Inbound sales vs. outbound sales: What’s the difference?
Traditional outbound sales has relied on many of the same techniques for decades: cold calling, scripted pitching, and a ‘sell to everyone’ mindset.
Inbound sales starts by using content to attract good-fit prospects to your company’s website. Then, inbound sales reps educate buyers with transparency so they either opt out of the sales process or move forward to become happy customers.
In the last 20 years, marketing has been utterly revolutionized. Flipped upside-down. Turned on its ear. Sure, many of the tactics from marketing in the pre-internet era persist — we still see billboards and hear radio ads — but the whole landscape has changed so much that it’s almost unrecognizable.
Marketing has gone digital.
Strangely enough, sales hasn’t changed nearly as much in the same timeframe. Sales reps are still cold-calling prospects and treating buyers in much the same way they did when cell phones were the size of bricks.
Marketing has gone digital – sales has not.
And while email blasts and LinkedIn messages show that sales reps have embraced new technology, it can often feel more like they just brought their old approach to new platforms.
In short, many sales teams still use traditional sales tactics that seem out of place in a digital-first world.
In this article, we’re going to break down the contrast between traditional outbound sales practices and inbound sales processes. This way, you can learn which approach will best suit your team and serve your buyers as you determine exactly how you want to grow your business.
Below, we’ll cover:
An overview of the outbound sales process
An overview of the inbound sales process
How the inbound and outbound sales approaches compare for modern business
Traditional sales is very seller-centric. It’s an approach that relies on grabbing attention by interrupting what people are doing, telling them why they should be interested in what you offer, and then expecting them to make a purchase on the spot.
Does it work? Sometimes.
However, it runs against the natural purchasing cycle that people use today and is no longer very efficient.
These outbound sales techniques are familiar to us all:
Most traditional salespeople reach prospects by cold calling. According to LinkedIn, 92% of sales interactions occur over the telephone. But the cold calling approach doesn’t just happen over the phone. Sales teams also blast out cold emails or cold LinkedIn messages. Not only are these unsolicited, but they interrupt what the prospect is doing and are irritating to most people.
Just think about it: When was the last time you made a purchase from a cold call or cold email?
Why are outbound sales calls so ineffective? Buyers are skeptical of sales pitches — and they want to make a purchase on their schedule, not on yours.
Buyers today want to do their own research before speaking with a salesperson. They will reach out when they’re ready.
The average consumer, and especially the average B2B customer, isn't going to be won over by a clever pitch. They expect a convincing pitch, but that's not enough.
These prospective customers want all the information at their fingertips so they can make an informed decision.
Another characteristic of traditional sales is secrecy regarding information.
Traditional sales tactics typically rely on guarding as much information as possible for as long as possible. Want to know how much something costs? Speak to our sales team. Curious about how one option compares to the competition? We won’t address this until you’re in our sales cycle.
The thinking is that if our company gives away too much information, people won’t buy from us.
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all companies, especially those that sell products instead of services. However, traditional sales also has a tendency to pressure people into purchasing without being transparent about the faults or limitations of products or services.
The truth is, there should be no secrets in the digital age.
Information today is widely accessible and people are accustomed to finding out anything they want. When a company holds back information, it causes buyers to get frustrated and lose trust in that organization.
People want to do business with people, not faceless corporations. Modern society demands transparency from businesses and frankly, transparency doesn’t mix well with traditional sales.
I mean, how would you respond if you got a cold call and the sales rep told you that they bought your contact information from another company and that you’re their 115th call today? (But, of course, your business is still very important to them and you should make a purchase right now.)
Traditional sales is all about the sales quota. That’s why businesses that use traditional sales tend to rely on a static, scripted pitch. It’s easy to memorize and deliver, taking the guesswork out of the process.
A scripted pitch doesn’t change for each person hearing it. It assumes that all potential customers want and need the same things. It’s given the same way in all sales conversations regardless of the unique challenges each prospective customer is facing. A scripted sales pitch treats each customer like every other one. They are just another number, not a person with depth and unique traits.
Generic scripts work best on people who have already decided to purchase what you offer before being contacted by your company. Instead of looking for information, these buyers are looking for confirmation. They’ve already made up their mind. They just want your sales representatives to confirm their decision.
Sell to everyone
Outbound sales is a numbers game. Sales teams have their targets, and individual sales reps have the numbers they’re supposed to hit. To do so, they have to make the most of the sales opportunities and leads they have. This sort of sales process prioritizes a “close at all costs” mindset.
While every business wants to sell as much as possible, this approach comes with collateral damage.
We all know that our products or services are not a great fit for everyone.
