John Becker is a content manager, co-host of the Solving Inbound podcast, and full-time They Ask, You Answer enthusiast. He writes about all manner of topics related to digital marketing, sales, branding, growth, and company culture.
The internet has fundamentally changed nearly all aspects of our lives — chief among them is the way we buy. Today, consumers don’t bat an eye at buying furniture, cars, and even houses online.
Despite all of this change, many sales teams operate nearly the same way they did 40 years ago. Cold-call prospecting, aggressive sales pitches, and a get-the-deal-done approach are all too common at both B2B and B2C organizations.
Inbound sales is a customer-centered sales practice that focuses on education and transparency.
In other words, it’s a sales process that fits the way people actually want to buy.
Inbound sales extends the principles of inbound marketing that attract and inform good-fit prospects who convert and enter the sales process when they’re ready.
For many sales reps, inbound sales seems revolutionary and unfamiliar, but organizations that embrace this practice see full pipelines, sustained growth, and happier customers.
Inbound and outbound sales are vastly different, and you need to clearly understand each to make a complete comparison.
What is outbound sales?
In traditional, outbound sales most sales reps spend their time reaching out to potential buyers and guiding those prospects to make a purchase. They reach out through cold calling, emailing, and other prospecting efforts with the hopes that they can find good-fit prospects they can sell to.
Some of these sales reps do “inside sales” — that is, over the phone, email, or video — while the majority do “outside sales” that involve meeting with prospects face to face. According to Spotio, outside sales represented more than 70% of all sales in pre-pandemic U.S, but that number has shifted during COVID and its aftermath.
The problem with outbound sales is that it is inefficient and pushy. Research from LinkedIn found that only 2% of cold calls resulted in a meeting booked. It’s little surprise that nearly two-thirds of sales reps report that cold calling is the worst part of their job.
Traditional sales processes value closing a deal above all else. Hence, the sales pitch. A good sales rep can talk someone into making a purchase, even if it’s not in their best interest. This “won’t take no for an answer” approach brings in revenue and helps the sales reps hit their quota, but it can result in unhappy buyers who make things difficult for customer service teams down the line.
What is inbound sales?
Although the goal of inbound sales is the same, the approach is very different.
The inbound sales process begins when a prospect converts on your company’s website. Doing so lets your sales team know that there is a potential customer interested in your products or services. Because prospects enter the sales process of their own accord, they are naturally more qualified than if they were names on a call list.
When the prospect is ready, they can set up a meeting with a sales rep. Rather than a hard-sell approach, the inbound sales rep focuses on buyer education, providing learning materials and information to help the prospect make the best decision possible.
Good-fit, qualified prospects will move forward and make a purchase; bad-fit prospects will opt-out, saving wasted time and effort in the long term.
Inbound sales cycles tend to be longer, but because prospects have opted in and asked to speak to the sales team, close rates are high.
If today’s buyers are entering the sales process with more education and clarity than ever before, that knowledge has to come from somewhere.
This is where inbound marketing comes in. For inbound sales to work, you need a robust inbound marketing strategy that attracts and educates your visitors so they can become customers.
In this model, marketers are doing much of the customer education that used to be done by the sales team.
We have resources that cover inbound marketing in much greater depth, but our focus here is on inbound sales. Just know that inbound marketing and inbound sales go naturally together — and neither can operate at its full potential without the other one in place.
Think about it. That means a good portion of your buyers don’t want to talk to your sales team at all. Even for those who do, they only want to do so on their terms. This means they will reach out when they’re ready. They’re not interested in old school outbound sales techniques that rush their decision-making process.
This shouldn’t be hard for anyone to understand. You just have to think about how you like to buy things. Imagine this: You head to Target looking for a new TV. You’re pretty sure you know the one you want — size, model, price — and you plan on making a purchase today.
Immediately after walking in the door, a Target employee comes up. “Can I help you?” Even though this red-clad person almost certainly can help you, you say no. At least, that’s what most people do. You head to the electronics section and check out the displays. Now, another employee comes up who clearly works in the section. “Can I help you?” Same question, different context. At this point, you’re more likely to say yes. You’re closer to a purchase and you know that this person could help you finalize your decision.
This mimics the inbound sales funnel. It’s a process in which the customer can get help when they want it, and they only need to have minimal contact with the sales team to make a purchase.
Inbound sales reps are available to help educate prospects at key touch points, but they help only when the buyer needs them to.
Think of the traditional buyer’s journey funnel.
Today, your customers don’t want to speak to your sales team until they’re further down the funnel — and closer to a decision. Therefore, you need your marketing team to create content that can educate customers so they can move down the funnel and get to a point where they’re ready to reach out to a sales team member.
How do I know if my inbound leads are sales qualified?
Not every prospect who reaches out will be qualified to buy from you. Businesses must develop lead qualification standards to make sure that the sales team is spending its time with good-fit prospects.
