What’s behind the impressive growth of virtual selling? What keeps companies from fully capitalizing on this practice? And what’s coming next? Britton Manasco, editor of The Visible Edge, spoke recbob-perkinsently with Bob Perkins, founder and chairman of the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals (AA-ISP). Recognizing a powerful shift now occurring in the world of sales, they explored these questions and many others. 

MANASCO: Congratulations on the explosive growth of the AA-ISP. I’m wondering if you can provide some perspective on the scope and span of the association at present.

PERKINS: Sure. Well, the field of inside sales has experienced pretty amazing growth. I believe the growth can be attributed to the need and desire that inside sales professionals – some call their organizations “digital sales” or even “tele-sales” – have for a centralized and accessible resource that helps them — whether they’re frontline or leaders – to advance the profession and advance their careers.

The AA-ISP, by design, allows you to network with others going through the same set of challenges and problems, and to share solutions. When you come to a chapter meeting or an event, it’s all about this sharing of ideas, learning who is doing what, and finding new and better ways to do things.

Anyway, we’ve grown to over 13,000 members on a global basis. Outside the U.S. we’re gaining quite an interest.  We’ve gotten to 65 chapters around the world. I think the number is around 20 or so outside the U.S. India itself has two chapters, for example. And a lot of the EMEA countries are adding chapters. Internally, we’ve grown to nine full-time employees plus other part time help. And there are many initiatives that we are contemplating for the future.

MANASCO:  So I’m curious: What do you think has contributed to this growth in the profession of inside sales in particular and virtual selling more generally? What’s behind it? Why have we seen it accelerate over the past decade and perhaps intensify over the last couple years?

PERKINS: There have been some thought leaders who’ve said it’s technology that has enabled it. But I don’t actually believe that’s the main driver. I believe technology certainly has enabled it. But part of it, honestly, if we still had just a phone and that’s all we had and a notepad, I believe we would still be seeing a huge boom in our profession.

Just consider today’s executives, decision makers, people that are in buying positions. When they go home at night they may take out their smart-phones and go to Amazon.com and purchase something. Or they may do a web search on a particular product and they may look at the different models. When they’re ready to move to the next step, oftentimes, they will do it via a live chat.

They might pick up the phone and call someone to talk to them live but, increasingly, they are not going to the retail store. They may go and take a quick look, but so much of their personal buying habits have been effectively done online, virtually, without ever meeting someone, maybe talking with someone or chatting with someone, that they have found great efficiency and they have found great ways to educate themselves. They have been conditioned that this is how you learn about things and buy them. It’s a complete transformation.

They don’t want to go to work and have a complete opposite experience. Let’s say they run a sales team and they’re looking to buy a SaaS product that helps them with their pre-call research. If you told them “Well, no, you can’t do research online” and “There is nobody on the phone really good enough to tell you about this product so you have to set up a face-to-face appointment with a regional rep,” they would tell you you’re absolutely out of your mind.

They’re going to say, “I’m going to go on Google and I’m going to first take a look at it. By the way, I may even download a test copy of it and try it out before I buy it and I may have some questions that I can’t find answered on the company’s website so I may call somebody.” That is the way they prefer to buy now. It’s not only a preference, it’s a way of doing business. I believe that is the driver behind so much of this growth.

MANASCO: You’ve mentioned that you see three key trending issues that are grabbing the attention of sales leaders overseeing inside sales organizations. They are these: talent, technology, and structural change. Let’s stay with structural change. In our new book Next Era Selling, Anneke Seley and I make the case that money is on the move in terms of the growth of inside sales in particular and virtual selling more broadly — which encompasses outside field forces and even strategic account management. What are you seeing on this front and what are the key indicators of structural change?

PERKINS: Wow. I’ve had so many conversations with leaders and you’re right, money is on the move.

First and foremost, there has been a shift over the past few years and it has kind of come to fruition around this movement from team selling to discrete selling. What I mean by that is, years ago, if you had an inside sales team, more often than not, it was deployed as a support mechanism or an ancillary or supplemental mechanism to the field sales organization. A field rep owned the quota, owned the customers, owned the process, owned the closing. The inside rep did a portion of that. In your more advanced companies, the inside reps sort of ran with their own deals. But guess what? At the end of the day the field rep farmed it. There has been a definite shift from that.

While the team selling model can still be a very strong and very useful model, it’s the discrete, quota-carrying model that’s growing most. We know this because we research it every year. This year it has come out about even if not a little bit higher than the team selling model. Many large companies are moving to give the inside reps discrete responsibilities. That means they own the quota and they’re not simply supporting the field reps.

