Doug Wendt is a co-founder and senior partner with Wendt Partners.
Inside sales is a process-focused discipline. Whereas outside sales teams have historically been provided with wide latitude to allocate their time, expenses and energies as they see fit, inside sales teams, in contrast, have been tightly managed in order to drive newfound leads to their outside sales counterparts as rapidly as possible.
What's different now is that, for an increasing number of B2B companies, inside sales is no longer just a process that supports outside sales – in fact, inside sales is now the entirety of the sales effort.
With legions of sales managers and outside reps now having to relearn sales processes and techniques 'from the inside view', it's essential to define a structured process by which sales cycles can be managed and moved toward the close.
One major advantage of an inside-focused sales cycle is that it does tend to be more managed by both the buyer and the seller, in part because Zoom calls and other online-mediated meetings are more time-definite. In contrast to an outside sales call that might include a tour of the prospect's business, a relaxed sit-down to enjoy coffee, a formal meeting and then, perhaps, lunch with the prospect – today, that same exercise is forced into a series of time-definite meetings and although this is frustrating for many sales professionals, it has the hidden advantage of creating a sense of urgency for both buyer and seller.
To help understand that reality better, let's take a look at a well-established and widely proven process for inside sales, and the one that we use at Wendt Partners. This process is organized to go from cold outreach to deal close in four to six meetings. Here is a summary of what each meeting (or call) is about:
Step 1: Outreach Call
The outreach call is our first step, and it actually involves initial outreach via phone, email and LinkedIn to the target prospect. We use a variety of tools and databases to enrich our information before the outreach is made (such as the company size, industries it is in, owner's background and more).
While it takes many, many outreach calls to identify a willing prospect and get a discussion underway, the fact is that outreach calls also generate wide-scale background awareness. For example, companies that haven't responded to our outreach efforts directly have later shown up at webinars, as contacts downloading our white papers, and ultimately, as prospects. In short, outreach sets the stage for both direct and indirect sales development.
Step 2: Introductory Call
We mentioned that our process is designed to take place in between four and six meetings, and the introductory call is a step we actually try to skip. Put a different way, our goal is to transition the prospect directly from an outreach call by our Sales Development Representatives (SDRs) to a member of our consulting team who handles the discovery call. However, not every prospect is ready or willing to accept a discovery call at first, while others are simply not at a good point when the outreach takes place and may be interested but need to talk at a different time.
Whenever a prospect tells our SDR to speak with them at a different time, we schedule that meeting and refer to it as an introductory call. The purpose of the introductory call is to take the initial flicker of interest created during the outreach call and provide enough of an introduction to our firm and our results for clients that the prospect agrees to a discovery call.
Step 3: Discovery Call
The discovery call is our goldmine. This is where we really convert leads into opportunities, and it's the most critical step in the process to master. We schedule these with prospects for 20 minutes and block a half-hour so we can accommodate a bit of over-time discussion. However, we also use strict timing to keep the process moving, because psychologically a prospect feels that the process is progressing toward a decision more when you divide the discussion into a series of 20-30 minute calls rather than doing one major hour-long call.
We organize the discovery call into three parts: a five to seven-minute overview of our firm; a ten-minute overview of the prospect's business, and their key pain points or growth goals; and 2-3 minutes in the end for wrap-up and scheduling of the next step.
We ask the prospect whether they want to go first or have us go first, and they split about 50/50. Either way, a good discovery call is a strong platform upon which a new sale can be built. This is also our first solid opportunity to price-qualify prospects so that they know what kind of investment we're going to be asking them for, in general terms. At the end of the discovery call, we summarize the prospect's 2-3 key pain points and ask to dig into them deeper on an exploratory call.
Step 4: Exploratory Call
The exploratory call is where we focus almost entirely on the client and focus on a detailed discussion of their business issues, challenges, priorities and goals. We essentially facilitate a needs analysis review for 20-25 minutes and then summarize in greater detail, with a goal being to show the client that we do one thing very, very well: listening. If they believe we are good listeners, they are far more likely to continue in the process.
However, since prospects aren’t used to a salesperson who doesn’t talk all the time, we often ask a number of very in-depth and narrative questions, to get the prospect to open up and really share quality details that help us understand their situation fully. At the end, our ask is simple: Now that they've brought to us their needs and we've taken detailed notes, let us summarize them and present our proposed solution in the next call.
Step 5: Solution Call
The solution call is where we return to center stage. We've performed an in-depth needs analysis and confirmed with the prospect the goals they need to achieve and the obstacles they've had in the past toward achieving them.
Now, we want to show them that (a) we were listening and (b) we have the expertise and unique understanding to solve their problem. We begin with our standard presentation and then we shape it, putting the client's needs, pains and goals up first.
Like a well-crafted play, this proceeds in three acts: Act One review the client's situation in-depth. Act Two refreshes on our unique capabilities and approach, and reiterates our pricing and investment structure. Act Three provides a detailed proposal of how our solution will meet their needs, including timelines, investment points and options.
