Inbound or outbound sales—which one should you focus on?
Wondering what the right sales approach for your company is? Should you build an inbound sales machine, set up an outbound sales team, or take a hybrid approach?
On one side, you’ve got inbound-only people. Inbound sales is famous for being able to attract customers to any business, be cost effective, and scale really well.
But on the other hand, outbound sales proves itself a fierce opponent. Yes, it often requires a human touch, and yes, it relies on pushing ideas onto (sometimes) unsuspecting prospects, but it’s one of the most powerful ways to build trust, close big deals, and maintain control.
So who wins the battle?
Well Robert Frost would be deeply frustrated with my answer, because when these two marketing strategies diverge in the woods, I pick both. It all depends on your goals and the type of business you run.
To see my take on this topic, including who should use each strategy, watch the short video below where I tackle the question, “Outbound vs. inbound sales: Which should you use?”
And keep reading after you finish!
Beneath the video, we’ll unpack the pros and cons of both strategies, show you how to set up your sales team (depending on which method you pick), and how to track the whole process to make sure you stay in line with your sales goals.
Let’s dive in by first explaining the difference between these two sales strategies.
Inbound vs. outbound sales: What’s the difference?
The main difference between inbound and outbound sales is who initiates the sale. With inbound, it’s the prospect that starts the sales process, while with outbound, it’s a sales rep that contacts the prospect first. Instead of the prospect coming to the company, the salesperson (or business) comes to the prospect.
With inbound, the prospect does the searching, the reading of an article, the attending of a webinar, or the scheduling of a free consultation call. The prospect initiates the contact, and that could be as simple as submitting their email for a free ebook, and then later an inbound sales person might email or call them.
With outbound, it’s the salesperson cold calling, cold emailing, or even cold texting the prospect, and the company putting up advertisements or posting on social media.
The difference can be boiled down to the direction and flow of that first point of contact.
Though it might seem like a subtle difference, it actually represents a tectonic shift in the type of customer that the business is dealing with. Inbound prospects are typically more aware and more engaged to start, whereas outbound leads are normally less aware and less engaged… at least in the beginning.
But I want to be clear: neither approach is inherently better. In fact, both techniques can be powerful tools for growing a company. The sales strategy you should use will depend on a number of variables, including the type of business you run, your average deal size, and how aware customers are about the solutions you offer.
We’ll spend the rest of the article describing those situations to you to point you to the strategy that will be the best growth channel for your business.
What’s the right choice for your company? Inbound or outbound?
In the following paragraphs, we share a framework for determining which sales method is right for you. But there’s one important disclaimer to make here:
These are factors to consider, they’re not laws set in stone. In fact, sometimes the right choice is to simply break the rules. Thousands of sales teams around the world use Close as their tool of choice. Some of the most successful companies are those that go against the grain. They’re doing high-touch sales in a vertical where nobody else is doing it. Or they’re doing outbound sales in an industry where inbound is the standard. Or the other way around.
The general “rules” you find here probably apply 70% of the time—but 30% of the time, going the other way would be the right choice. There’s no set of fixed questions, no survey that you can complete, no scientific way to accurately determine which is right for your specific company at this specific moment in time.
Inbound sales strategy: When is inbound the right choice?
The easiest way to imagine what an inbound sale looks like is to think about what an already interested prospect would do to find your products and buy from you. For example, let’s say you have a Saas company that creates invoices for freelancers.
Think: How would your dream customer organically find your business? Would they search, “best invoicing software for freelancers,” read the first article on Google, and buy the software recommended in the post?
That’s one example of a path created by an inbound sales strategy.
The key is it almost always starts by creating content catered toward interested prospects, and then placing that content where interested people can find it on their own.
From there, the game becomes quite simple: be in all the places your interested prospects are searching, and you’ll build a well-oiled inbound sales machine. Obviously being in all “those places” is where it gets more nuanced, but at a high level, that is how it works—regardless of where the content ends up.
To help you get a better picture of how this might work for you, we’ve outlined an overarching flow for how prospects enter an inbound sales machine. Once you see the high level overview, you can tailor it to your business.
What does the inbound sales process look like?
As you might imagine, every inbound sale is different because every interested prospect has different questions they need answered and a different level of interest before making a purchasing decision. Some prospects might just read one article and will then buy a $1,000 product, whereas others need 10-20 pieces of content over a period of many months or even years before they even decide to sign up for a free trial.