Start your lead qualification process by analyzing a lead’s engagement with your website and marketing content.
How to qualify leads: Common factors that indicate sales-readiness
Viewing a high number of pages, especially recently.
Visiting specific pages related to a particular product or service.
Downloading free decision-stage content, such as demos, consultations, and trials.
Opening and engaging with emails.
Returning to particular pages multiple times.
Reviewing bottom-of-the-funnel offers, including consultation requests, live demos, and free trial offers.
A CRM like HubSpot allows you to track and monitor sale-qualifying behaviors that you choose and set up. You can use lead scoring formulas to determine which leads get fast-tracked to your sales team.
That said, lead scoring is an imperfect art, and there must be human analysis to double check that good leads are not getting ignored because they don’t fit the formula.
The inbound sales process begins when a meeting gets set between a qualified lead and a member of your sales team. Even before potential customers meet with sales reps, the inbound sales process is in motion.
We advise our clients to use “assignment selling.” This is the process of using content to establish alignment, build trust, and improve the customer experience during the sales cycle. To do so, sales reps “assign” pieces of content to a prospect ahead of a sales call. The prospect is asked to read, view, and look over the assignments so that the upcoming call can be more efficient.
Beyond benefiting the prospects, assignment selling also shortens the sales cycle and improves close rates.
Below, see how we use assignment selling as a core component of our inbound sales strategy.
Before the first call: Establish alignment
Before the first meeting, sales reps should connect with prospects to establish expectations and shared goals. Inbound salespeople could send an email that looks like this:
Hi [prospect name],
I'm looking forward to connecting with you. To be sure we use our time effectively, here are a few resources that will help you become more familiar with our agency and our approach so you can determine if we're the right fit for your organization.
Please take the time to review these before our call.
Here is a link to my calendar. Please book a time that is convenient for you.
This message does a few things.
Sets the tone of the meeting: The email is efficient and professional, setting the timbre of the meeting before it even begins. Phrases like “use our time effectively” and “determine if we’re the right fit for your organization” help make it clear that this call will involve both parties getting to know each other and clarifying expectations.
Ensures a meaningful conversation: The materials being shared should help answer many of the initial questions the prospect could have about working with our firm. Rather than starting on square one, they’re a few steps ahead, able to address their specific needs.
Establishes the sales rep as an educator: The tone of this email is helpful and friendly. The sales rep is helping a potential buyer understand the process, the company, and the purchase they might be making. There is no pressure to buy. Instead, by sending a blog post or a buyer’s guide, the sales rep is simply helping to educate so everyone’s time is well used.
Before the second call: Ensure the prospect is educated
Every sales process is unique. For most B2B businesses, there are several calls with prospects and decision-makers before a deal goes through.
In many cases, the first sales call is short — maybe 30 minutes. After that, another meeting is scheduled that allows for more in-depth discussions or presentations.
In between these two calls is another chance to use assignment selling. This time, sales reps should send resources that speak directly to the prospect's situation. This takes advantage of the space between conversations, keeping prospects active and engaged.
This is not only a continual test of their commitment, but it allows them to self-educate along the way.
Use data from the initial call to generate a list of prospect-specific content that you can share in a follow-up email.
It was so great speaking with you today!
As promised, below are a few specific resources that will be important for you to review prior to our next conversation.
These case studies represent the success other businesses like yours have achieved with IMPACT.
Let me know if you have any questions!
Situation-specific resources show the prospect that you’ve listened to their concerns and are able to speak to their needs. Later sales calls can be more in-depth and specific because the resources you’ve sent can address major questions ahead of time.
After a deal closes: Getting the new client’s team up to speed
The practice of assignment selling is so valuable that its use-cases can extend beyond the sales process. Depending on your business, new client onboarding could be another application of assignment selling.
Below is an example email used to support a new client’s team as they begin working with your company.
Hi [client name(s)],
Great meeting with you all today! Please watch the 3-minute video recap of our meeting and, if necessary, share with the rest of your team.
Below the video, you'll see some homework with corresponding links and resources that are referenced in the video.
We've got a couple of weeks until we meet again, which should be ample time to complete the above homework. Remember that by completing the above, you’ll dramatically improve your internal team’s alignment AND have much more productive conversations with your IMPACT team.
Thanks — and as always, let me know if you have any questions.
By using written and video content to align with our clients, we provide them with resources they can share with their own team without risk of losing the impact of the original message.
There are a number of ways the inbound methodology can capture leads and bring prospects into your sales pipeline — and most begin with your company website. These include:
Contact forms (by far the most common)
Whenever potential customers raise their hand to connect with your company, they become an inbound lead. In most cases, this takes place through some kind of form on your website — likely on a landing page, pop-up, or CTA.