We generally find that 85% of clients will fit into one of our mid-range price points, which is good because it emphasizes to the prospect that (a) they are likely a very strong fit with our approach and expertise, and (b) we're not trying to sell them either an overpriced Cadillac or a cheap, unreliable Pinto, but rather, the right vehicle for their specific needs.
Step 6: Decision Call
We use the solution call to trial-close our deals, and in about 30-50% of cases, the deal closes or ends at the solution call. Either the client is pleased with the solution, is ready to purchase, trusts our expertise and has the desire to move forward – or they are too hesitant, afraid, dealing with other projects, facing a crisis they didn’t share at first or need to take a step back and focus on other concerns first.
Even in the COVID-19 marketplace, we are finding that most B2B decision-makers have a sincere desire to move forward with new decisions and growth opportunities, and our close rates have remained surprisingly constant. However, in 50-70% of sales cycles, we need one more step: the decision call.
When we complete the solution call and the trial close does not lead to a decision, often the prospect is just confused, or fearful, or has other competing priorities on their mind. This is also where many of them will fall back on the common trope we know well, which is summarized as "Great, send me a proposal and we'll take a look at it."
Of course, we never do that.
What we do instead is ask for the decision call (and we call it this by name for a reason). The decision call is specifically designed to do what it says – lead to a 'go/no go' decision, and in fact, we'll even say this out loud and confirm it with the prospect once or twice if we can. We also use the time between solution call and decision call to address any final requests on pricing, terms, client references, etc. This gives the prospect a chance to feel that they've thoroughly vetted our firm and test-driven the partnership with us.
While we do send a presentation that contains our solution (essentially what they saw on the screen during the solution call), we never send an actual agreement they can sign until the client has agreed verbally to a purchase.
Sometimes, we arrive at the scheduled decision call only to have the client say, quite literally, "We've already talked internally and we're going with you", in which case we immediately schedule the engagement kick-off meeting.
If a prospect is very close to a decision but needs that additional time after the solution call, we'll call this a "decision call and soft kick-off" – which emphasizes that if they are ready to decide at the start of the call, we can use the rest of the time to actually get going with the work at hand (and yes, we’ve had more than a few engagements actually kick off that way).
Three Essential Pro Tips for Success with the Inside Sales Process
We have learned (often the hard way) that there are three key pro tips for achieving success with this process. They are:
Pro Tip #1: Have patience and adapt flexibly.
Inside sales takes time to craft and sharpen and build success upon. We were tweaking and adjusting our pitch statements, leading questions, target prospect profiles and more for months – literally about five to six months – before hitting our stride. And we then had to change things again when COVID-19 hit. Yes, you can get some quick wins with a little luck on your side – but this is a discipline you and your team need to learn, practice and master.
Pro Tip #2: Always ask for the next meeting.
Inside sales is a process, and like any process, someone has to craft and choreograph it. That someone is you. Don't ever – ever – leave one meeting without the next one confirmed and the calendar invite sent, received and accepted.
You are on a journey together with the prospect, and if you let things get off track, you'll be back in a holding pattern for weeks if not months and may never recover. Feel free to call it a tentative date and time, recognizing that your time and the prospect's time are both very valuable and calendars fill fast. Be flexible and accommodating with the prospect on when the next meeting will take place but try to keep the calls between 1-3 weeks apart. I aim for just under two weeks in my ask, and often the prospect will speed it up and ask to meet sooner rather than later, which is a great sign –- all the better because they led on setting that rhythm.
Pro Tip #3: Give people homework and let them leave the ‘class’ if they want.
Your time and effort is worth something, and that something at a bare minimum is honesty and forthrightness from the prospect. If you ask the prospect for something, they need to deliver it or deeply apologize and reset to get it done.
We often ask for something – a prior sales and marketing plan, a memo on key objectives, etc. – to assign homework to both sides (in essence, the message is “You do this and I do that so we're both prepared for the next discussion”). This concept is called Assignment Selling and it's extremely valuable.
Just remember, some people never do their homework and if they don't do it then it may even be necessary to delay or reschedule the next meeting until they are ready. If they don't want to do the homework or if they are a no-show for a scheduled meeting, then let them leave.
We hand these "op drops" (prospects who drop out of the sales opportunity process) back to the SDR and they don't access our consultants again during the sales cycle until they re-confirm a meeting date and time with the SDR. After three weeks of rescheduling attempts, we close the deal with a 'lost' status and return the prospect to an ongoing warming process so they can still start a new sales cycle in the future.
In summary, inside sales is a disciplined and focused effort that involves all of the same skills you use in outside sales, only under more time-constrained conditions and without the benefits of in-person rapport building. However, it comes with the advantage of having a much crisper and controlled format, which actually benefits both buyer and seller in many unexpected ways. However, by committing to this process and its requirements for both focus and flexibility, you'll achieve a truly reliable foundation upon which you can build new sales going forward.
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