If you’re going to effectively build out your inbound sales process, you need to know what that journey looks like for your buyers. That way, you can develop a sales process that supports your customer through the entire sales process.
Hubspot recommends following a simple four-part framework, which they call the Inbound Sales Methodology:
The inbound sales process consists of the following stages:
The first step is finding out who your ideal customers are and looking at the types of problems they may be struggling with. For example, if you sell a WordPress plugin that makes uploading compressed files on a blog easy and effortless, it’s important to think about what kind of content, tools, and resources you could create to bring your dream customers into your ecosystem.
Would they know their blog is moving slowly? Would they need you to point that out for them? It’s important to think about the types of questions and resources that would get the attention of these people, so you can attract them to your solutions.
After you identify your dream customers and the problems they’re struggling with, you need to create content that connects with them, and put it where they are most likely searching for the solutions. That could mean creating a blog post that addresses their biggest questions, or a video on YouTube that ranks for the most popular search term your dream customers are looking for.
For example, if they are looking for tutorials on how to load images on their site, putting together a video that walks them through this process is a great way to connect with them in the places that they are searching for solutions, especially if you then do the work of making sure that the video actually gets seen by the right audience.
Once you connect with the potential customer, you can then encourage them to explore your solution to the problem they’re facing. If we go back to the image-compressing WordPress plugin example, this is when you can let them know that you have a tool to help them.
The last step is advising the potential customer on the best course of action. In this step, you’re normally recommending that people buy your products and services, but it can also be a call to action to schedule a call or a demo, if your sales process requires that.
Ideally, inbound sales will walk a prospect all the way through these four steps, from initial search for answers to buying a product. This can happen all in one session, or it can be spread across multiple days or months of consumption. It all depends on the type of product you’re selling, and how purchasing decisions are typically made by your customers.
When to use inbound sales
One of the questions that naturally comes up when you begin to think about inbound sales is, “Who should use this strategy?” It’s important to think about because it doesn’t work for every business. Here’s when it makes the most sense to implement in your business:
1. If you're a startup without a lot of capital to invest in a sales team
One of the biggest advantages of inbound sales is that you can create one piece of content and it can reach an unlimited amount of people online. Inbound marketing can provide quick, cost-effective wins for your business, especially when you’re just starting out, whereas if you were to hire a traditional sales team, it takes a lot of time and capital to hire, train, and supply them with leads.
2. If you have a product that a lot of people search for online
This one is a bit of a double-edged sword because you don’t want the search volume to be too competitive or you might never stand out. But an inbound sales approach is hard to make work unless if you have a totally new solution to a problem because no one will be searching for it. Even if you do find *slightly* similar terms, it will likely require more information and education than prospects are willing to give. In that case, outbound is best. But if a lot of people are searching for your solution, that’s a green light for you to begin creating content that brings them into your world.
3. If purchasing decisions don’t require too much time
Inbound sales techniques can work great when people are able to make a buying decision on a product quickly. But if your product normally takes months to sell and is very high ticket, it’s you’ll need to have very advanced content marketing and inbound sales skills and enough cash to sustain long sales cycles. Inbound sales can still work for getting leads interested in your solution, but at higher tickets and with longer purchasing cycles, outbound is typically going to be the one that closes the deal. That being said, there are many exceptions to this rule as well. Many companies selling high-ticket items rely on inbound interest, and then have a great sales team that will reach out to these leads, qualify and sell them.
4. If you have a unique advantage when it comes to creating content
Some businesses have great teams of writers, video editors, subject matter experts or high-profile people with an existing audience as the face that make their content stand out. If that’s the case, inbound marketing can be a distinct advantage they can leverage. When we released our CRM, we knew that we couldn’t just be doing outbound sales to sell CRM software. One of the challenges a CRM has is that there’s really only certain times when a prospective customer is even considering buying a new CRM. A company needs to be very unhappy with their current solution to buy a new CRM, because switching all the customer data from one CRM to another, and then developing new processes and training the staff is quite a lot of work. Thus, we needed a way to get in front of people who were currently, or in the new future, interested in getting a new CRM. We knew we couldn’t compete with paid ads, because there are publicly traded and venture funded companies willing to bid high and lose a lot of money on ads just so they hit certain growth numbers. But we did have a level of sales expertise that no other CRM had, and that was our unique advantage.
