Imagine you’re in a cave trying to navigate through the dark, slippery space when suddenly you feel hands on your back pushing you forward without any verbal guidance. You’re not sure where you’re going or even if you can trust this person.
In this instance, outbound sales are the hands on your back. Instead of giving gentle guidance towards your purchase like inbound sales, outbound pushes you towards the sale without much input from you.
In contrast, the inbound sales methodology gives you the chance to get to know your customers, how they prefer to communicate and where they like to go to make a purchase. As a result, the customer feels heard and is more likely to work with you or purchase your product.
An Overview of Inbound Sales and Marketing
What makes inbound sales different from outbound is how salespeople get the lead and what happens after initial interest is shown. Inbound sale leads find and interact with the company on their terms. Outbound sale leads are acquired by prospecting potential customers even if they have not shown any interest yet.
Inbound Sales, Defined
An inbound sales representative puts the customer and their needs first. Instead of targeting customers to close the sale quickly, the inbound sales methodology aims to guide the customer through the purchase process.
The process of inbound sales involves a series of steps that the marketing team has put in place to attract qualified leads. When the sales team gets the information for the inbound lead, the lead is already considered “warm” because they have expressed interest in the product or service. From there, the sales team can personalize their interactions with the potential buyer using the information the marketing team has collected.
This process starts with heavy research into the customers your product attracts and creating a sales strategy around them.
Outbound Sales, Defined
Outbound sales leads are collected by prospecting potential customers through largely cold outreach and brand awareness. However, the leads that come through are not typically qualified because they have not shown initial interest.
Without really knowing exactly where customers are in their buying process, outbound prospecting runs the risk of missing a customer after they’ve already made a purchase elsewhere or catching them too early in their search to be relevant.
One upside of outbound sales is brand awareness. As a small or emerging company, achieving brand awareness in a saturated market can be tough. Cold outreach like a billboard or cold emailing could plant a small seed for those you’ve contacted. While these efforts may not result in sales right away, it may spark interest in the future as people recall your initial contact. Generating brand awareness can be done in a number of ways, and if your brand can resonate with a broad audience, outbound marketing could be a great first step.
Throughout your company’s journey toward success, keep in mind that most buyers today are not looking for cold calls, overtly salesy demos or to feel “sold to” (typical tactics of an outbound sales strategy). Any interaction they have with a representative at the company should add value to their buying experience instead of making them feel forced into closing.
What the Inbound Sales Process Looks Like
The inbound methodology centers around the customer experience every step of the way. Customer preferences, buying behavior and pain points should be fully understood before creating a sales strategy. This can be achieved by creating buyer personas, one for each type of customer.
A buyer persona is a fictitious character based on a company’s real-life target customer. Some questions that a buyer persona will answer for a sales team are:
- How does this buyer conduct their research?
- How long does it take this prospect to become a buyer?
- How does this prospective buyer prefer to be contacted?
- What unique qualities does your company need to possess to gain this prospect’s interest?
- When is the best time to present your offer?
Once your buyer personas are identified, the marketing and sales team can develop their buying process through what’s called the buyer’s journey. The buyer’s journey consists of the steps the buyer will likely take before making a purchase.
Historically, customers would listen to companies when they said they were the best or provide top-quality products. Now, however, customers have taken the driver’s seat position and do their own research first before ever reaching out to a sales team. Thus, the buyer’s journey was developed to identify this new buying process.
This journey includes:
- Awareness: The buyer identifies a problem they need to solve or a goal they want to fulfill.
- Consideration: The buyer is actively researching solutions to invest in. They may be creating pros and cons lists, doing price comparisons, etc.
- Decision: The buyer has identified their best plan of action and is ready to make a purchase.
Note: The buyer’s journey will vary based on industry and customer, but this is the general framework. Once these steps have been fully understood, the sales team can identify ways to meet the customer at each stage. Through the inbound sales process, sales and marketing teams can support the buyer throughout their journey and facilitate guidance through to a purchase.
The inbound sales process includes four stages:
Each step coordinates with the buyer’s journey.
Outbound sales would use this stage to begin prospecting. Instead, inbound sales can see where their company fits in with a candidate’s need and move forward in turning visitors into leads. During this stage, salespeople collect the information they need to know what the lead needs.
For example, imagine the fictional company ABC Arborist Co. wanted to start their business in Hawai’i where the tropical rainforests can easily take over a garden or landscape. With Hawai’i prone to invasive species, ABC Arborist shouldn’t have a problem finding work.
While a buyer is in the awareness stage, they may be realizing just how many invasive plants are affecting their lawn, or coming to understand it as an issue. They might begin searching for queries like “how to get rid of miconia hawaii” to learn more about their situation.
ABC Arborist Co. sales team would begin to pursue people who have identified themselves as active leads. They could have submitted an inquiry on their website, called in for availability or opened a sales email.
Steps sales would take in this stage include:
- Monitoring inbound leads.
- Separate active buyers from passive leads.
- Calling out trigger events like eBook downloads or frequency of site visits in a given timeframe.
- Interacting with prospects through comments or questions they may have left online.
- Publishing content that speaks directly to customer pain points.
Passive leads are those who did not spend a lot of time on the website, the emails are never opened or have otherwise not taken an active approach to show interest in using the company’s skills.
