A new lead lands in your inbox.
It’s a new prospect who’s super excited about your solution. They’ve read all your company’s blogs, liked all your social media posts, and they’re eager to get a demo of your product.
It’s only after two demos and tons of back-and-forth emails that you finally learn they don’t have control of the budget in their organization—and the deal is off.
That’s the double-edged sword of inbound sales: buyers come to you with intent, but they won’t always be the right fit.
So while the inbound sales methodology sounds great on the surface, adopting an inbound strategy comes with its own set of sales challenges relating to marketing, lead qualification, follow-up, and product demos.
In this article, we’ll cover the pros and cons of inbound sales and give you best practices for adopting an inbound sales strategy.
What is inbound sales?
Inbound sales refers to a business-to-business (B2B) sales methodology where prospects come to you, the seller, for sales conversations and product demos.
Inbound exists in contrast to outbound sales, where you perform cold outreach to prospect for ideal customers.
The main premise of inbound sales is that it’s easier to sell to prospects who already recognize they have a problem. Ideally, once they start looking for a solution to their problem, they’ll discover your company and then reach out to learn if you can help them.
As the inbound seller, you act as a trusted consultant. You’ll meet them where they’re at, qualify whether they’re a fit for your product, and then show them how your solution aligns with their needs.
Inbound sales depends heavily on inbound marketing—a HubSpot-invented methodology that focuses on creating relevant and useful content to address every stage of the buyer journey.
By creating sales and marketing content such as landing pages, blog posts, podcasts, videos, email campaigns, and case studies, you can speak to the buyer’s needs and capture their interest, attention, trust, and contact details.
Inbound vs. outbound sales: which should you choose?
Should your organization go with inbound or outbound sales?
Both inbound and outbound sales have their merits depending on your go-to-market strategy, who your customers are, how they look at their problems, what your price point is, your marketing budget, and the maturity of your industry.
Let’s review the pros and cons to help you make that decision.
Outbound sales: pros and cons
Here’s what’s awesome and not-so-awesome about outbound.
Pro - Create demand: If you have a highly priced or complex B2B software product, it’s unlikely inbound marketing alone will bring enough leads into your pipeline. You might not even have a marketing budget, or people may not know your solution category exists. In that case, outbound sales will help you initiate conversations with your ideal buyers and capture hidden demand for your product.
Pro - Choose your prospects: The biggest benefit to outbound is that you get to point and shoot at prospects that match your ideal customer profile (ICP). This allows you to take more of an account-based strategy and spend time on deals that may pan out.
Con - Lots of rejection: In outbound sales, you’ll be doing lots of cold calling, cold emailing, cold LinkedIn messaging, and cold networking. So get used to the cold. You have to accept that there will be many more rejections than successes. That’s why they call it “a numbers game.”
Con - No customer urgency: Even if you have a pinpointed ICP, outbound prospects are less likely to have the problem you solve. If they do have that problem, they may not know it needs solving. That means they’re less willing to pay attention, don’t have a sense of urgency, and are less ready to buy—making it a harder sale.
Con - A hard sales job: Because of the prospect’s mindset, the burden is on the outbound salesperson to create demand. You have to convince the prospect they have a problem, need a solution, and need to focus on it right now. That makes the sales process more of a hard pitch rather than a collaborative sale.
Inbound sales: pros and cons
Here’s what’s great and what’s not-so-great about inbound sales.
Pro/Con - Dependence on marketing: With inbound, your sales team is partially at the mercy of the quantity and quality of leads generated by your marketing efforts. If your marketing is successful—great. If your leads start to dry up, you may need to dabble with outbound.
Con - You can’t choose your leads: With inbound, you get whatever leads are generated by your marketing efforts. They can and will be anyone. If your messaging is off, they won’t match your ICP. Even with perfectly targeted messaging, you might get people from countries you can’t service, companies that are too small or too big, people who misunderstand what you do, people who don’t have budget approval, and so on. The burden on the sales rep shifts heavily towards qualification and if you don’t get this right, you can waste lots of time.