5. If you are targeting an audience that doesn’t respond well to outbound sales
Some buyers simply prefer to do research and buy online on their own. For example, if you’re selling to solo developers, they’re much more likely to view a cold call as invasive and annoying than other groups of buyers would. In that case, inbound sales may be the better strategy for attracting those potential buyers to your brand.
But beware the risk of trying to emulate Hubspot. They've without a doubt been hugely successful growing through content marketing, and literally coined the term "inbound marketing". While companies of any size can create a winning content marketing strategy, very few should actually execute the Hubspot playbook.
Here's how JacobMcMillen expressed it candidly in an October 2019 post on his LinkedIn profile:
Too many companies simply try to copy a strategy that has generated success for other companies. What you need is a strategy that's right for you!
Case in point: Yours truly—we here at Close! For the longest part of our history, Close's content marketing was a 2-person team. Compare that to how many people are in some way, shape or form touching content at Hubspot:
If we'd have tried to emulate Hubspot's content machine, we'd have failed miserably because we're fundamentally different companies.
Hubspot raised hundreds of millions from investors, and billions from the public markets, and heavily prioritizes growth. Close believes the best way for us to fund our growth is through revenue—which forces us to stay obsessively focused on our customers. Taking money from investors or going public would mean we'd have to split our focus between customers, investors, and shareholders.
Neither approach is better per se—it just depends on who you are and what kind of company you want to build.
There are other cases when inbound marketing may make sense. But those are the most common times when you should look to it first.
So what about outbound?
Outbound sales strategy: When you need to turn to outbound
Outbound sales sometimes gets a bad rep, because it’s associated with the sleaziest two words of all time: “cold calling.” But the reality is, cold calling is just one of the many methods of outbound marketing. And if you do it right, outbound sales doesn’t have to be “icky” or “sleazy.”
In fact, outbound marketing can now be done less invasive than ever before. The key is to remember that outbound versus inbound isn’t about invasive versus non-invasive selling. It’s a game of who initiates the contact first; with outbound, that can be done tactfully and powerfully.
What does the outbound sales process look like?
Unlike inbound sales which starts with the prospect, outbound sales begins with an action of a salesperson or company. Once contact is made, the sales process moves the customer from unaware to buying in a few short steps.
Here’s an overview of the typical flow for an outbound sale:
Like inbound sales, outbound begins by building lists of potentially interested prospects. But unlike inbound efforts, this is less about who we want to attract and more about who we really want to reach.
Sometimes sales reps will buy lists of people who are similar or lumped together because of some demographic information. Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and other ad networks have also made it possible to build lists of people based on their interests and location. For example, you can easily click a few buttons and target people based on very specific criteria—like geography, job title, size of the company they’re working at and more. One example of this would be to look for people located in Palo Alto who are Infrastructure Engineers at companies with 50-100 employees.
After you have a list of people who you want to target, then you can begin targeting them with phone calls, emails, and advertisements, or have a field sales team that visits prospective customers on their own businesses premises. The goal of these efforts is to get prospects to respond to your messages or take your calls so you can start the real sales process.
Once you have succeeded at winning a prospective customer’s attention, the very first milestone for you is to figure out: is this someone who could actually benefit from what I’m selling? You really need to selflessly asses whether it’s in the prospects’ best interest to buy, before you can then selfishly move them toward that buying decision.
Qualifying sales prospects is one of the skills I look for the most when hiring sales reps. Almost everybody is focused on their pitching skills, handling objections, drumming up business, closing the deal… but qualifying a prospect is really the foundational groundwork that will have a huge impact on everything that comes afterwards. If you get really good at qualifying prospects, you will waste much less time on deals that never materialize, and spend more time actually working on leads that close.
Once you’ve qualified them, it’s time to make your pitch. It’s all about creating a vivid mental image in the prospect’s mind of how they’ll benefit from your solution. You want them to want what you have to offer.
5. Objection handling
No matter how well-qualified a prospect is for your offer, they’ll most likely still have concerns you need to address before they’re willing to make a buying decision. How do you handle their objections?
