In recent years, inside sales has emerged as a highly profitable channel for distributors. “When appropriately utilized, inside sales reduces cost-of-sales by 40%–90% relative to field sales, while revenues may be maintained or even grown,” according to the Harvard Business Review. Selling more while spending less sounds great, but it is much easier said than done.

Inside sales reps need unique skills and tools that suit their jobs. In particular, these reps must possess a working knowledge of products, great relationship- building abilities, workflow management skills and a complete mastery of remote communication. Distributors that can consistently hire, tool, train and scale inside reps with these skills will enjoy immense profitability. Here is how they can do it.

Hire the Right People

Over the past few years, the number of inside sales reps has increased by a few percentage points while the number of outside sales reps has decreased by a similar margin. At the same time, outside reps have seen a significant increase in remote selling time. Together, this suggests that some companies may be transitioning outside reps to inside roles instead of hiring new reps.

While this may seem convenient, distributors should avoid this trap. According to HubSpot, the average inside sales rep has a base salary of $42,833 with average on-target earnings of $96,299. The average outside sales rep, in contrast, has a 36% higher base salary, with a 9% higher earnings target. In short, paying outside reps to do inside jobs is unnecessarily expensive and likely ineffective.

Likewise, distributors should not convert customer service reps into inside sales reps. To perform the inside sales role well, employees must excel at proactive digital communication, workflow management, and strategic account growth. Instead of converting telesales workers or outside sales reps, distributors should start by hiring a small inside sales team of 3-5 sales reps.

Empower Your Salespeople with AI

The next step towards creating a killer inside sales team is equipping employees with AI sales tools. AI can help inside reps win within sales calls, between sales calls, and across different sales channels. Here is how it works.

AI sales tools use data from previous customer interactions to predict what items customers are most likely to buy and when. This means that within each call, AI-equipped inside sales reps can sell more with data-driven up-sells, cross-sells, and add-ons recommendations.

AI also helps inside sales reps in between calls by optimizing employee workflow. Instead of calling accounts on fixed intervals, the AI-empowered rep will call each account when they are primed to buy, due for reordering, or at churn risk. This ensures that reps only spend time chasing sales opportunities that they can actually win. Plus, this type of automated workflow management frees reps up to spend less time planning and more time selling.

Finally, AI enhances rep performance by coordinating information across channels. AI-based customer data platforms use data from multiple sales channels to make the kind of product recommendations and workflow decisions discussed above. Plus, they also coordinate activity across channels. This means that your inside sales reps can hand accounts off to outside reps when the time is right, and personalize customer experiences based on activity from other channels.

Invest in Your Employees

Hiring good employees and using the right tools is a must. But, in order to truly maximize performance, reps should also be put through several rounds of training.

There are several key areas that inside sales reps must master. For starters, reps need to be familiar with their product catalogs, customer base, and sales tools. However, reps also need to understand value propositions and pricing, market segments, and how to approach different buyer personas.

In order to teach reps all this, it can help to bring in an expert. I talked to Debbie Paul, a senior partner at Distribution Strategy Group, about what makes for effective sales rep training. She explained that multiple training phases were necessary to get the most out of reps.

To start, she recommends that reps connect with instructors over video-chat for a few structured sessions that combine content learning and sales role-play. After that, instructors can put reps through a few in-person follow-up sessionsto learn about AI-sales tools, effective selling techniques, and workflow management skills. Role play is a key part of the training, and after a day or two reps will have more confidence in their selling skills. It’s also important to document the training so reps and managers can review it as needed and refer back to it for coaching purposes.

Formal training will help reps understand their strengths and weaknesses, and what it takes to get better. This will provide immediate benefits. The bigger impact, however, is what it will do in the long run. With the right instruction, reps can learn how to score their own activity and coach themselves into better performance. This mix of formal training and on-the-job learning will help reps will drive immediate returns and long-term growth.

Scale Your Inside Sales Team

Once your small sales team is profitably up and running, you can expand the channel to drive further growth. In order to ensure effective scaling, you should stay focused on experimentation and process-oriented behavior.

One of the benefits to starting small is ensuring that you don’t make big mistakes. Sales teams should be comfortable attempting new things and occasionally failing, so long as they learn over time. Each company will have different needs for their inside sales teams. Some will find that its best to have inside sales grow small accounts and then pass them off to outside sales. Others will find that its better to forge partnerships between inside and outside sales. Either way, you won’t know what’s best for you until you try out multiple options.

Once you do figure out what works you can focus on growing your team. When it comes to growth, creating formal sales processes can be the difference between winning and losing. According to Jason Jordan and Robert Kelley of the Harvard Business Review, organizations with a formal sales process see a 28% improvement in sales revenue compared to those which do not.

In summary, distributors should start with a small inside sales team. This team should be composed of new salespeople, instead of current employees with different skill sets. Once distributors have an inside sales team, they should help it optimize performance with formal training and effective AI tools. This team should experiment with different sales models until it finds a winning method that can be recorded as a formal process. Then, distributors can hire more reps, connect them to the right people and AI tools, and continually drive new growth.