Pro - Collaborative selling: Inbound leads want you to be the solution. It’s mutually beneficial to you and the prospect if you’re the answer to their problem. As a result, your job as an inbound salesperson is about determining whether you can solve the buyer’s problem rather than doing a hard sales pitch.
The inbound process, therefore, is more about collaborative selling and buyer enablement. This means assessing if your product can meet the buyer’s needs and address their pain points, then enabling them with the information needed to get the deal done.
Pro - Prospects have buying urgency: When inbound leads come in, the prospect already knows they have a problem. They’re coming to you for a reason, hoping your product is the solution. They’re on a fact-finding mission with a purpose. These are great prospects, because their pain is strong enough that they’re ready to buy the right solution (assuming they have buying power within their organization).
Pro - Shorter sales cycles: Inbound leads come very prepared. They usually know what they’re looking for, have already compared you against your competitors, and have a positive opinion of you. They start deeper into the sales process and move through the funnel faster, so you can close deals more quickly.
In summary, if there’s a significant volume of people looking for your solution, you can take an inbound strategy that relies on quality marketing materials, proper qualification, and buyer enablement.
However, if your business model relies on a low volume of high-value clients who may not be actively looking for solutions, you should prefer an outbound strategy.
Before the sale: inbound marketing 101
Given the importance of marketing to the inbound sales process, let’s quickly cover the most common inbound marketing tactics.
Here are the most common acquisition channels from which B2B companies can build awareness and trust in order to fill their CRM pipelines with leads:
Search (organic and paid): People who actively search for keywords relevant to your solution are already researching solutions to their problem—signifying buying intent. By making search engine optimized content like blogs, guides, and landing pages that answer buyer questions, you can capture organic search traffic. You can also run paid ads for keywords that are highly relevant to your solution.
Social feeds: Every B2B brand should maintain at least one social media channel to generate organic interest—that will be LinkedIn in most industries, but other networks have their niches too. People browse social content more in the context of their everyday lives, so social audiences aren’t as high-intent as search audiences. When people see others sharing or engaging with your posts, videos, podcasts, and advice, you can achieve social proof at scale.
Review sites: As part of their research, many buyers head to B2B SaaS review sites like G2. They may seek your brand out specifically or generically search for solutions in your category. To impress these buyers, claim your profile and keep its content up to date. Then, partner with your customer success team to ask your current customers to leave you reviews and boost your rankings.
Communities: Don’t underestimate the value of word of mouth. Lots of inbound recommendations come from people talking in Slack groups, Discord channels, LinkedIn groups, and other online communities where people exchange information, problems, and solutions. Participating actively in these communities can passively generate interest in your brand and solution.
Brand: By getting a combination of the above channels right and creating a brand that resonates with your target audience, people will come to know about you, one way or another. Once they encounter a problem, they’ll remember your solution and seek you out specifically by searching your brand name or visiting your website.
This is barely scratching the surface of inbound marketing. If you want to learn more, check out HubSpot’s Inbound Marketing Course.
How to optimize your website for inbound sales
All inbound tactics eventually lead to your website—making it your most crucial lead-capturing mechanism. But it can be a crucial sales mechanism too.
When people talk about optimizing a website, they’re typically referring to search engine optimization (SEO) and conversion rate optimization (CRO), which aim to generate as much traffic and convert as much of it into leads as possible.
Generating traffic and leads are marketing jobs, so sales teams are rarely involved with website optimization.
However, how you capture leads greatly impacts the sales process. Rather than treating the boundary between lead generation and follow-up as a hard line, marketing and sales can work together to generate leads in a way that makes it easier to sell.
Here are two ways to optimize your website for inbound sales.
1. Qualify leads with your website
Qualifying leads is one of the biggest pieces of the inbound puzzle. You can save your inbound sales team lots of trouble by qualifying leads directly on your website.