It doesn’t mean there is no need for face-to-face selling. That’s not what I’m saying. But I will tell you this. Make no mistake about it, there is a lot less need today for a face-to-face meeting, a lot less need, just based on what I talked about with how people are researching and purchasing.

So that is one model shift that we’re clearly seeing. In fact, I’m working with a large global organization that has over 1,000 insides sales people. I met with the North America leader, who really owns a billion+ in quota and the resource spending around supporting that quota, and he clearly told me they are letting field resources attrite and they’re adding inside sales resources. All they are allotting — money, resources, training, all that stuff — is being focused on building out a more professional inside channel.

MANASCO: What does this suggest in terms of the relationship between inside and outside sales?

PERKINS: I think you talk about this in your book a little bit. There’s this blurring of boundaries between inside and outside. I think there is a shift where they are moving to more of a common nomenclature around this term “digital.” They call it the “digital sales model.” Well it’s not simply we’re changing the name “‘inside sales” to “digital sales” — although that is part of it — but they’re trying to build a robust sales structure around the term digital.

I think that’s evidence, Britton, that there is kind of this movement to blur the lines between inside and outside and get everyone trained up on the finer skills and attributes of a virtual selling function, regardless of whether you sit in a center or if you work at a local office or you work out of your home. The thought behind it is everyone is going to have good social presence. Everyone is going to be adept at doing online, screen-to-screen presentations and everyone is going to be good on the phone. You must have exceptional skills around selling virtually – even if you do conduct face-to-face meetings as part of your work.

MANASCO: It sounds like there are lots of positive indicators, lots of companies moving aggressively in this direction. But not all companies. In the book, we call it “The Virtual Selling Imperative.” But we’re struck by the fact that a lot of companies are still standing still and are not addressing this imperative effectively. What do you think impedes companies and holds them back in terms of embracing this movement, this approach?

PERKINS: Well you’re absolutely right. I think it’s a matter of time. But you’re so right. I’ve had so many meetings over the last couple years with companies that I say they’re kind of stuck in the old days. When you tell them that customers really prefer to engage virtually they nod their heads — “Yes we know that” — but then they won’t change.

I think there are two reasons. First, there is still a perception in their minds that field is better than inside. They say, “Field sellers have more experience. They get up in a boardroom and do a lot of presentations.  They’ve held these huge quotas for years. These are the real top-notch sellers.” Look, I grew up in that world myself. I may even have that perception and not know it. So I think there are barriers around perception.

There is also a little fear of risk taking. “Would I really shift my quota to inside? Would we really mandate that all of our people get trained on virtual selling skills and technologies? We’ve always done it this way and this is the best way to do it.” I think those are two reasons there are still some laggards in relation to this model. I think some of the leaders don’t know any different. They grew up and stayed in the traditional, face-to-face selling model and they’re comfortable with it. Why change?

MANASCO: I guess in a lot of cases they will need to see their competitors delivering far greater levels of sales productivity, expanding into new markets, and capitalizing on these capabilities. It will take something like that to drive change, to shock them out of their complacency, I guess that will be the case in many situations.

PERKINS: I’d like to expand on something you just said. You mentioned selling into new markets. So after our Boston conference I stopped at a large manufacturer outside of Boston and had a conversation. The VP there was going into their quarterly reviews.

He said, “The inside team has doubled the revenue from net new and now, we are the selling leaders at the company.” He is doubling what the field is doing though they’re both charged with finding that new business. He said “We have a much more efficient lead generation function. We’re able to get to more clients. We’re able to schedule more first time meetings that lead to net new business.” This is what we’ve been promoting all along and they are living proof of it.

MANASCO: Let’s talk about talent for a second. I know this can be a very long discussion, but I just want to get some of your top line thoughts on that. What are you seeing as sort of top concerns and interests expressed by leaders in this profession in terms of talent strategy and management?

PERKINS: Interestingly, when we do our annual challenges research, recruiting and hiring has always been in the top three. Training and development has been in the top three. This year when we got the results, training and development for the first time made it to the number one position.

So what we’re seeing and hearing is that professional development matters in this growth phase. A few years ago it was like we’re growing so fast we don’t know what to do. Now everybody accepts and have lived through this growth of SDRs, BDRs, and ISRs. So they’re comfortable when they have to go add 30-40 people. But they don’t quite yet have the right training and development plan figured out or ways to keep people in positions longer.  Everyone knows that the need is so great in the profession and in the marketplace out there that folks have options to move and upgrade their title and pay. That’s a reality that is just not going to disappear.