6. Closing the deal
Once you effectively address all objections, some prospects will be ready to buy. But you still want to guide them through that step. You need to actually ask for the close. I can’t believe how many times I’ve witnessed a sales conversation that went really well. Everything was in place. They qualified a prospect, determined they’re a good fit, pitched them on the benefits of buying, handled they’re objections… and then ended with: “All right, it was great talking with you today, I hope you feel the same way, and it seems this could be a really good fit.”
Where’s the close?! In sales, you gotta ask for the close early, ask often, and embrace the no. One of the best ways to close deals is what I call the virtual close. But also read up on other sales closing techniques we’ve shared in the past.
Think of it like a doctor advising a patient on a course of treatment. If the doctor is certain that taking the prescribed medicine will help the patient get better, they’ll be very clear in communicating why it’s important for the patient to adhere to the treatment plan.
In a perfect world, outbound sales will walk a prospect all the way through these six steps, from prospecting to answering objections to buying a product. This can happen all in one sitting or be spread across multiple days or months. It all depends on the type of product you’re selling and how purchasing decisions are made by your customers.
When to use outbound sales
Here’s when it makes the most sense to implement outbound sales tactics in your business:
1. If you have an expensive product and sell to enterprise clients
This is a great sign that you need to prioritize outbound sales techniques, because the potential pool of prospects you can even be selling to is relatively small.
2. If you have a totally new solution to a problem
In this situation, it’s unlikely people will be searching for your products and possibly even unaware that there are solutions out there. In this case, it’s nice to have salespeople and advertisements to make consumers aware of what you offer.
3. If your products have a long sales cycle
That means you’ll need to follow up—and do it often. The good news is that marketing and sales automation tools make this process easy and painless. A predictive dialer for example will allow reps to waste much less time manually dialing numbers and waiting for people to pick up the phone, and much more time actually speaking with prospects on the phone. Sales email sequences (aka drip campaigns optimized for sales people) will help stay on top of your leads with follow-up emails. But you’re probably going to need to do more pushing than sitting back and waiting on the sale to happen if you have month-long or even year-long sales cycles.
4. If you can afford to pay healthy commissions to sales reps
That means you’ll be able to attract top talent. If you’re selling a product with razor thin margins, you won’t be able to pay much for ads or to salespeople to do the marketing for you. You need a high-ticket item so that you can get the economics of outbound sales to work. While with inbound, having a large number of small deals generate the bulk of your revenue is fine, with outbound, you really need to go after a few big wins.
5. If you are targeting an audience that doesn’t mind cold-calling
Some audiences don’t mind getting sales calls as much. And in those cases, it may actually make more sense to rely on outbound sales to walk the customer through buying so they’re not left to figure it out online on their own. That being said, almost nobody likes being cold called. Everybody is busy, everybody has enough going on in their own life, and we don’t want to be interrupted by someone who’s trying to sell us stuff.
6. You have a clear target
Outbound sales is like hunting. That means you can laser focus on key people. For example, if you want to reach data scientists at Spotify, outbound is the way to go. With inside sales techniques, you stand no chance at hitting a target that small. Outbound easily can.
What about the tradeoffs between the two methods of selling? Are there downsides if you pick one over the other? Let’s look.
Pros & cons of inbound sales
There are a lot of pros to using an inside sales strategy. We’ll break them down in the following section, as well as include some common cons you may run into if you go with this method:
- It can be applied to almost any business: Whether your sales team works exclusively with B2B or B2C or some combination of both, inbound sales—from Facebook to email campaigns to a sales-oriented website—can be used as part of your strategy.
- It’s highly scalable: You can create one blog post that can reach an unlimited amount of people. That’s the power of the Internet. Remember, there’s no salesperson who can call every single interested party in the world. So as long as the post is engaging (and hopefully primes the reader to buy), then you’ve created an asset that can be used for years to come. On the flipside, there are also millions of blog posts out there that never get a single eyeball. So if you create content, make sure you also have a strategy in place for getting it in front of the right people, whether that’s search engine optimization, partner promotion, paid ads, community engagement, or other methods.
- You can go lean: Because this sales strategy is so scalable, using an inside sales strategy means that you can have a leaner team and still generate substantial leads.
- It creates less sales friction: 47% of buyers viewed 3 to 5 pieces of content before engaging with a sales rep, according to Demand Gen Report. With an inbound sales process, your prospect can do as much or as little research as they want in advance, and then purchase at whatever time is most convenient for them.