Until recently, sales development reps (SDRs) were mainly responsible for lead qualification. When someone filled out a form on a website, a junior salesperson would follow up with a basic list of questions.
They would ask things like:
- Where are you located?
- What’s your company size?
- What are you looking for?
- Who’s your decision maker?
- What’s your timeline?
If the lead passed the test, they’d be handed off to an account executive (AE) for the rest of the sales process. The SDRs acted as the protectors of the company, shielding AEs from unproductive sales conversations.
But that approach is slowly dying—especially for companies with longer sales cycles.
There are two major reasons for that:
1. SDRs don’t create the best first impression: Forcing a prospect to talk to your most junior sales rep isn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet. One-on-one time with prospects is limited, so you can make a much better impression by having an AE as the first point of contact. SDRs can still be used for follow-up or for outbound outreach, but they shouldn’t be the face of your company to active buyers.
2. Tech is getting better: We can now more easily qualify and route leads that meet our criteria or surpass a lead score. Today, qualification for inbound sales should start on your website.
Now, it’s more in vogue to use forms that push website visitors in different directions. If you can get leads to self-qualify, you can bypass the SDR and get to that sales conversation more quickly.
You can expand your website forms beyond name and email to include fields such as geography, company size, or other need-to-know data points. You can also create more drilled-down landing pages that focus on narrow audience segments.
You can then directly route qualified leads to AEs who deal with the relevant customer segment.
2. Improve speed to lead with calendar bookings
Anyone who works in sales knows the importance of speed to lead. A 2011 study found that companies that follow up with a lead within one hour are seven times more likely to qualify the lead than those that follow up within two hours.
So if your goal is to book demos, you should reduce the lag time between receiving demo requests and booking those demos to as close to zero as possible.
Therefore, we highly recommend embedding calendar bookings directly on your website.
At Dock, we used to have a generic “Request a demo” contact form, and we’d follow up via email to book a demo. We’d convert about 25% of our leads to demos.
Now, after someone fills out our contact form on our website, they’re immediately invited to book a demo from the calendar. By letting prospects book demos directly on our website, we boosted our sign-ups from 25% to 60%.
We use Chili Piper for this, which also helps us route our leads and book them directly in our calendars.
How to follow up with inbound leads
How do you follow up with the leads that don’t book demos?
A 2012 study claimed that companies waste 71% of internet leads. Through secret shopper studies of 10,000 companies, Ken Krogue and his team found it took almost 47 hours on average to receive a call from a sales rep, and that the average sales rep only makes 1.3 call attempts before moving on.
Granted, 2012 was over a decade ago, but the point stands that your inbound marketing efforts can go to waste if you don’t have a solid follow-up plan.
SDRs might not be great for qualification, but they are great for follow-up. Your SDRs can follow up with every lead that comes in within minutes—whether that’s via email or phone call.
The benefit to using an SDR for follow-up is that it’s very personalized. You can pick and choose the right people to follow up with depending on how well they align with your ICP.
2. Email automation
To start, get a basic email workflow set up in HubSpot, Chili Piper, or whichever email automation tool of your choice.
When someone fills out your contact form but doesn’t book a meeting, send them a multi-email sequence to remind them.
Also set up automated email flows for marketing-generated leads higher up in the funnel, such as people who attended webinars or downloaded a gated ebook.
Over time, you can make this more sophisticated by segmenting by industry, customer segment, or product line—but the key is to get something set up now and then iterate on it as you grow.
Best practices for inbound sales meetings
Once you get to the inbound sales meeting, approach them with a buyer enablement mindset. This means empowering your prospect with the tools and knowledge they need to make an informed purchase rather than using hard sales tactics.
In B2B, customers spend only 17% of their total buying time interacting directly with supplier sales teams. This is because B2B buying has become increasingly complex and is done in teams.
When buyers come to you, it’s because they want information they couldn’t find on their own—not because they want a sales conversation.
