Not long ago, I was meeting with the top management team of large organization. They had traditionally, had a large field sales organization. The performance of the organization was OK, they were making the numbers, but increasingly challenged. Sales people were just overworked, stretched very thin. Volumes and expectations were increasing. The needs for recruiting and bringing more sales people on board were skyrocketing.

And the costs of selling were starting to spiral out of control.

The top management team was asking me what to do. I know they were thinking, how can we make our field sales people sell much more so costs of selling could be better managed. Instead, I suggested some completely different models–perhaps leveraging channel partners, or moving much more of the sales function inside.

The CEO was dismayed (and I think a little disappointed in what I had said). He said, “Dave, I understand inside sales very well–but they are much more suited for transactional business, standardized, commoditized products. Our services and solutions are very complex and require high face to face engagement. Inside sales would never work for us.”

I find too many people have a real misunderstanding of inside selling.

It’s true, much of inside selling has been focused on transactional, commoditized products/services/and solutions. Inside selling can be very effective and efficient for those. But technology is even enabling much of that old role to be shifted into even more effective and efficient electronic channels. Much of that transactional/commoditized selling will be shifted out of the inside channel into newer self serve channels.

But inside selling has been and can be very effective for highly complex and difficult products/solutions/services. In the mid 90′s, I had the privilege of doing some work with the Digital Equipment Corporation/Compaq inside sales teams. They were selling many of the same and very sophisticated solutions their field sales organization was selling. They were managing very complex deals, closing multi million dollar solutions. Admittedly, at the time, they were a bit of an exception, but they challenged the notion that complex high value sales can only be accomplished face to face.

Fast forward to today, technology, changing buyer requirements, better understanding of inside sales has created hundreds, if not thousands of highly capable sales organizations, selling very complex, high value solutions. Inside sales teams are going toe to toe with many field based sales organizations. The skills, capabilities, sophistication of these teams is every bit as strong as the best of direct field sales teams. They can handle virtually every kind of solution a field sales team can sell–they just don’t travel to the customer.

Changing customer buying preferences, greater comfort with technology, lower costs technologies have facilitated much of this. The so called ”personal touch” of field sales can be achieve through conferencing tools and other things (Cisco is creating a $Billion plus business out of telepresence.)

Changing work habits add to this. The other day, I was at a client location. Everyone was literally within a couple hundred feet of each other. There were conference rooms available, but we needed to hold a quick meeting with half a dozen people. We could have done it face to face, instead, we had a video conference between the group of us–two of the people participating had adjoining workspaces.

We, also, have to look at how highly effective field sales professionals spend their time, as well. Much more is spent on the phone or conferencing–not traveling out to visit the customer. In fact, they are shifting much of their time from the outside to the inside.

I look at the experience within our own company. Selling general management consulting services is very complex. Each project or deal is very different. Customers are different. The deal values are typically hundreds of thousands, and every once in a while, millions. 15 years ago, 85% of our selling was face to face. We would typically have to jump on an airplane, visit a prospect, spending time bonding, looking at the organization, and framing an engagement. We sought to minimize the number of trips–it could be quite expensive and time consuming to fly to Shanghai, Mumbai, Stockholm, Melbourne, Paris, J’burg, New York, Atlanta a few times.

Today, it’s completely different. 90% of the time, the very first time we may see a client face to face is on the first day of the project. There are even some, we have never met face to face. The entire project is completed virtually (though in truth, this is currently rare).

Work methods have changed tremendously. Both how organizations work internally and how they work with potential suppliers and partners. Field sales is a very important channel and approach for some types of buying processes. But to think that field sales is mandatory for complex high value solutions and that inside sales is only valuable for high volume commoditized transactional solutions is a mistake (not to mention demeaning the talents and capabilities of tens of thousands of highly talented inside sales professionals).

As sales leaders, we have to constantly reassess our deployment models. We have to engage our customers in the most effective and efficient manner possible. But the old rules have changed. If you’ve always deployed a field sales organization, just because that’s the way it’s done, you may have the wrong engagement model. Inside sales is a powerful means of selling very complex and high value solutions. Likewise, sales that used to be handled by inside sales can probably be moved to even more cost effective channels.

There’s a lot of discussion about the growth of inside sales. This should not be surprising, in fact what is surprising is that it hasn’t happened much faster! The things that really should drive your deployment models are understanding customer buying preferences, then implementing the most effective–but affordable deployment model possible.

What are you doing to reassess your deployment model? Are you stuck with the same old same old, or are you looking at the most effective way of engaging your customers at the lowest possible cost of selling?