Inside Sales and Service: Your Frontline to Gaining Competitive Advantage

The Evolving Role of Inside Sales and Customer Service Personnel

What role does Inside Sales/Customer Service (IS/CS) play in today’s sales process? How does the company leverage the existing relationships between IS/CS and the customer? The answer to this question plays a key role for upper quartile performers. Upper quartile performers understand the important role played by the inside sales person, customer service and counter personnel. “A Player” field sales reps are not threatened by the fact that the majority of inbound calls are handled by IS/CS personnel because the majority of these calls represent a sales opportunity for the company. Customers who call in do so for the main purpose of fulfilling a need, which often leads to the placement of an order. Customers are very dependent upon inside sales personnel for information, suggestions about products, substitution products, application help and expertise, new product information, new services, delivery information and promotional opportunities for cost savings.

Inside sales and customer service personnel have more customer contact than anyone else in the organization. IS/CS people take more than 80% of all orders placed. This means that the IS/CS are in a better position to influence buying behavior than the field sales person. Progressive managers truly understand what that means in regard to market share growth. They know that the consistent use of suggestive selling techniques, up selling and promotions can have a dramatic impact on average order size and increase share of spend in each account. IS/CS personnel traditionally build relationship equity, and many customers would give up their contact with field sales before giving up their relationship with inside sales and customer service personnel. This is the frontline in the battle for success. Customers have not only come to expect it, they demand it. It can become a competitive edge, the differentiator for your business compared to the competition. It’s about the commitment the company has made to customer demands for world-class service.

Equal and Critical to the Success Formula

This demand for world-class service makes IS/CS just as important, if not more important, than the outside sales force in driving growth and creating success. Many companies, however, do not fully understand the critical role IS/CS plays in the success formula for increased sales, market share growth and profitability. The reason for this lack of understanding is primarily due to the lack of adequate measurement systems to determine the full scope of work and specific roles of the IS/CS service group. This lack of adequate measurement systems leaves department managers in the dark when trying to determine departmental activity, direct contributions to success and individual productivity. These metrics are necessary to properly design productivity tactics and compensation plans, making sure to consider the group’s contribution to the success of the organization as well as their short and long term impacts on customer relationships.

Many companies have not upgraded phone systems to determine the number of inbound calls taken daily by sales people, in addition to measuring call abandonment, average time per call, transfers, voice mail and other metrics important to creating an effective IS/CS support strategy. However, even at those firms that lack these essential metrics, demands are often placed on IS/CS to utilize suggestive selling and up selling techniques on inbound calls. Additionally, many companies assign outbound call responsibility to IS/CS and some even create quotas for these calls.

On an additional note regarding phone systems, some executives were sold on the idea that voice mail could improve IS/CS productivity and address the issue of peak time inbound call burden. Failure to consider the customers’ perspective can be a critical mistake. Voice mail cannot enter orders or answer questions. In other words, customers’ needs are not handled efficiently at their convenience. It does, however, give the customer some options. Those options include: waiting for the return call, faxing the order or request, or calling a competitor who is better organized and more efficient. Voice mail cuts the customer off and inhibits building relationship equity. It just can’t provide analysis and solutions to even the tiniest problem.

Let’s Get Real

The reality that exists in most companies today is that IS/CS personnel are extremely busy just handling inbound calls. Some IS/CS personnel may handle up to 100 calls per day and the related task that each call may entail. With the volume of traffic exceeding reasonable expectations regarding their ability to build on relationship equity, most IS/CS personnel are motivated to end each call as quickly as possible to get off the phone and take the next call in the queue. The time they spend with each call is more than just taking orders. These calls may include requests for literature, quotes, expediting, logging and entering claims and complaints, checking inventory, and even fielding calls from outside sales personnel. And on top of the demands that these calls place upon these people, we expect them to take the time to create and maintain relationship equity with the customer, apply suggestive selling techniques, up sell and create a pleasant experience for the customer. And dinosaurs still roam the streets of New York.

Some IS/CS personnel are better than most at using different selling techniques and creating customer relationship equity. It requires specific skills that depend upon product knowledge, probing communication skills, effective listening, and training in both suggestive selling techniques and offering the customer options. However, even the best IS/CS people will stop these practices when the inbound burden becomes too great because they can’t take the time to leverage their relationship equity by talking with the customer, exploring options and identifying needs and interests. They go into an expeditious call turnover mode just to keep up with the inbound traffic.

If We Are Lost, How Can We Be Found?

There is no magic answer if you don’t have the process and measurements in place to develop an IS/CS initiative that is in alignment with your company strategy. That does not mean you give up. There are alternatives if you are willing to put forth an effort and make an investment. Start slow and minimize your exposure by creating a pilot project. Select one or two of your best IS/CS people to test a systematic approach to increase productivity. Hire a replacement for your IS/CS people that are in the pilot project. This is your investment. This creates adequate staff to handle all inbound traffic. They will handle the entire overflow to allow the pilot personnel to utilize their skill sets to increase sales with suggestive selling techniques and even proactive outbound follow-up calls. That means that the pilot personnel must receive extensive training that includes the items listed below. Management must also understand that call length will increase dramatically.

o Up selling techniques

o Suggestive selling techniques

o Outcall training

o Product training

o Communication and questioning skills

o Needs satisfaction selling that includes:

1. Features and benefits training

2. Value propositioning and value added selling

3. Promotional selling

4. New product and new source introductory selling

5. Service and warranty selling

The results of your pilot project may be surprising. You may conclude that IS/CS can generate opportunistic sales that will increase your share of customer spend. Growth and increased market share may also improve based on the contribution made by IS/CS. Customers respond well to recommendations and suggestions. Given the time needed, IS/CS can provide the kind of information that many customers need to know about your products and services.

