Inbound vs. outbound sales: what’s the difference?
The customer journey
The four pillars of inbound selling and their strategies
Best practices for inbound sales
Buyers in today’s market have access to more information than ever.
Modern sales professionals need to adapt to this environment and meet people where they are. The strategies involved in that process are known as inbound sales.
In this article, we’ll define inbound sales, provide examples of effective strategies and outline best practices you can start using right away.
What is inbound sales?
Inbound sales focuses on providing value to potential customers and building trust rather than going for the hard sell. You establish yourself as an authority in your niche so people seek you out, then provide expert advice to close the sale. Before you ever speak with someone in person, they know and trust your brand to some degree.
Inbound sales is fundamentally a lead generation strategy. It draws people in with quality content that provides value and convinces them to stay. A contractor sharing TikToks with step-by-step guides to common household repairs will already be credible to the customer by the time they call that contractor for a job.
An effective inbound sales strategy requires understanding your target market. Constructing buyer personas, doing market research on current customers and checking out the competition should all be part of your plan. We’ll go over those in more detail later on.
The potential benefits of inbound sales include:
Lower marketing costs. According to Evenbound, inbound marketing nets three times more leads per dollar than traditional marketing methods.
Higher trust and credibility with leads that contact you than with cold leads. According to the Content Marketing Institute’s 2021 report, 73% of the most successful companies used inbound content marketing to nurture leads.
Increased site and social traffic. Useful content is more shareable and can drive traffic back to your website.
Opportunities to develop customer relationships. Every interaction or piece of content focuses on helping potential customers, giving you a chance to build trust with each contact.
Inbound sales frames your offer around people’s needs.
Note: Before they even meet you, you should’ve already provided something of value to your leads.
The process starts with discovery. Someone finds your content online and becomes aware of your business. They learn about your brand and its values. Later on, one of your reps follows up to nurture that lead, hopefully into a mutually beneficial sale.
Empathy and emotional intelligence are cornerstones of inbound sales. Reps using this strategy must listen actively, understand people’s problems and get to a solution without hard selling.
Inbound vs. outbound sales: what’s the difference?
Outbound sales is the more traditional approach. Cold calling and cold emailing, going to trade shows, email blasts with purchased lists of contacts and so on. You’re pushing your message out into the world.
The inbound sales process is the opposite. You make content and post it online, people find that content and they come to you. You’re bringing people into your business.
Think of outbound as “push” and inbound as “pull”. Or outbound as a wide-net approach and inbound as more targeted.
Outbound selling relies on assumptions. A cold call is an educated guess about someone’s interest in your sales pitch.
Inbound selling tries to attract people who already showed an interest in your business.
Both strategies have their place. To see which one is right for your brand, ask yourself the following questions:
Who am I trying to reach?
How much time do I have to make a sale?
Which is more likely to have a high return on investment (ROI)?
Which method aligns with my company values?
Outbound sales are good for generating interest quickly. With effective lead generation tactics, outbound sales can reach people faster than inbound sales. So, a business launching a new product or service may get better results in the short run from an outbound approach.
However, there are challenges to outbound sales strategies. Rejection, higher time demands and lack of personal connection make it more difficult in today’s market. People are wise to the old ways of selling. They find them annoying and alienating.
Inbound sales involves more upfront effort for a potentially greater payoff down the line. You have to create and distribute content, positioning it the best you can so it makes its way to the intended audience.
The customer journey
Understanding the buyer’s journey is central to an effective inbound sales strategy. To build a sales process that aligns with each stage of that journey, you need to use sales tactics that match the customer’s mindset at each stage.
There are three key stages of the buyer’s journey.
Stage 1: Awareness
In this stage, the potential customer discovers a product or service that might meet their needs. They could find a blog you wrote, stumble across a YouTube video or get a referral from a friend.
In the awareness stage, people have identified their problem but are still trying to decide whether to act on it. They’re looking into what could help but not yet researching specific vendors.
Sales reps should consider what methods people use to research solutions at this stage. Understanding how people think of and describe the hurdles they face will help your marketing team get into the customer’s mindset. They can then create content that sparks interest.
Stage 2: Consideration
At the consideration stage, the potential customer identifies several options and researches them actively. They’re weighing the pros and cons to decide which would be the best choice.
Customers have a lot of options, so reps should examine them to create content marketing campaigns better tailored to people’s needs than the competition. Inbound sales reps should research as if they were a customer, using avenues like Google search to see what gets presented first.
