Is inbound sales right for your company and industry?

Ed Marsh | Jan 6, 2023

Tl;dr - Inbound sales is a framework that manufacturing companies can adapt to deliver improved buyer experiences and boost industrial sales results. It creates an empathetic and effective experience for online prospects.

What is Inbound Sales?

You're probably saying, "NO! No more jargon!"

I understand, there's too much of it in sales and marketing. But we do need concise terms to describe specific situations, and inbound sales is a good example.

Inbound sales is a framework that has evolved in response to changing online buyer expectations and behaviors. Marketing and sales teams explicitly create engaging and appropriate research and buying experiences for prospects who find you, helping them effectively and comfortably navigate their buying journey.

But why do we need a new framework? You've always gotten leads from trade shows, industrial guides, and Yellow Pages. Why can't you sell inbound internet leads the same way?

That's a deceptively complicated question. In some cases, you kind of, sort of, can. For example, if an engineer completes a lengthy online quote request form with lots of technical and application-specific information, that might be analogous to one of those traditional lead types.

Embedded in their online submission, though, is important information about how they are researching. There's a reason they opted to submit online instead of calling. It might be because they only have focus time at night after you're closed, or because until they're comfortable, they don't want to talk to a rep (or many others.)

In other cases, you definitely must sell internet "leads" differently as companies that create great "top of the funnel" evergreen content know well. Take for instance a downloadable guide that explores how to improve the efficiency of a manufacturing process. The fact that someone downloads that guide probably indicates they are aware of some inefficiency they'd like to overcome. But NOWHERE in that act is there any indication they are even thinking of a new purchase to address it, much less ready to talk to one of your reps for discovery and qualification.

The latter lead is analogous to the engineer who visits your trade show booth to "see what's new." It's a good opportunity to establish some credibility and could lead to conversations that in turn, lead to an opportunity. It's a valuable contact for the long term. But it's not a lead that's going to hit the pipeline soon. So hopefully your industrial sales team is coached to sell them differently.

Inbound sales is an effective solution for selling to today's prospects who are researching online, by helping them research and buy.

Inbound Marketing, Inbound Leads, Inbound Sales

Inbound sales evolved in response to inbound leads which are the byproduct of inbound marketing. Inbound marketing (you might call it content marketing) is a methodology that uses helpful content (articles, website pages, downloads, webinars, etc.) and SEO (search engine optimization) to lead prospects to your website when they ask a search engine a question. They ask Google a question, Google in turn serves up your information in the search results, and the prospect hits your site.

Content then helps to answer the prospect's question, to frame some more informed questions, dive deeper, and on that visit or a later one, raise their hand as a "lead." Traditionally that was through a form submission, but increasingly it's through online chat.

In many cases, though, prospects hesitate because they want info but aren't willing to endure the expected sales harassment. (And sales teams aren't normally disciplined enough to make the >7 touches required to connect with a prospect who submitted a form, nor armed with appropriate sales enablement content or well coached enough to appropriately adapt their outreach.)

So inbound sales is evolving to deliver an experience that supports prospects' expectations and needs. Because they are working on your website which is normally the domain of marketing, but you hope to connect with them in a way that's normally the domain of sales, then you must integrate the functions in the experience, the content, and the technology - to create the buyer experience.

Comparing Inside Sales vs. Inbound Sales

The term inside sales is used in two different ways. First, it describes the decision by many companies (on both sides of the transaction) to work remotely. This is increasingly common and effective for even large, complex and enterprise sales that are made via phone and online meetings (from inside your office vs. in the field in the buyer's office.)

Inside sales is also used to describe specific players. BDRs & SDRs (business and sales development representatives respectively) are normally entry-level salespeople who perform early-stage connection and qualification functions with prospects. To really throw a wrench in the works, BDRs are an inside sales function, but normally responsible for outbound sales prospecting. In contrast, SDRs follow up on inbound leads. 😬

So some "inside salespeople" may work on inbound sales, but others work on outbound sales.

Inbound sales, on the other hand, is the mindset and framework that recognizes and respects the expectations of prospects who find you online, and delivers a corresponding buying experience.

Pro Tip: Inside salespeople who perform outbound prospecting, inside reps who manage inbound leads, and senior inside salespeople (often called account executives - and who may be inside the primary or remote/home offices) all require different skills and aptitudes. Therefore it's important to screen candidates using an inside sales assessment that can be adapted to the specifics of the role for which you are hiring, as well as your industry (sell cycle, level of the decision maker, transaction size, etc.)

Common Inbound Sales Techniques & Tools

Remember, the goal of an inbound sales methodology is to create an appropriate experience for website visitors, and to engage them in a way that's comfortable for them while they're active on your site. 

You might find it helps you to empathize with them if you imagine the virtual interaction is actually occurring in person - for instance, that they've entered your small retail store and you want to welcome them and provide just the right service and hospitality without hovering.