If you only sell sports cars and your goal is to sell as many as you can, you’re going to try to convince the mother of four and the home contractor that they need a speedy two-seater. If you’re convincing, you just might do it, but those buyers will turn into unhappy customers who will regret their purchases.
In this way, outbound sales prioritizes immediate success over creating and maximizing a long-term sales strategy. When sell-at-all-costs is the priority, customer service and repeat business lose out.
Inbound sales strategies
Unlike traditional sales, inbound sales is all about the buyer’s needs and concerns. Rather than interrupting what people are doing and trying to make a quick sell, with inbound sales you attract potential buyers to your brand on their schedule.
You integrate your sales strategy with the natural buyer’s journey instead of trying to work against it.
Just like inbound marketing, an inbound sales strategy is a long-term play. You won't see a spike in sales overnight, but your results will be more exponential than linear.
Instead of picking up a phone, people today turn to Google when they want to find information about anything.
So your inbound marketing content (which could be a blog post, an ebook, a video, a landing page, etc.) replaces the cold call. Instead of reaching out and interrupting the prospect’s day, you entice them to come to you. Your content will generate leads among your target audience. Interested prospects will come to you.
This way, you know that the inbound leads entering your sales process are looking for your information; they’re not just an anonymous number on a list.
With inbound sales, you’re giving value before you ever ask for anything in return. You’re building trust and establishing expertise from the first touchpoint, and that can significantly shorten a long sales cycle.
Transparency and honesty
Unlike traditional sales, transparency actually complements the inbound sales process. With inbound sales, you're sharing all of your knowledge with prospects to help them make educated decisions.
The inbound salesperson is seeking to earn their trust and respect, and ultimately, their business. Some businesses are uncomfortable with this strategy as it “gives away our secrets,” but this is a misconception.
Take a look at our agency for example. Truthfully, a potential client could subscribe to our blog and learn everything they need to know about our business framework: They Ask, You Answer. But giving away that information builds trust and establishes our expertise. As a result, clients hire us to train them in our framework, getting hands-on instruction in the same principles we write about on our website.
We are happy to give away as much information as possible because this content gives our services more credibility. The more we help people for free, the more likely they will see the value in paying for our premium services.
In today’s market, transparency and information are in high demand and highly rewarded. If your brand is slow to adopt this approach, you will have competitors that aren’t and that’s where your prospects will look instead.
Focus on the needs of the buyer
With inbound sales, your reps always research leads before meeting with them. Your sales team should know exactly what pages of your site they viewed, which ebooks they downloaded, and which videos they watched. Before the first sales contact takes place, your team should have a good idea of what they’re struggling with and what they’re looking for.
As a result, the sales conversation should be totally different — focused on your buyers and their specific situations.
Not only is this a more personable and thoughtful approach to a sales strategy, but it just makes sense. By identifying the problems that your lead is facing or the goals they want to achieve, you can position your brand as the solution in your sales conversation. Without knowing this information beforehand, or identifying it early in the conversation, you can’t set your brand apart as the clear choice for them.
Which sales method is better for my organization?
Both inbound sales and outbound sales have their place in modern business. For one thing, inbound sales does not happen accidentally. You need a marketing team ready to create content to attract your prospects. For some organizations, this longer approach is something to aspire to, but not something that’s realistic right now. (Although, we would argue that it’s much more efficient and cost-effective than you might think.)
Inbound sales is a modern adaptation that’s suited to the way that people prefer to make purchases today. No cold calls or cheesy pitches.
Inbound sales is no longer just a numbers game – it’s a people game. We’ve found that a low-pressure, educational buying process builds relationships. When transparency and trust enter the sales process, each potential customer is treated as unique. The conversations are not full of scripted pitches, but genuine conversations.
Inbound sales not only recognizes this but embraces it and uses it to its advantage.
Building an inbound sales process at your organization
At IMPACT, we’ve worked with sales teams of all shapes and sizes. Most cling hard to an old-school, outbound sales process that looks the same as it did when we all carried flip phones.
Getting these teams to embrace a new approach is no easy task. They don’t want to abandon something that’s gotten them to where they are today.
But by bringing their sales and marketing teams together, we are able to show them a better process that’s more efficient than outbound selling — and still leads to sales success.
It all begins with content. You must identify who your potential customers are and understand what questions they’re searching for that could lead to your site. Then, you’ll need to create the content that gets you to the top of search results.
Once you do that, you’ll find that interested customers who have expressed interest will come to you. And they’ll be eager to enter your sales process.
Inbound sales isn't a numbers game – it's a situational game. The goal is to find the right people in the right situations who are a perfect fit for your brand and focus all of your energy on them.
With this approach, leads are more welcoming to a sales conversation because the process is more genuine. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.