face to a name and form a connection. Collaboration tools, such as Slack, help you connect live or asynchronously with prospects and your sales team. Additionally, business messaging apps, like WhatsApp Business or Messenger, put the conversation in the palm of your hand.

AI and chatbots

AI chatbots can offer a convenient self-service experience for customers looking to buy products without involving an agent, or seamlessly connect a customer to a salesperson for help. Advanced bots can understand intent and sentiment, route customers to a sales rep to answer questions, and show conversation history for additional context.

Inside vs. outside sales: How to track and measure performance

The main differences in measuring performance lie in tracking inside and outside sales activities. Sales performance metrics help you understand the effectiveness of your sales strategy, the performance of your sales reps, and the progress of your sales goals. Track them regularly for insights on how to make improvements, adjustments, and better business decisions.

The territory penetration rate often measures outside rep performance—that is, how many places reps visited in an assigned area. You can use route-planning software to track where your reps have been and where they’re going. Inside sales performance can be measured by outgoing calls and the contact volume of individual reps and teams.

Shared performance metrics include:

  • Percentage of appointments set

  • Lead response time

  • Win rate

  • Acquisition cost

  • Close rate

  • Lifetime value (LTV)

  • Churn rate

Inside sales vs. outside sales FAQ

The future of sales: Adapting to hybrid models

The B2B sales landscape has shifted from picking between outside and inside sales models to hybrid sales. A hybrid model combines the best of both worlds, utilizing multiple digital channels and in-person interactions. This customer-centric strategy takes the inside sales benefits of reaching more buyers while applying the outside sales mindset to building relationships.

In today’s world, it’s best to stay nimble and prepare to support both types of sales motions. Learn how Zendesk Sell equips modern sales teams to be proactive and act fast as they respond to a changing market.

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