However, make no mistake about it, your success will depend on changing management’s existing mindset regarding the support necessary to allow for this type of proactive selling. IS/CS cannot effect change on their own as it must be driven and supported by management. Appropriate staffing is a key component to handling inbound calls at a level of adequacy to allow for time to employ proactive selling techniques. Having competent, aggressive and talented people is also an essential ingredient.

As mentioned earlier, metrics are also a necessary ingredient because you can’t manage it if you can’t measure it. Adequate measurement systems will help identify individual performance and productivity in order to recognize contributions toward success and offer appropriate financial reward. You must evaluate what exists within the IS/CS department and how they function, not only in the normal course of business, but especially during peak times of inbound call frequency. Management must determine if the mindset in IS/CS has gravitated to getting off the phone as quickly as possible. (Some uninformed distributors actually have inbound call quotas.) A study is needed to determine if time is available to allow for selling on inbound calls based on staffing levels and other demands. A technology audit may be necessary to determine what kind of support is built into the existing system in regard to selling prompts for associate parts and other product line suggestions. E-mail for a list of six key measurements that support proactive selling.

Conquering the Counter Conundrum

Counter sales personnel face many of the same issues that IS/CS people face. In fact, the counter sales life becomes one of juggling several balls in the air at the same time and becoming skilled at multi-tasking. Dealing with “will call,” customers at the counter, inbound phone calls and whining salesmen creates quite a challenge for the professional counter person. More importantly, this counter conundrum puts customer retention and value at risk.

Again, there is no magic formula to conquer this conundrum and answer the tough questions. These questions include:

o How do you effectively staff the counter?

o How should incoming calls be handled?

o Should a prioritization policy be developed?

o Should the will call counter be separate?

o Should inbound calls from sales people be handled by someone else?

The sales evolution on the customer side of the equation has changed customer awareness, which has led to different service output demands (SODS). These demands now focus on immediate response, cost savings opportunities and an expectation that distributor knowledge and support of their business initiatives go beyond the traditional business model. Counter distractions such as donuts, coffee or popcorn are just not enough to overcome sub-par service standards at peak times. Nothing short of service excellence is acceptable today to retain customers and create competitive advantage.

Creating appropriate solutions to conquer the counter conundrum must be based on branch operational metrics. The starting point is to evaluate this branch data. Increasing counter staff may seem like the obvious solution, but it may do nothing more than increase costs without solving the problem. Through the analysis of these metrics, you must diagnose the real disease and treat it, not the symptoms. Branch data analysis must include determining the pattern of peak times during the day and week for counter sales, incoming calls, will call and other specific counter responsibilities. Sales transactions and line item order entry information by counter sales people are relevant to the diagnosis. Faxes, e-mails, sales and profit trends, inactive and active account trends, average call time, call on hold time, call abandonment and the voice mail connection are all part of the situational analysis.

This analytical diagnosis should help you determine peak activity patterns and sales growth trends by segment, such as will call, phone orders and walk-in trade. Staffing levels and scheduling may then be matched more appropriately according to these patterns. This analysis should also help you determine overtime needs, whether new account development is successful and what your track record is on customer retention. Keeping track of transaction errors and when they occur will also help in conquering the counter conundrum. Don’t lose focus on those specific patterns that have the biggest impact on direct customer service. These include: the average wait time at the counter during peak periods, average on-hold time for call-in customers and the percentage of call abandonment. Very specifically, what are the sales trends telling you?

Lastly, don’t rely on metrics alone. Talk to your counter pros. You may find out that a large percentage of their time is utilized on activities that don’t directly impact customer service and increased sales, such as those activities directed by field sales requesting prices, availability, order status, expediting or other requests that take up time.

Once your analytical diagnosis is complete, you should have a clearer picture of the issues that hinder the ability of your counter pros to maintain world-class service and continuous sales growth. This should lead to a well thought out strategic initiative to address the critical constraints. Possible solutions may include the following:

o Call forwarding to other branches or other personnel during peak periods

o An inbound prioritization schedule

o A separate procedure for handling will call, fax and e-mail orders and field sales requests

o Separating the will call from counter sales

o Training, which can always have an impact on critical constraints

o Improved technology solutions to support field sales and other customer demands

Customers must always come first. This must become a culture, not just a slogan. World-class service must become a core competency if you are going to create competitive advantage and differentiate yourself from the competition. Evaluate cross-functional activities, reporting relationships and tear down any potential silos you uncover. The goal is to leverage the IS/CS sales opportunity and to provide the field sales force with the kind of sales support essential for overall company growth.

Conquering these conundrums is possible, but it takes hard work, analytical diagnosis and a commitment by executive management to address critical constraints and create the systems and processes that make world-class service one of the company’s core competencies.

Note: Some information and research for this article was provided by Peg Fisher & Associates. Peg Fisher has since retired but she was one of the early pioneers in the field, paving the way on innovations in inside sales.