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Is Outside Sales Dead?

The structure and operations of sales departments have been changing across industries and sectors for decades. As with nearly every other facet of life, the rise and integration of technology have triggered significant consumer behavior changes. As any good salesperson would say, you need to sell in the way that clients are buying. 

If you’re looking for an answer to the title question, the answer is “sort of.” Outside sales are indeed shrinking, and the sales business model is changing rapidly in real time alongside the market. Outside sales certainly looks much different than it did 20 or 30 years ago. 

The Transformation of Outside Sales 

The biggest downfall of outside sales was that that it was developed around a pace of life that no longer exists. Sales in the field were slow, chatty, and made over the course of 18 holes of golf. No one was in a rush, because salespeople were the most effective methods of attaining product or service information. And the end goal was about much more than a one-off sale: it was a salesman’s unique relationship to the client that cultivated customer loyalty and recurring business.  

Now, all of the information a potential client could need is at their fingertips. They can find a wealth of information about a company and its products or services on their phone, computers, or tablets from anywhere in the world, the second they need it. Clients don’t depend on face-to-face meetings with salespeople for information, and they can instead put the hours previously dedicated to sales meetings towards other more productive tasks. Indeed, the expectations around what one can and should accomplish in a day have exponentially increased with the rise of technology, and everyone moves through the day at a much faster pace. Time is much more valuable than it was 20 years ago. Bottom line? Consumers don’t want or need to talk to salespeople anymore. It’s easier, faster, and more convenient to place orders online or by phone. 

This change in consumer accessibility and preference has been reflected in the daily operations and structure of sales departments. Instead of high-cost traditional B2B field salespeople, inside sales are now the engine that drives sales throughout the economy. Unless you’re a large company with tremendous name brand recognition and over $10 million in revenue each year, you’ve likely seen a significant decrease in field sales agents and an increase in inside salespeople. Company sales now work from the inside outwards to close deals, instead of the traditional movement of sales which operated from the field agents inwards. 

Sales tactics have evolved just as methods of delivery have. Salespeople now face the pressure of making connecting to potential clients remotely and via technology. They are faced with the challenge of human connection and collaboration through remote techniques. Clients need salespeople that understand the complexities of the marketplace and can back their sales pitches up with value, customer success, and consulting skills. 

When clients eventually (rarely) seek out face time with their salespeople, they’re more often looking for someone to walk them through all the possibilities and offer advice on how to proceed. They want someone in their corner. And who can blame them after the start of 2020?

COVID-19’s Acceleration of Changes in Outside Sales

If the structural changes of outside sales were hard to see before COVID-19, they’re glaringly obvious now. Never venturing out into the field has been so terrifying as it is now. It’s also a logistical nightmare. Whereas sales departments had been embarking on transitions towards inside sales operations slowly, the spread of the virus has instigated an abrupt and hasty end to in-person sales calls. Pharmaceutical and medical sales, an industry that was still a cornerstone of field sales, is now the last place that will want or need in-person communication. 

In fact, the spread of COVID-19 might change the landscape of sales in more ways than one. A recent article predicted that COVID-19 will only enhance the rising trend of women dominating whatever 21st-century version of outside sales forges onward. 

Why? Since their entrance into the sales industry, women have been building the skillsets necessary to combat the coldness of technology-driven sales and uncertainty of volatile markets. Despite being outnumbered in the sales industry, they were outperforming their male counterparts. They construct their sales pitches around empathy, human connection, and collaboration rather than data-driven, performance-based outcomes. When none of us are sure what the future holds or how stable the economy is, the ability to turn to an advisor that approaches each sales conversation with thoughtful solutions, a collaborative spirit, and understanding is invaluable. Computers crunch data, but they can’t walk a person through potential outcomes and pitfalls. 

Moreover, increased dependence on technology will make sales more appealing to a more diverse demographic. Video calls, messaging, and remote work eliminate wasted time traveling to potential clients and maximize time spent at home with family and loved ones. This pandemic-related shift will make it easier and more equitable for people of all genders to work in sales.