- It positions you as a leader: Creating inbound content can position you and your organization as a thought leader in your industry. By creating quality content, staying ahead of the trends, and offering a unique perspective to the conversation, you’ll differentiate yourself from your competitors.
If you want another added bonus, you’ll become a trusted voice among your buyers, and your sales team will look more credible.
- It takes a lot of initial effort: Sure, it’s great to think you can write a blog post and it will take off as number 1 on Google. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time before you start seeing results. There’s a learning curve to content marketing, and simply put, it takes time to generate traffic, so don’t expect immediate results. You need to invest a lot of upfront effort before you will see your first results come in, and you want to make sure that the survival of your company doesn’t rely on income that you might potentially generate two years from now because of inbound efforts you’re tackling today.
- There’s a massive time commitment: Inbound sales works as well as you do. So if you haven’t spent the time building a solid foundation, then your strategy will erode from under you. There’s a “startup cost” to creating any content, especially high-quality, converting copy, regardless of platform. Any campaign will require an investment in your team’s time... without the satisfaction of immediate flashy results.
- It doesn’t always work for high-ticket items: Because an inbound sales process pretty much gives the research power to the consumer, converting high-ticket items into sales can be more challenging with this method. If an objection isn’t addressed in the content that buyers are perusing, then you may have lost the sale before you even had a chance to know you had it.
- It requires your team to have a diverse skill set: Your team must have an array of skills to make content marketing work.
- Data is king (but can be confusing): All good salespeople know just how important data is to closing sales, predicting future successes, and even forecasting sales. However, with an inbound sales strategy, tracking data and ROI can be difficult, especially with leads coming from so many channels.
Having a solid CRM is key, and so is knowing how to implement web analytics to capture data across all channels. Otherwise, you’ll never know how effective your campaign was or how to replicate it.
Pros & cons of outbound sales
In this section, I want to break down some common ups and downs your sales team may run into when choosing to go with outbound sales:
- It (still) works: No matter how much the world has changed, the fundamentals of sales has remained the same, because they’re based on the fundamentals of human nature. And part of that is the success of outbound sales. It’s a solid foundation for salesmanship, and while it’s constantly changing and evolving, it’s not going anywhere.
A recent study by Marc Wayshak found that even in 2019, in a world dominated by social media and email marketing, the phone is still a tried-and-true sales tactic — 41% of respondents said that the phone is the most effective sales tool at their disposal.
- It’s predictable and scalable: The beauty of nailing your outside sales strategy is that you get a predictable, scalable growth mechanism for your business. As you continue to develop a sales process and hire new reps, you’ll have the formula for success. You’ll know the actions to take now that will affect your revenue three, six, and nine months from now.
Looking for advice on hiring sales reps? Claim your free copy of my book The Sales Hiring Playbook today!
- You can get immediate results: An outside sales process means you’ll get instant feedback from your prospects and be able to generate leads much quicker than inbound. As I mentioned, inside sales takes time to become successful, so if you’re looking to move fast, outbound is for you.
- You have a bullseye: Outbound sales allows for much more targeted lead generation. You can execute with precision and accuracy, and be much more effective in your targeted outreach. For example, if you want to reach the VP of Marketing at Microsoft, outbound is the way to go. Good luck trying to get his attention with inside sales techniques.
- Human contact is irreplaceable: Ask any salesperson what the most impactful and influential sales outreach is, and I’d bet they’d all agree with one-on-one contact. No amount of digital marketing can replace the engagement between a sales rep and a prospect. Everything else pales in comparison when it comes to the impact you can have on an individual buyer when you can speak to them directly.
- Cold calling has a bad rep: When people think outbound sales, the first image to come to mind is a telemarketer calling during dinner, evoking eye rolls and sighs all around. Keep this hurdle in mind the next time you pick up your phone, and make sure to rethink and/or refine your sales script or sales pitch to overcome this stereotype.
- You’re always going to be interrupting people—excuse me, may I have a second of your time: Outbound sales and interruption goes hand in hand. And because American adults are bombarded with sales pitches and advertisements constantly — around 4,000 to 10,000 each day, in fact, according to Forbes— it’s imperative that your sales team understands adults are fine-tuned to tune out a sales pitch. Your team will have to hustle, holler, or hands-down buy their way in to avoid being ignored.