The way they enter your contact list will say a lot about where they are in their buyer’s journey. If they’re signing up for your newsletter or to download an ebook, they’re probably not ready to talk to your sales team. However, if they’re signing up for a product demo, you can assume they’re getting closer to a purchase.
However a lead reaches out to your team, that lead will have to be qualified. Leads that are not sales qualified could be entered into a nurture sequence to keep them engaged with your brand.
Your sales team should follow up with qualified leads in a timely manner so that they are quickly able to initiate conversations and establish relationships.
As your marketing team fills your website with helpful content, you’ll want to deploy appropriate CTAs (or calls-to-action) to help your visitors take the logical next step. If they’re reading an article about home seeding their lawn, a good CTA might prompt them to download a complete guide to lawn care. If they’re reading an article about office project management, a good CTA could encourage them to sign up for a 30-day trial of your project management software.
The key is making sure your CTA is aligned with that stage of the buying journey. Someone in the awareness stage is unlikely to be eager to speak to your sales team. But, if they’re closer to deciding, a conversation might be just right.
For those leads who enter your database but are not ready for your sales team, you can enroll them in a lead nurturing campaign.
At its simplest, lead nurturing can be a regular stream of emails to keep the prospect informed and engaged with your brand. Remember, helpful, educational content works best. This should not be a sales pitch.
But such a scattershot approach does not serve your customers or take full advantage of your CRM platform.
4 tips to improve your lead nurturing:
Like with everything else on this list, you can’t really go wrong if you just think like a buyer. If you were just starting to get to know a company and moving slowly toward a possible purchase, how would you want them to treat you?
While lead nurturing often falls under the jurisdiction of marketers, these are good principles to keep in mind for any members of your team — including sales reps — who reach out to prospects.
Use these tips to improve the way you nurture your leads:
1. Always have a goal in mind.
Too often, brands just want to stay top of mind, and their only goal is to be at the top of their prospect’s inbox.
Instead, set goals that indicate actual engagement. Then, track metrics that measure this, such as repeated website visits, length of session, or number of pages viewed.
Make sure your goal has a specific metric you’d like to reach, such as “increase re-conversion by 15%” or “increase our session-to-contact ratio by 0.5%.” Be as specific as possible. Add key performance indicators. And hold yourself accountable to meeting these metrics.
2. Be customer-centered.
Your lead nurturing strategies should focus on educating your prospects and ensuring that they have all the answers they need to make the best decision possible.
So rather than playing the “look at me!” card, keep your content customer-focused. If you sell insurance, provide them with a coverage checklist to help get their teenage driver on the road. If you sell metal roofs, show them the pros and cons of installing a metal roof on their residential home.
Remember, it’s not about you. It should always be about them. And by answering their questions, you’ll build trust and move one step closer to closing the sale with each email.
3. Don’t be boring
If your prospect is considering a bigger purchasing decision, every touchpoint matters.
Think outside the box when it comes to setting automated workflow triggers. Don’t just plan to send three follow-up emails, exactly two days apart, after a prospect downloads your ebook.
Get creative. Mix up the content with more personalized language or a friendly, casual tone, and include a 1:1 video. Small details like this help you stand out in their overcrowded inbox.
Do you want to be the boring, pre-templated follow-up message, or do you want to be the funny, creative newsletter that provides real education value to your audience?
Both options are technically considered lead nurturing; the latter is wildly more successful.
4. Try a choose-your-own-adventure approach
A “choose your own adventure” type email series can serve up content that fits each user’s needs. If a first email asks them to pick their biggest challenge from a list, later emails can use that data to deliver the right content to that prospect. This way, the content is naturally customer-centered and relevant, helping to further educate that lead in a specific way.
A great inbound sales strategy needs the sales team and the marketing team on board. If you’ve got a solid inbound marketing strategy, you’re already heading in the right direction. The content the marketing team is producing will help interested prospects find your business and become sales opportunities. This is the power of good content. The right content on your site will generate leads who will already be educated about your offerings.
Think about the last time you made a major purchase. Did you walk into a store or office and ask the salesperson to tell you everything you needed to know? Probably not. Chances are, you did a lot of research on your own before you even reached out to a sales team. That way, you had a good idea of what you were looking for and knew how to spot a sales pitch that was leading you astray.
No matter what your business sells — goods or services — or who you sell to — B2B or B2C — your customers are likely doing the same thing.
When they choose to enter the sales process, they are still in a position to learn, and the sales reps that provide education instead of pressure are the ones who will be rewarded with business.
The first step to inbound sales success is thinking like a customer.
Work with your marketing team to develop the resources that will build trust and educate your prospects so that the good-fit ones are poised to move forward and the bad-fit ones are able to opt out.
This way, you’ll build genuine relationships with customers that are mutually beneficial, transparent, and genuine. Everyone wins.