A rep’s job during the consideration stage is to provide the right information and guide people toward a purchase that’s right for them. The more value you can provide via useful insight, the more credibility your brand has in the eyes of potential customers.
Stage 3: Decision
In this stage, the potential customer whittles down their choices and is ready to decide. You’ve hopefully already had the chance to provide useful information that conveys your company’s value proposition.
To do so, understand what the buyer is looking for. What’s their pain point? What are their business goals? What criteria do they have for an effective solution? Knowing those answers helps the salesperson personalize their approach.
Inbound salespeople’s job at this point is to make a seamless transition from prospect to paying customer. They should have their unique selling proposition (USP) ready and be prepared to counter lingering doubts the potential customer might have.
An example of the customer’s journey
Now that you’re familiar with the stages of the buying process, let’s see how it would look in the real world.
Picture an antivirus software company called TechnoShielder focusing on corporate cybersecurity solutions. The journey for a typical TechnoShielder customer would look something like this:
Awareness: A growing startup becomes aware of a cybersecurity breach. They’ve handled it but need stronger countermeasures in the future. In the meantime, they’re vulnerable to similar or more advanced cyberattacks. They start looking for a solution.
Consideration: The startup’s chief technology officer (CTO) researches and compares security providers, taking into account antivirus, anti-malware and firewall prevention measures. They line up several vendors that look promising.
Decision: Once they have a list of possible choices, the CTO goes through that list using predefined criteria to decide which ones would be a good fit. They set up several demos with different vendors to see their software in action. They choose the vendor that best meets their needs and finalize a contract.
During this process, TechShield’s sales and marketing departments work on an inbound strategy that includes everything from software demos to blog posts to in-person meetings. All to guide key decision-makers toward becoming customers.
The four pillars of inbound selling and their strategies
There are four tenets of a good inbound sales strategy that correspond with the stages of the customer journey. They are:
Let’s go over each, along with what strategies to use at each stage to guide potential customers.
Stage 1: Identify
In this stage, a business identifies the target market for its inbound sales strategy. Before you do anything else, it’s necessary to know your target audience and have a good idea of what they want and what they’re struggling with.
Your sales and marketing teams should align and work together to bring in the best, most qualified leads. Ensure they’re on the same page about the target customers and how you’ll try to reach them.
To understand the pain points, demographics and interests of your target audience, try methods like building customer personas or profiles and social listening.
Customer personas are detailed descriptions of fictional people who match your target market. They often include demographic information like age, sex, race, income, profession and hobbies. A company selling baby carriers might have 30-something, middle-class working mothers earning between $55K and $65K a year as a customer persona.
Better understand your customers with our Buyer Persona Templates
Use these templates to ensure your solution always aligns with your customers' interests and needs
Well-defined personas help your sales and marketing teams get into the mindset of the people you’re trying to reach and better understand what they need. Personas require market research via customer data analysis, one-on-one interviews, surveys or other forms of direct customer feedback.
Customer Profiles, on the other hand, focus on elements like psychographics, customer lifetime value and intent. They’re not quite the same as personas, but are equally valuable. They profile the characteristics and behaviors of your ideal customer profile (ICP), while personas are more straightforward descriptions and facts.
Social listening monitors social media to find out what people are saying and how they’re feeling about products and services similar to yours.
Search your product alongside similar ones on platforms like Facebook, Twitter (now X) or Instagram to see what people are talking about. If you’ve posted ads on social media, look at the comments. People will give you their honest opinion of the product and often share features they’d like the next version to have.
Stage 2: Connect
The identification stage defines your ideal customer. The connect stage initiates contact.
Your goal here is to introduce yourself to potential customers via any available communication channels. Get in touch through emails, phone calls or social media. When making contact, be professional and personalize your message.
Here is where customer personas come in.
With our TechnoShielder example, one persona could be an IT supervisor at a small startup. Another could be the CTO of a large corporation. The messages delivered to those two people wouldn’t be the same because those potential customers would have different pain points, professional responsibilities and resources at their disposal.
Since our example company is business-to-business (B2B), their target personas are decision-makers at other companies. With business-to-consumer (B2C), they would be non-corporate individuals.
Have your marketing and sales teams craft an outreach strategy for each persona. Depending on the prospect, that could start with an email and move on to social media or a follow-up phone call after a few days. Customer relationship management (CRM) systems like Pipedrive simplify the process by allowing you to make calls and send emails without leaving the CRM.
B2B decision-maker prospects need a different approach than B2C leads, but the goal is the same: to establish a rapport while understanding the potential customer’s problem and helping them solve it.