However, passive visitors could be a good addition to a list of leads as long as the passive visitors match your ideal personas. Because this group is not actively interacting with a company, it may be too early to identify them as a warm lead.
ABC Arborist Co. would weed out the passive lurkers from the active leads in this step.
After the lead has been identified as active, it’s time to reach out to them, such as by sharing helpful content. Salespeople qualify the lead in this stage.
The connection stage aligns with the awareness stage where prospects are learning about the various solutions to their problem and evaluating their options.
For ABC Arborist Co., customers may be researching if they need an arborist or not. With many arborists in Hawai’i, prospects are trying to identify if their project is even possible. Because of this, ABC Arborist Co. should connect with customers who need help with trees they specialize in.
In this stage, salespeople can:
- Implement a chatbot that connects to a real salesperson at a certain stage in the conversation.
- Answer questions and comments on social media (like Yelp, Facebook, etc.)
- Send personalized emails with content relevant to the customer’s search.
- Provide helpful webinars that end in an opportunity to further the conversation.
Salespeople can also automate the connection stage to save time until a customer is further along on their journey. Automating this stage with an email sequence based on the page on which the lead chose to subscribe is one example.
Once the prospect enters the Explore stage, salespeople have the chance to explore opportunities to move forward with the qualified lead. This step aligns with the Consideration stage of the buyer’s journey, where they’ve decided to pursue a solution to their problem, and now they’re evaluating the various options they have.
At the Explore stage, leads are narrowing their search and exploring solutions to their challenges. In turn, salespeople can lean into these challenges and offer solutions by educating the prospect about their business’ specialties.
For ABC Arborist Co., a solution for their leads could be a guide on when to hire an arborist. The guide could include tree heights, identifying invasive species and why regular landscaping is important to Hawai’i native species’ health.
Once customers choose ABC Arborist Co. for landscape maintenance, salespeople can now enter into the advising stage.
Because the inbound sales methodology focuses on the customer’s needs, the Advise stage is paramount for an inbound sales team. It ensures the entire sales process is delightful for the customer. At this stage, the lead is now a customer or about to become one. Salespeople should continue to be helpful solution providers for the customer even after the sale is complete.
For ABC Arborist Co. this step may include offering a consultation or providing tailored information to their specific problem. At this point, the prospect has a decision to make: Work with ABC Arborist, or continue their search elsewhere.
For inbound sales, the strategy for providing the solution is just as important as the solution itself. Being transparent throughout this process will help build buyers’ confidence in the company.
Inbound vs. Outbound Sales Methodology
The difference between inbound and outbound sales is that, for inbound sales, the sales strategy is focused on the customer first, and then the sale. They better understand the buyer’s timeline and can connect with them at each stage without seeming pushy or irrelevant to where they are in their journey.
Inbound reaches customers exactly where they are in the process instead of potentially getting to them too early or too late.
Outbound sales outreach:
- May come at any time, which can feel irrelevant or unnatural to the customer.
- Relies on heavy-handed methods like cold calling to close sales.
- Prioritizes anyone who shows interest in their marketing offers.
Inbound sales outreach:
- Is executed at strategic times, providing meaningful information to buyers.
- Builds trust with their leads by getting to know them personally.
- Prioritizes active and qualified leads.
Identifying leads and prospecting in an outbound sales strategy is typically a long process of trial and error. It is up to the salesperson to identify who of their prospecting pool is active and, of that pool, who qualifies as a valuable prospect. An outbound salesperson will reach out to everyone in the pool to pinpoint who has more potential to be a buyer.
For example, if ABC Arborist Co. was an outbound business, they may send out direct mail to everyone in a region who has a yard and lives in a high-income area. Through following up, sales reps will find that most of these people do not have invasive trees or do their own landscaping except for a small few. Now, they have wasted money on outreach and time on follow-up.
What they could have done instead is create a website, social media pages and join networking groups to identify themselves in the area and with people who are most likely to use their service.
How to Succeed With Inbound Sales
So, how do you implement, maintain and—most importantly—succeed with an inbound sales strategy?
Start by creating realistic and achievable goals. Having clear sales goals ensures that everyone is on the same page, and knows where to go next.
The best way to set up your sales goals is ensuring they are:
If ABC Arborist Co. were to set up sales goals for each salesperson for the month, it might look like this: Connect with 5 inbound leads through eBook and blog post shares.
- Specific: This goal has details built-in.
- Measurable: We’re aiming for a particular number: 5.
- Attainable: ABC Arborist Co. would have evaluated their previous months successes and understood that 5 is an attainable number to pursue.
- Relevant: This is directly related to their marketing and sales strategy, and bottom-line goals.
- Timebound: The timeframe is 1 month.
Sales can optimize their goals and strategy as often as necessary, based on the results they are seeing. Optimizing a sales strategy means teaming up with the marketing team to implement specific findings. This includes (but is not limited to) optimizing the website, conversion paths and how content is promoted.
The key to succeeding in inbound sales is to measure and adjust along the way. No sales strategy is perfect forever and the beauty of inbound is that there’s room to grow with your customers. Pay attention to shifts in the market so your teams are always ready to connect with the right people at the right time.