The smart money has long understood that how you sell can be just as important as what you sell. As the rise of virtual selling demonstrates, this maxim is now truer than ever. 

Just consider some of the perspectives that emerged at the annual Leadership Summit for the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals (AA-ISP), which occurred last week in Chicago. While innovative firms brought the exhibition floor to life, thought leaders sketched out a coming transformation in the world of sales.

Indeed, employment data suggests inside sales is growing 300% faster than field sales. Companies are recognizing clear benefits in terms of cost of sales, expanded market coverage, and even quality of life through inside sales work. 

However, virtual selling — the practice of using communication, data, and social media technology to remotely engage buyers —  is now available to everyone in the sales profession. The key issue is how actively it will be applied — and by whom.

One factor driving this shift toward virtual selling may be the profusion of new technologies that facilitate increasingly vivid, visual and knowledge-rich interactions. Combine these interaction technologies with other applications that provide targeted sales intelligence and facilitate social selling and you have a powerful toolkit for personalized outreach. 

Companies are spending $2300 per employee, on average, to enable their virtual sellers with today’s latest “sales acceleration” technologies, according to a recent study by InsideSales.com. (It’s more than $7500 per sales person in the software industry.) Even as field salespeople struggle to get through airport security, expect a growing number of sales professionals to have three-screen setups that resemble Wall Street trading desks.   

That said, the bigger trend to watch may be the merger of inside and outside. In his keynote, MobileDay CEO Howard Diamond said he’d like to see the distinctions (and all the baggage associated with them) disappear. “Sales is sales,” as he put it. Diamond explained that his companies sold billions of dollars of software over the years employing  a compensation model in which inside and outside sales professionals in small, self-managing teams equally split their commissions. 

While the issue of “team compensation” remains controversial, the rising status of professionals engaged in virtual selling is not. The real question is how far the shift will go in the next few years.

Speakers from recognized companies such as ADP, IBM, Oracle, Xerox, SAP, and Thomson Reuters discussed their active investments in inside sales at the show. And it was noted several times that SalesForce.com, the pioneer in cloud-based customer relationship management solutions, built its business on the “inside sales model.” No surprise that top venture capitalists now insist their portfolio companies commit themselves to this approach.

And yet, some experts in the field note that most large companies have tended to put severe restrictions on the territories and compensation arrangements (and thus, career opportunities) associated with inside sales. Such restrictions may be an issue of increasing interest in the coming years if rival firms prove they can compete more vigorously and profitably by giving virtual sellers a freer hand.

Watch for it. As the death of distance relentlessly approaches, complacent sales executives and the companies they lead may find themselves increasingly vulnerable to disruption.