Customer Service and Insider Sales: Different for a Reason

Imagine you’re preparing a delicious meal and you’re short on olive oil. Would you add vinegar to make that oil go further? Of course not! Those are complementary ingredients, not interchangeable ones. You can shake them together but soon they’ll separate.

I use that analogy in my executive coaching work with high-performance sales organizations—especially the large ones—to explain why it’s a very bad idea to try adding-on an inside sales function to their existing customer service positions.

If you do that, you’re not stretching your sales function further. Nor are you boosting profitability. You’re just mixing oil and vinegar (and you’re not making a salad here). Know the difference. And recognize what your true goal ought to be.

Different jobs, skills and outcomes

Your customer service function is reactive. Service is their product. Those positions are staffed with people who are skilled at finding solutions to problems that are known to the customer. Those problems come from a wide range of sources. They could be related to invoicing, installation, call frequency or product performance.

On the other hand, inside sales is proactive. Selling is their job. It’s staffed with those who are skilled at identifying problems that may not be known to the customer. They know how to qualify a lead and know how to recognize where a customer could benefit from using more of your products or services.

Building a Buyer-Focused Pipeline
Ladder career path for business growth success process concept. Wood block stacking as step stair with arrow up. Hand putting wooden cube block on top pyramid

Even the outcomes between these two functions are different. With effective customer service, you get a happy customer. With insider sales, it’s about more conversions and more sales.

Apply profit-center thinking 

Yes, plenty of businesses have good reason to expand their sales function. However, as I’ve cautioned before: a big mistake business leaders make when trying to solve shrinking revenue is to frame the situation strictly as a sales department problem. You don’t solve a sales problem by diluting your customer service function. To do so is to treat the valuable work they do as though it’s just a cost center.

Instead, apply profit-center thinking everywhere in your organization. Here’s how you do that.

Get dedicated about service: Have a dedicated team that’s focused squarely on providing service to your customers. Do this because they are the ones who are uniquely equipped to identify and solve problems that your customer has. That’s the value they bring to the table. They remind your customers why they were smart to choose your company in the first place. If you dilute that function, all you’re doing is raising questions and creating frustration rather than offering real solutions.

Let sellers sell from the inside: If you want the ability to sell your product proactively from the inside rather than from sellers in the field, the way to do that isn’t by saddling your customer service team with yet another task. You do it best by creating a small, separate inside sales team: one that’s a separate function from customer service, staffed with people whose job it is to sell, not to serve.

Build and maintain trust: Nobody likes a bait and switch tactic—especially when they’re asking for help. That’s the impression you give when you use customer service as a sales channel. It damages the trust you’ve built between you and your customer. And it puts selling in the hands of people who don’t have the tools to perform that task effectively.

Hire and promote based on specific skills: I work with top-performing organizations every day and it’s rare there that I see people moving from customer service into sales. There’s a reason for that: the best in service stay in service, and the best in sales stay in sales. Keep these functions separate and hire accordingly. Let your best people in these two different functions perform based on what they each can do well for your organization.

Identifying hireable and promotable salespeople

Define your sales profile: For your inside sales force, hire based on their selling profile. If you feel the need to create inside sales from your existing teams, staff it from your deep bench of field sellers who can be repositioned to the inside. Be clear about the role your inside sales team will play: do you need them to find and convert leads into opportunities and close them? Or do you just need them to focus on lead generation? Either move is fine, but each requires its own profile, pay structure and coaching metric.

Keep service and sales separate. Stop mixing oil and vinegar. Adopt profit-center thinking to everything you do. Not only will your customers appreciate knowing they have a dedicated person focused on meeting their specific needs, but you’ll also have an organization staffed with professionals who are skilled at performing the functions they were designed to deliver on.


2 responses to “Customer Service and Insider Sales: Different for a Reason

  1. My sales team is being pulled into CS to assist because their staff is shrinking and my team is feeling their duties are diluted. Your article was very timely and I’m using it as a primer for some “Crucial Conversations.”

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