I believe leaders and executives are really trying to figure this piece out. We’ve had many discussions with folks around ways to invest in the development of their people. So I really think this could be sort of the next thing that goes through an evolution or a type of refinement. We’re going to refine what we’ve been doing because this thing which was a stepping stone in the past has now become a real profession where people are staying. It used to be a stepping stone to field sales. It isn’t anymore. I mean yes people can move from inside to field. Yes, they can. That’s wonderful. We’re all for that. But it’s becoming a beginning and almost an ending space for long term careers.

MANASCO: Just a few words on technology. I think maybe things you’ve said earlier, there are some concerns that technology can be the tail wagging the dog in some cases. I’ve heard managers talk about their sense of “tool fatigue” — with the people on the staff coming to them with some new tool that they got to try out on a freemium basis and now they want access to it. Managers are continuously assaulted with these kinds of requests. I’m wondering where you think we are with technology. Step back. How should we think about technology as an enabling force in this movement?

PERKINS: We can look at any point in time around this whole technology boom but I believe it has always been around figuring out the people and the process first. You have to design something not around the technology but what happens with the people and the prospects and the clients and the customers. What do you want that motion and that engagement to look like at its best?

Here’s what we hear now: “I have three tools that you can use. One is going to give you pre-call research. The second one is going to measure how many times an email gets opened and track that. And the last one is going to autodial for you.” instead of starting at that point, first step back and get the tools out of the way and design your workflow.

From there, conservatively put technology in place that is going to support that process and make the process effective and efficient. We’ve seen a lot of organizations that have done that. They get better adoption in the tools. I think your best scenario is when your sales rep says, “I really can’t go on and fulfill my process and flow without this tool. It would impede me if you took it away.” That is the best case scenario.” There’s an allure to buying more technology to make things better. But that’s not always the case.

MANASCO: Do you see any indicators that maybe the automated capabilities that are available to us are being misused in some cases or in some ways? What I’m particularly wondering about is that we may be flooding the zone with communications and excessive cadences (if you will) and that there is a backlash that we’re running up against. What do you think about that?

PERKINS: Well now this is perfect timing for this question. I just did a little test on this. Unfortunately, I don’t have any statistics or research to back up what I’m going to say here. But I tend to agree with you. I’ve talked about how to personalize an outreach and make it about your prospect. But I can tell you the number of automated reminders I get that essentially say, “Hey Bob! I don’t know if you saw my last email so I’m reaching out to you again three days after that email and three days after that email.”

So yeah, I tend to agree with you. I hope and I look forward to seeing this evolve as well. I tend to think we’re going to maybe shift the pendulum back a little bit. You’re seeing account-based marketing and account-based selling. When you take the fancy term off it that’s what it’s really all about. It’s targeting specific places and individuals so you can communicate in a much more personalized, one-to-one way. I think we’re already starting to see this happening.

MANASCO:  I’ve asked you about the rapid evolution of the profession in recent years. I’m wondering what you see coming over, say, the next three years. I realize predictions are perilous but here we go. What are some of the emerging trends to consider or think about?

PERKINS: Well let’s stay on technology for a minute. I believe instant communication is a trend. What I mean by instant communication is I’m texting. It’s immediate. It’s short. It’s digestible immediately. I’m talking about a video click. I kind of laugh when I tell the story of the Dick Tracy watch. But if you remember the Dick Tracy cartoon many, many years ago, he had a watch and he just clicked the watch and the person he was calling popped up on a video. I think we are going to see instant video on the increase, instant communication from a technology standpoint.

From a sales model standpoint, I mean I do believe this line between inside and outside will continue to either be better defined or even be blurred altogether. When you and I talk about “virtual selling,” we’ll think less about an inside sales rep in an office than we’ll think about how we can best serve the prospect and how we can best serve the customer.

Then, finally, I think we haven’t cracked this whole training nut yet. But I think we’re going to see some type of evolution and improvement toward a more effective and relevant way to train around this virtual selling process. When these leaders define training as their number one challenge I really think it’s because what is required of selling professionals today is not being fully addressed.

We train reps on value selling and how to ask discovery questions but have we really trained on virtual selling? Have we trained on texting? Have we trained on the use of screen share? We haven’t. I think that is a trend and an area that has got to have some focus.