- It requires the right sales toolset and mindset—plus a lot of discipline: Marc Wayshak’s study found that 82% of top performers spend 4 hours or more on sales-related activities. And the Ovation Sales Group found the average salesperson prospects 6.25 hours to set one appointment. In fact, many of the tools This can be alleviated by having a solid outbound sales software(we’re biased toward ours), but it’s still a major pain point.
- You need a motivated sales team: To be successful in outbound sales, you have to keep going, and going, and going, and going, and going... and if you stop, well, so does your outbound sales. And you’re encountering no's from prospects every day. Rejection is an outbound sales reps daily experience. One of the big advantages of inbound sales is that it keeps generating leads even if you stop doing it. But as soon as you stop doing outbound, it stops generating new business. It’s like a faucet you turn on or off. That’s why sales motivation is so important for outbound teams.
Setting up your inbound and outbound sales teams
Now, you’re ready to set up your inbound and/or outbound sales teams! But if you get stuck, we recommend these guides for more specific training for your sales team, how to structure your inbound sales team, ways to innovate within the traditional inbound sales approach, and more.
Having a powerful, easy-to-use CRM is a key tool when setting up any sort of sales team. Your reps need to know how and where their data is coming from, and easily track and share sales, closes, or potential issues with you. In fact, CRM is such an important tool that 91% of businesses use it. We may be a tad biased, but we really like Close CRM.
Ready to put your inbound sales team to work? Read this article to uncover the five best practices that your team needs to adopt today for sales success.
In this Entrepreneur article, you can learn how to (creatively) manage the customer experience for your leads. This is crucial since 70 percent of B2B buying choices are based on how customers rate their treatment.
From identifying pain points to offering solutions on what to do with your qualified lead, this article will take you step-by-step to mastering the classic sales call.
We’ve talked a lot about cold calling, but what about cold emails? In this Forbes article, Noah Kagan, Chief Sumo of Sumo.com and Appsumo.com, walks readers through his simple cold email framework that really works.
Best outbound & inbound sales CRM solutions
In 2017, 45% of salespeople said that they spend more than an hour on manual data entry. In that same survey, 23% of salespeople said their biggest challenge using their CRM was manual data entry. It’s clear CRM is a necessary process, and having a good, easy-to-use CRM is essential so that salespeople can do what they do best—sell.
1. Close CRM
Best For: Outbound
Close is the only CRM to offer lead management, email sequences, predictive dialers, and more. It’s the highest rated among customers and is great for SMBs. Close is the only CRM with built-in sales automation, and will track every touchpoint with your leads.
Best Feature: Built-in one-click calling and call automation with both a Power Dialer and a Predictive Dialer. It will get your sales team on the phone more throughout the day, resulting in 60% calls than your competitors.
Best For: Inbound
With HubSpot Marketing Hub, your team can grow traffic, convert leads, and track your entire funnel in one place. It’s an all-in-one inbound marketing software for your entire team. Learn more about how Hubspot compares to Close.
Best Feature: Build and modify your website with IT. Users can build landing pages, blogs, and emails through a simple drag and drop feature.
Best For: Outbound
Grounded in the philosophy of activity-based selling, Pipedrive is a sales management tool designed to solopreneurs and low-volume sales teams manage their sales pipeline.
Best Feature: Pipedrive's visual sales pipeline. This feature will prompt you to take action, remain organized and stay in control of your pipeline.
Best For: Outbound
We’re listing Salesforce here more for the reasons why you shouldn’t choose it, rather than why you should. Because if you’re in a large company with hundreds of sales reps that are just waiting to finally get the right CRM in front of them—and you’re not, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article—then Salesforce is probably not the right choice for you. But you’ve probably been thinking about it (pretty much everyone evaluating CRM solutions out there does), and thus we just point you towards our Salesforce vs Close comparison, or look a bit into what the sales community has to say about their software.
Best Feature: Integrates with everything, highly customizable, and if you have a capable, full-time dedicated Salesforce certified ops person, you’ll very likely be able to have it do what you want your CRM to do.
Want more advice on building your sales process? Get a free copy of our entire sales library, which includes our book in inbound and outbound sales, templates, checklists, scripts, and much more!