What’s the difference between customer service and inside sales? What are the skills sets distributors should look for when hiring for a successful proactive inside sales team, and aren’t those the same as customer service?

We hear these types of questions all the time. There can be a good deal of misunderstanding when it comes to the inside sales force. In fact, nearly two-thirds of respondents to a Real Results Marketing survey told us that their inside sales force spends less than 25 percent of their time proactively selling. In fact, many inside sales personnel are playing the part of customer service rep.

This may be an issue of misaligned talent. Inside sales teams and customer service teams have different objectives and require different skill sets to be successful.

What is Proactive Inside Sales?

Opportunity dollars exist in every account. And yet, traditionally, outside sales reps are given the biggest accounts, leaving smaller accounts with little to no attention.

A high-potential medium-sized account can be served far more cost-effectively with a proactive inside sales team than with a field sales rep. Proactive inside sales can complete more sales calls and extend sales coverage that doesn’t make financial sense for a field sales rep. For example, inside sales can reach 20 to 25 customers per day at $10-$12 per contact, a tenth of the average cost of a field sales contact. They can focus on retaining and growing these accounts, cross-selling and upselling products and services that could benefit them.

In this case, a proactive inside sales rep plays the same role as a field sales rep. The biggest difference is that they connect with their customers on the phone vs. in person. Generally, they require the same skills. Sometimes, there’s occasion for a field sales rep to make a call to an inside sales account, in which case the teams can work together. For distributors especially, there’s a real call for strong inside sales teams to maximize the potential of every client.

But Aren’t Customer Service Teams the Same as Inside Sales?

Just because these two teams are both inside the office and working behind the desk, doesn’t mean that they have the same purpose. Their roles are different. Customer service reps aren’t proactively calling customers to uncover and solve their problems – and certainly not to make sales. The goal of customer service teams is to take care of the customer and to make them happy when they approach the company with an issue.

On the other hand, an employee who’s going to be good in proactive inside sales takes a more strategic perspective. They both approach the customer with empathy, but the inside sales rep is thinking beyond making a customer happy in the moment. They are thinking about how to meet the customer’s needs now and long into the future. The customer service rep typically thinks about, “Let me just fix this issue now,” while the inside sales rep says, “How can I identify the ongoing needs of the customer so that we both win?”

Distributors need to put the right people in the right roles. A customer service rep is generally more reactive, and the inside sales rep is proactive, seeking to identify customer needs and create solutions to meet those needs.

Inside Sales vs. Customer Service: What to Look for When Hiring

Good managers will recognize that customer service and inside sales are two distinct teams, and that the people on each team will have different mindsets and skills that will help them succeed in their roles.

  • Customer service reps:
    • Skilled in internal systems: The customer service rep is generally more skilled in internal systems, knowing how to execute regular transactions, such as order taking, returns and more.
    • Product knowledge: They also must be well versed on product, because they’ll receive calls with specific questions about ordering and inventory availability.
    • Helpful problem-solver: The skillset here is more reactive, and focused on problem solving combined with good listening skills. This person has a desire to really want to help.
  • Inside sales reps:
    • Strategic curiosity: Beyond good listening skills, proactive inside sales reps need to think critically to determine the root of a customer’s problems just as much as understand their goals and how to help them get there. They’ll want to know what changes are happening in the market today that are affecting the customer, and what their pain points are.
    • Confidence speaking to leadership: Those in proactive inside sales will need to feel confident talking to managers and vice presidents. Their goal is to understand where their customer’s company is going and how the company is changing. This gives insight into how the sales rep can meet their needs to create ongoing solutions.
    • Create relationships: The inside sales rep is adept at creating trust and nurturing relationships with customers by reaching out, asking the right questions, and making a true effort to better understand the customer’s business.

The most successful inside sales candidates are those who know that their job is more than simply selling widgets; it’s about looking for long-term opportunities for a strategic partnership.

Read more about how to create value with proactive inside sales.