You'd observe whether they're casually browsing or focused on specific items. Whether they're accompanied by others or shopping alone. You'd notice if they just run their eyes over your displays, or pick up specific items for closer inspection. And you'd also see when they specifically check price tags.

You'd probably have a conversation with them; first to greet them, then to understand their purpose in visiting (browse or buy), what they want specifically, etc. You'd definitely notice if they returned later, with a spouse or friend, and headed straight to an item of particular interest to share it, and discuss it!

And of course, if they were a regular shopper you'd recognize them, greet them accordingly, and knowing of their preferences and interests, offer to show them what's new that you know they'd particularly like.

It's hard to visualize your website visitors in that context, but it's important. Then you have to figure out how to use technology to connect - since you can't walk up and smile. And remember, when they're online, they're one of tens or hundreds (based on typical middle-market industrial website traffic of 5-10,000/month) at the same time. They're watching the clock because they have a meeting coming up, and they're probably trying to dodge your sales team.

Don't forget you have an advantage though. You may be able to engage even after they've left. Walking out the door isn't quite the same in the virtual world.

So what do you do to create an experience for them and also manage your resources and improve sales effectiveness?

There are four key tools.

  1. conversational sales
  2. intent data
  3. conversion optimization
  4. alerts

Conversational sales is a method that uses integrated chatbots, live chat, sales video and email to create a dialog with a prospect. It helps to connect at a more personal level in a contextually relevant way. In its simplest form, it helps visitors engage quickly to find what they want and request live help seamlessly. Fully executed, it uses technology to simulate the face-to-face interaction you'd have over time with shoppers in your physical store - moving from strangers to friendly acquaintances and trusted advisor.

Intent data is the collection of signals that help your team to understand buyer intent. Just as you observe someone simply browse vs. carefully inspecting an item in your shop, stopping to check price tags, or returning with a friend, you can gather the same observations about virtual visitors. If a visitor only stops on one page briefly, that's different than five pages reviewing related products in detail. If they return to your site and head straight to the "Pricing" page (you have one, right?) or download technical drawings, you'd understand more about their intent. And if suddenly several colleagues from the same company hit your site (vs. a single visitor) there's yet more info. This requires appropriate marketing automation software and great inbound salesperson training and coaching for your team to understand how to interpret and incorporate intent data signals into their inbound sales strategy to provide a contextually relevant buyer experience.

Conversion optimization is the functional and aesthetic design of your site that makes it intuitive for visitors to find what they want, and then quickly find more that engages and prompts them to raise their hand. Becuase inbound leads typically require >7 outreach attempts by inside sales to connect, it's hugely important for your website to make it simple and appealing to "convert" quickly. Beyond solid navigation and functional design, chatbots are a valuable tool in this effort that reduce barriers to conversion and even help to move directly from interest to meeting by streamlining scheduling. It's also important to understand your buyer personas. In capital equipment sales, for instance, understanding engineers' need for detailed information means that downloads and RFQs are often very effective conversion techniques.

Alerts notify your team when one of their leads, contacts, or customers takes certain action. This could be returning the site, visiting a pricing page, completing an RFQ, or any of a number of other actions. These signals can be used to prompt immediate action - for instance to call when you know they're reviewing an email, or open a live chat with them when they're on the site. They can also be used tactically - such as when an active opportunity that's been quoted and is projected for close actually returns to the site to look for information on installation which might indicate some buyer indecision.

The common threads through these are technology, sales training and coaching, and the intersection of traditional marketing and sales domains.

Marketing and Sales Alignment

Manufacturing marketing and industrial sales used to be discreet disciplines and departments. That's changed. Inbound marketing for manufacturers creates a stream of visitors and inbound leads that must be sold differently using inbound sales.

That requires an overlap of functions; an integration of sales and marketing; a state that many refer to as marketing and sales alignment. When a visitor is on your site, they want the experience and information they require. They don't care whether you think the content, or technology, or personnel belong in what you'd call marketing or what your company traditionally calls sales.

Certainly there's a continuum of skills required to provide that experience. The point is that your marketing and sales technology stack have to be integrated (really built on a common database), your sales enablement content must be superb, and your training and sales coaching very sophisticated. And marketing and sales need to be appropriately resourced and actively, routinely engaged and mutually accountable.

Will Inbound Sales work for Industrial Manufacturing Companies?

Your industry doesn't impact inbound sales meaning or practicality. While technology companies have innovated in the space, their work, lessons learned, and best practices can be absolutely adapted to capital equipment sales for industrial companies.

Your own buying habits and preferences, and the evolution you've observed in your sales process in recent years, both support developing a strong inbound sales methodology for your company.

In fact, complex, long sales cycle, high ticket sales like capital equipment are particularly ripe for superb inbound sales. Research starts early and is extensive. Buyers require lots of technical information and application advice and expertise. Inbound sales is a perfect complement to traditional industrial sales.