Stage 3: Explore
The explore stage deepens the conversation begun at the connect stage. A rep’s job here is digging in to better understand the prospect’s problem, their business and their professional goals.
They should guide the conversation, get to the heart of issues and identify pain points. Having a pre-written outline is one way to make that go smoothly. Rather than a rote script, an outline keeps the conversation on course while leaving room for topic changes.
A sample call outline for our TechnoShielder example could look like this:
Establish rapport. Ask the person “common ground” questions or have them talk about something they’re familiar with, e.g., “I read that article you published recently, it was interesting. Did it perform well?”
Recap previous conversations. “So you told me on our last call your cybersecurity was pretty outdated and you’re looking for something comprehensive. You’re worried your system could be open to a data breach and want to increase user authentication, too. Is that right?”
Establish agenda. “I’ve got a decent grasp of what you’re dealing with, but do you have time to talk more about the specific security features you’ll need and how we can help get you better protected?”
Once the agenda’s established, the rep can move on to talking about specific challenges the potential customer faces, what their goals are, whether they have any timeline constraints and what their budget looks like.
Discussing these areas gives the rep a chance to build credibility and share the features of the product or service that can help the person they’re speaking with.
Our fictional TechnoShielder rep could talk about how they’ve helped clients in the past with similar situations by setting them up with firewalls, antivirus and multi-factor authentication. They could also explain to the prospect how these features help and answer any additional questions with authority.
This process builds trust while establishing a rapport and making TechnoShielder a helpful expert in the eyes of the potential customer.
Stage 4: Advise
In the advisory stage, the rep offers personalized recommendations to the potential customer after outlining the benefits of their product.
If the Explore phase is “This is what we have to help our customers”, then the Advise phase is “These are the products and features that can help your specific business with its specific problems”.
Reps leverage the information and credibility gained previously to offer their advice and hopefully close a sale. By this point, the salesperson should’ve done their homework on both the prospect and the competition. That way, they can:
Offer a solution tailored to the potential customer’s problem
Make a compelling case that their company is better than the competition
By getting to know the potential customer, their goals and their problems, an inbound sales rep can provide better advice than the information available online, which may be helpful but less specific.
Best practices for inbound sales
Now that we’ve covered the basic tenets of inbound selling we can explore tactics to implement them. Inbound sales rely on research and context. The more research you do, the better you can tailor solutions to potential customers once you have the proper context.
Focus on solving the problem, not making the sale
People can usually tell if you’re only in it for the sale and may leave even if they’re a great fit for your product. Instead of an “always be closing” mentality, try an “always be helping” one.
Attract customers who are a good fit and get to know them. See how your product or service can help them. If someone isn’t ready, avoid moving too soon.
Create targeted content
Blogs, social posts, TikToks and YouTube videos all provide an avenue to create value and build credibility with potential customers. What type of content people engage with will tell you what works best and what to make more of.
Tailor the content you create to your business. A photographer could lean heavily into visual media like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. Similarly, an architecture company could start a design blog.
Whatever you choose to put out into the world, make sure it’s valuable to the consumer.
Note: Useful content establishes credibility and trust because you’ve already helped someone without even speaking to them or expecting anything in return.
That also positions you as an industry expert and keeps people coming back to you for answers.
Create buyer journeys
Create a personalized buyer’s journey for your business, with clear steps and a well-defined process for moving potential customers through each stage. Make sure your reps know the signs someone is ready to move down the inbound sales funnel – or not.
Mapping that out gives reps a concrete reference for how people interact with your business. It also helps sales and marketing stay on the same page.
Segment your audience
One-size-fits-all marketing doesn’t work with inbound sales. It’s far more beneficial to segment your audience and target each group with a customized message.
You can segment your audience by persona, by demographic, or by some combination of the two. Analytics tools like Google Analytics or Pipedrive’s in-depth analytics tools make it easy to group existing customers and score new leads.
Use SEO and paid search
Search engine optimization (SEO) strategies, together with paid search ads, combine short and long-term tactics to get your business more visibility.
Optimizing your website’s SEO will help boost your organic search results, while paid ads can get you to the top of Google for important keywords.
The more popular the keyword, the higher the price, so keep that in mind when determining your ad budget.
Inbound sales bring the most qualified leads to you. When building your inbound sales strategy, focus on the customer.
Pipedrive’s data collection and analytics tools can inform everything from customer personas to marketing campaigns and help you get the right messages to the right people.
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