Sales. It is the bottom line that measures a company’s success. And of course, the sales team is a critical player, no matter how exceptional a product or service is.

If the value cannot be conveyed to a potential customer, there will be no sale. And companies struggle to get a winning sales team, especially when those sales take place digitally, with no face-to-face physical contact between sales pro and customer. Wooing and converting customers through online communication is both an art and a science and takes a high level of expertise.

And this is where our story begins.

Inside Vs. Outside

My company is a Ukrainian-based Java development company that assists product companies with software development, mainly as an external partner. So, we are certainly aware of what outsourcing entails.

As the CEO, though, I struggle to get the right sales reps who can gather leads and nurture them through conversion. This is especially true when our client base is all over the world and there are often cultural and language barriers.

I became aware of sales outsourcing services gradually over the past few years and watched this sector carefully for a while, thinking that this might be the way to grow my sales staff without the additional expense – the potential benefits were certainly attractive.

The Three Models of Sales Outsourcing

When I ultimately made the decision to try B2B sales outsourcing, I knew it would be on a trial basis, so was looking for companies with solid track records in software/tech sales to business clients. This narrowed the search.

I then realized that I would have to choose from three options of services:

  1. The simplest model was to create our own newsletters and other sales materials and then to purchase databases based on our client base profiles. Ultimately, we rejected this option because of the lack of control over databases and costs. It seemed like taking “shots in the dark” and hoping some might hit the mark.
  2. Option two was a model that provided specific lead generation outsourcing, with the outsourcing sales company using their own algorithms, databases, and research. This was appealing because there would be communication about our sales strategies, processes, and target points before their work began. They would identify potentials, send out cold emails and then send warm leads to us. This seemed to be the best solution for our needs.
  3. The third option and one that may very well work for many organizations is what I call the full sales cycle, in which the outsourced sales are completely handled, from initial lead generation through consummation of the final sale. One of the disadvantages of outsourcing sales function completely, however, is that you lack any control whatsoever over what is being said and how the sale is actually being completed. And, you do not have a building relationship with a customer. For a small startup with no sales force, this may be a good initial option, if the sales outsourcing costs can be afforded at the beginning.

How To Research an Outsourcing Sales Partner

Once we determined the option, we began the process of interviewing potential partners. Anyone considering sales outsourcing should be aware that there may be a lot of initial boasting about what can be provided and what their experience/background is. Dig deep into the track records of any company you are considering. We had many false starts and wasted conversations with outsourcing groups that were not really experienced in our sector – Java development.

But during this process, we began to form some understanding of the pros and cons of sales outsourcing and the type of agreement we wanted once we found the company to go with.

The Pros and Cons of Sales Outsourcing

Before I finish our tale, let me provide a quick review of the pros and cons of outsourcing your sales team.

The Pros

  • If you cannot afford the salaries, benefits, onboarding, etc. of a full sales team, this is a good option. And, as you grow, you can gradually add to your in-house team and back off from the outsourced partnerships.
  • Especially if you are involved in international sales, the cultural gaps and time zone problems are being managed by someone else and you get the warm lead for further conversation later.
  • You can get good feedback from the outsourcer on processes and procedures, including “pitches” that appear to work well with your target audience so that you can incorporate them yourself later.

The Cons

  • You do lose control. While you may have lots of communication about goals and processes, you are not privy to exactly what is said and/or promised and a less-than-ethical team may not represent you honestly. This can result in public criticism of you that you cannot afford.
  • You will not have the personal relationship built with clients, especially if you choose option 3. Long-term business is a result of lots of nurturing. This was one of our primary reasons for selection option 2 – we wanted to build those relationships by ourselves.
  • Unless your contract is “tight,” you may have expectations that the outsourcer will not meet.

Our Tainted Experience

We selected a firm for a three-month trial. While the CEO of that firm promised the moon, issues began to crop up immediately:

  • Instead of the one-week window they gave us for getting onboard (discussions with us concerning our customer profile, details of our development services, etc.) and beginning the lead generation, it took four weeks.
  • Once begun, lead generations were slow in coming. They were happy to report how many contacts they were making, about 6,000 actually, but turning them into warm leads was another matter. In fact, after three months, we had no new business from their efforts.

Approximate conversion

  • Our concerns, which we expressed a number of times over the three months were brushed off or ignored.
  • 1 ½ months after the sales activities started, the company proposed changes to the sales strategy. We agreed, but the results were the same. They also wanted to revise parts of the contract, along with costs – a big red flag for us. Obviously, they were not able to deliver what they had promised.

The final crisis emerged when we, full of distrust to our sales agency, decided to check their mailing to make our final decision. So our System Administrator exported all their e-mails from our corporate e-mail addresses. The number of e-mails was as it should be. However, we recognized dozens of strange letters with the subject “Open and reply please my amigo’. Of course, we were intrigued.

What we discovered shocked us.

The emails stated:

‘Hi,

We need your help to keep our sending rep high.

Please reply to this email when you get it.’

The replies for such letters looked like random signs – just in order, that mailbox indicated the opening of the letter and the reply to it.

So our external sales reps were mailing to each other from different corporate mailboxes of their clients to boost statistics of open and reply rates.

Moreover, the reply from the real leads proved that the database they were working with was completely irrelevant and not valid. A significant majority of replies was “Not interested’, “No need” etc. And even if there was a hint on positive reply, they did not work after we added them to our CRM and nurtured those leads.

Complete failure.

The three months passed and we obviously did not renew. Are we totally soured on outsourcing our sales? No, not yet. We have learned a lot and will be much wiser as we move forward and consider another firm.

So, is sales outsourcing actually a good idea? We believe it can be. Here is my advice, based on this first experience:

  • Know the advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing sales functions going in. You can use this knowledge as you interview and negotiate to get yourself the best deal.
  • Be certain that there are provisions in your contract for extensive communication between you and the outsourced team. You cannot have enough of these early meetings selling your product or service requires total consistency in goals and processes.
  • Demand a schedule of reporting and meetings at regular intervals. This can be combinations of email and video conferencing, but they must happen.
  • Do not be careless about reference checking with previous clients.
  • Always keep a right to check the inboxes. At least, at the beginning of the cooperation.
  • During an initial meeting with a potential outsourcing firm, make sure that you have identified your sales goals, the processes you believe to be a fit for your target base and have a list of questions you to ask. Dig deep into their success rate with your sector.
  • Do not expect an overnight miracle. But do set benchmarks for progress and hold them to those in writing.
  • Consider a model of outsourced sales commission only. If an agency is truly confident in its ability to get sales for you, then it may be happy with this arrangement. If you go with a commission based upon final sales only, however, be prepared to pay a hefty commission.
  • You must meet with every sales team member that will be working on your project. Videoconferencing should be a must for this. You want face-to-face conversation with them to get a “feel” for their personalities and behaviors.
  • If an agency offers a trial period, chances are it is a good one. And it will do its best to out-perform for you during that period. That was not our experience, but I believe that was an exception rather than the rule.

I am much wiser about outsourcing our sales function now. Will I try again? Maybe in future. But what everyone needs to remember before doing this is that you first need to spend some time analyzing your own sales strengths and then be more specific about what you want an outsourcing sales force to do.