Inside Salespeople Aren’t Salespeople - Modern Distribution Management

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Inside Salespeople Aren’t Salespeople

Trying to turn inside salespeople into salespeople is typically a miserable failure.

Dumb job titles aren’t new, but they can be entertaining. 

If you look on LinkedIn, you’ll find someone claiming to be a “Mathematics and Software Badass,” (Chuck Norris is very afraid), a Sustainability Ninja (his superpowers are recycled), a “Professional Asskicker” (an inspiring leader, no doubt) and a long list of “Emperors” — along with one “Senior Vice Emperor,” who is obviously ascendant to a potentate somewhere who should probably watch his back. 

Some dumb titles are more common than these. My favorite in distribution is “Inside Sales.” 

Okay, I’ll admit that there are a few inside salespeople who actually sell, but the vast majority simply do not. Indeed, if you try to turn inside salespeople into salespeople, it’s typically a miserable failure: The inside salespeople are miserable, the customers they call on are miserable, and the results are miserable. That’s because inside salespeople are not salespeople.

One reason this happens is that most distribution companies like to call themselves “sales organizations.” That’s fine. But a distributor has a lot of other tasks to accomplish, such as buying products, running warehouses, operating IT systems, managing inventories, keeping the books and providing customer service. None of these are actually sales functions, but distribution leaders particularly hate the term, “customer service” because it sounds passive, so they rename the individuals in this function, “Inside Salespeople.” 

At some point in the history of just about every distribution company I’ve been around, a CEO or vice president has an epiphany and says, “You know, inside sales has downtime now and then. Why don’t we have them make outbound calls when they’re not too busy?”

This is perfectly logical. After all, inside salespeople talk to customers all day long, they understand the company, its products and services and often get great ratings in Voice of the Customer surveys. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything. I’ve seen this over and over again and it turns out the same every single time. Finance runs lists of customers who haven’t purchased in a while and hands the names over to inside sales. Branch managers then force these poor souls to make outbound calls (but almost never call customers themselves). 

Ineffective Automatons

If you’ve ever sat in on any of these calls, it quickly turns your confident, competent, inside salespeople into self-conscious, uncertain, ineffective automatons with no idea how to approach customers, even though they’re terrific at talking to customers who call them. At some point, the initiative peters out until the inside salespeople can get away with putting the list of their “assigned” accounts into the trash and get back to doing what they love, which is providing outstanding and conscientious customer service. 

Things get back to normal, until there’s a sales goal miss and some other executive revives the idea and the scenario plays out all over again. 

Here’s the problem: Although inside salespeople look the same as outbound salespeople (desk, computer, phone, headset), their psychological makeup is exactly the opposite. Inside salespeople like to help customers, solve problems, do favors (like discounting) and make customers happy. Other than the discounting, this is exactly why you hired them and what customers expect to get from them. 

However, inside salespeople absolutely hate making outbound calls. They typically have had no sales training, so they don’t know what to say or what to ask when the customer answers the phone. Their personalities make them uncomfortable in asking for the order and they feel they are violating the sacred trust they’ve built with customers by switching from providing great service to closing sales. 

Customers who receive these calls are often bewildered and occasionally frustrated. “Why are you calling? Yes, everything’s fine and no, I don’t need anything.” 

The call ends with both parties happy that it’s over and the inside salesperson dreading the next one. 

Inside Salespeople Can Upsell

I’m sure someone, somehow, has made this work. That doesn’t surprise me, since data show that while 85 percent of people are better at either taking inbound customer service calls or making outbound sales calls, that leaves 15 percent of employees who are good at both. Also, there are more than 240,000 wholesale distribution companies in the U.S., so it’s a statistical certainty that someone has experienced some level of success at this.

But that’s about as rare as a reliable inventory forecast and it’s never going to happen in your company. 

On the other hand, I’ve seen distributors succeed at teaching inside salespeople to sell “add on items,” (“OK, that circular saw is $199—can I add some blades to your order?”) but this is truly a service to customers and it’s an easy extension to an inbound call. That’s much different than the uncomfortable dynamics of a cold call. 

I suggest you teach your inside salespeople how to upsell in a way that fits their strengths—give them information about promotions that are compelling and data about which products complement others. But that’s about all the selling your inside salespeople are ever going to accomplish. 

Instead, rely on them for fantastic customer service and spend your time teaching them that price isn’t one more thing you give away to make customers happy—it’s how you get paid for all of the other great things you do for customers. That will yield much better results than trying to turn them into, well, “sales wizards.” Just because you call them “inside salespeople” doesn’t mean they really know how to sell. 

As always, I’m interested in your feedback. You can post a comment below or reach me at


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