Will Outside Sales Recover When the Pandemic Ends?

The idea of Outside Sales, which depended on business travel and in-person meetings, feels like a distant memory.

Until COVID-19, more than half of sales — 52.8 percent — were made by Outside Sales teams. But when the pandemic sent the world into lockdown, almost 90 percent of sales moved to the Inside Sales model of video conferencing, voice calls, and web-based technologies.

The restrictive effects of the pandemic meant Outside Sales teams had to adapt to these Inside Sales techniques at an unprecedented speed — and it’s unlikely that the old model will ever return. 

In early June 2021, the ZoomInfo database listed 117,436 professionals with the term “Inside Sales” in their job title within the United States. By contrast, there were only 32,049 results for job titles containing the term “Outside Sales.” 

Let’s take a look at why.

What is Outside Sales?

Outside Sales is sometimes called “field sales.” The main distinction between the two is that Outside reps travel off-site to build trust face to face with prospects, while Inside reps use technology to sell from an office or home base. 

“There will always be industries that need Outside Sales,” says Jonathan Mack, Senior Manager, Sales Development at ZoomInfo. “They are typically more ‘old school’.” 

For instance, if a property management company is trying to get an organization to lease a building, they’ll typically handle that in person, Mack says. Outside Sales accounts tend to have longer sales cycles and require more networking. They are less transactional and centered around relationship-building. Reps focus on deal size over deal volume. 

But even before the pandemic, the Outside Sales process was inefficient. Outside Salespeople would go customer to customer in person, trying to reach the right connection or the company owner — always taking a chance that they wouldn’t make contact. They’d then have to go back to their car or office and follow up to make more appointments or another cold call

4 More Reasons for the Decline in Outside Sales

The difference between Inside and Outside Sales had already begun to narrow due to the increasing digitization of sales teams. 

1. The growth of VoIP 

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) came into mainstream use between 2010 and 2016. It revolutionized Inside Sales by lowering costs, widening the addressable market, and introducing automated dialing to the cold-calling process.  

By 2015, businesses had begun transitioning to VoIP calls or already had IP telephony in their office. Two years later in 2017, Outside Sales had already started spending almost half their time (45.4 percent) selling remotely. 

According to the research company Gartner, 90 percent of all IT leaders will stop buying on-premises communications this year as remote work still remains the norm for sales organizations. 

2. The accelerated adoption of technology

The arrival of the pandemic normalized working from home, causing a three-year acceleration of technology adoption in North America, according to a McKinsey Global Survey of executives. Tech-focused industries, like Zoominfo, have had an easier time adapting to the digital shift compared to traditional industries because they already had an Inside Sales team structure

Inside Sales teams focus on technology-based metrics such as: 

  • Dial volume
  • Demos scheduled
  • Demos completed
  • Accounts won or lost

All of these are easily tracked using the right sales technology stack

“When the pandemic hit, fortunately for us, our infrastructure was such that every single tool we used was web-based. We didn’t need to be in the office to access the tech stack we use day-to-day, says Mack.

“In reality, the way that we operated didn’t change. Daily internal communications shifted to Slack,  but there was no drop in our performance. In fact, people became more productive because they didn’t have to commute anymore.”  

3. The drop in Outside Sales opportunities 

Outside Sales depends on personal contact and networking. But social distancing restrictions have led to the cancellation of countless conferences, trade shows, conventions, corporate events and launches. Businesses have adapted by embracing virtual events. In 2019, the global virtual events market was valued at $77.98 billion. Due to the impact of the pandemic, it is expected to grow at an accelerated compound annual growth rate of 23.2 percent between 2020 and 2027.

A study by ZoomInfo found that there were 57 percent fewer events scheduled for Q1 of 2021 compared to 2020. 

Conference totals, Q1 2020 vs. Q1 2021

In early June 2021, the ZoomInfo database listed only 55 in-person events for the first quarter of 2022.

4. The slow recovery for business travel 

Business travel is expected to take more than three years to reach pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, U.S. travelers took 464 million domestic business trips, dropping to 185 million in 2020, according to Statista. The company predicts 457 million trips by 2024.

The Future of Outside Sales 

“Going out and knocking on doors is going to be very slow to come back, if ever,” says Wendy Weiss, a sales training consultant and president of ColdCallingResults.com

Solutions like ZoomInfo set salespeople up with accurate contact information, she says. And sales teams can now use a host of digital technologies to set up appointments while avoiding the geographic limitations of traditional field sales. But there has been a resurgence in picking up the phone, she says.

“Many veterans in field sales are working with us to improve their cold-calling and tele-sales skills and learning that it’s easier to get in front of prospects using technology,” says Weiss. “They are also learning that video conferencing tools like Zoom are a great stand-in for face-to-face interactions.” 

Will Outside Sales Make A Comeback? 

The distinction between Inside and Outside Sales is slowly disappearing as salespeople embrace digital prospecting. Post-COVID, an increasingly hybrid sales model is likely to become the norm. 

The pandemic has given an advantage to tech-first businesses with a focus on Inside Sales and organizations who are willing to adopt technology are more likely to survive. An agile remote sales team is the way forward. 

“With things opening up, is it more possible for salespeople to go knocking on doors? Yes it is,” says Weiss. “But business owners might still be hesitant to meet with people who aren’t customers. People have learned a more efficient way of getting in front of their prospects, and they’re unlikely to go back to how things were.”