So you have to take advantage of that tiny sales window. Here are tips for approaching inbound sales meetings.
Tip #1: Don’t hard sell
Inbound sales meetings are very different from outbound meetings, where you’re trying to convince the prospect they have a problem.
Inbound prospects are well-researched and come in with a purpose. Rather than selling to them, your goal should be to keep them engaged, answer their questions, and build a relationship.
Inbound prospects will also come in with their own information and biases. They’re less moldable in terms of how they see their problem and its solutions.
Therefore, tailor your story to their needs and what you’re hearing in the conversation. You should explain how your company is different, but do so in a way that aligns with the story the customer is painting for you.
Tip #2: Meet them where they are
The B2B buying journey is anything but linear, so don’t assume that because it’s your first call with a prospect that they’re early in the buyer journey.
Rather than making assumptions, let the buyer tell you where they are in the buying journey. Ask them to talk about their problem, solutions they’ve already tried or explored, and what they’re hoping to get out of your product.
Then, match your sales process to their needs.
For example, there’s nothing more annoying than having a sales rep run you through their entire pitch deck when all you want is a product demo. If you’ve read their website from front to back, you’ve already heard it all.
Tip #3: Match your sales motion to your product
Tailor your inbound sales motion to the complexity of your product. There are two general motions you can follow.
For simple products or smaller clients, go right into demoing the product from the first meeting. You can follow a meeting structure like:
- Introductions and qualification (5 minutes)
- Demo (20 minutes)
- Next steps (5 minutes)
One meeting will often be enough to disqualify the prospect or for them to make a decision, so don’t stretch the process out longer than it needs to be.
For complex products or large clients, split your process into two sales meetings. This allows you to learn as much as you can about the client in the first meeting and then provide a tailored demo in the second meeting. Otherwise, you risk demoing parts of the product that aren’t relevant to the client.
For the intro call, start with discovery. Focus primarily on qualification, listening to your client’s needs, and telling your company’s story:
Introductions and qualification (15 minutes)
- High-level pitch deck with slides (15 minutes)
- Flash the product (5 minutes)
Then, in the follow-up demo, schedule a technical product deep-dive of 45 minutes to an hour that’s tailored to what you learned in the intro call.
ABQ: Always Be Qualifying
The biggest mistake in inbound is to spend time with unqualified buyers—especially when you know they’re unqualified.
We’ve already discussed qualifying leads with your website, but it’s equally important to have a process for continuously qualifying prospects throughout the sales process.
Here are a few qualification tips for inbound sales programs.
Tip #1: Use a buyer-focused sales methodology
If you’re running an inbound sales program, you should complement it with a sales methodology that focuses on qualifying buyers, such as the Sandler Selling System or MEDDIC Sales.
Sandler is a highly consultative sales approach that focuses on creating an open dialogue with customers so that you can quickly understand if they’re qualified to buy.
MEDDIC focuses on identifying a buying champion in the prospect’s organization and moving on if you don’t have sufficient internal support.
Tip #2: Politely reject unqualified leads
As you get better at qualifying leads, you also have to get better at polite rejections.
This can come as a polite email explaining why the prospect’s organization or needs don’t align with your product, or it can happen during a sales meeting.
When rejecting a prospect, there’s always the fear of creating a negative buyer experience, but if you’ve taken a consultative approach and built trust from the get-go, they will appreciate your effort to save them from wasting their time.
Tip #3: Learn from your unqualified buyers
There’s often tension between sales reps who want to close deals and product offerings that don’t quite align with the prospect’s needs.
Sales reps want to say “yes” to prospects, not disqualify them. When they’re not a match, reps must learn to say “no.”
But disqualified buyers don’t have to be a wasted opportunity.
Tracking your disqualified buyers can inform your product strategy. If you’re noticing certain key features are missing or that there’s high demand from an industry you don’t currently serve, you can feed that knowledge back to your product team.
This doesn’t always mean that the feature should be built or that your company should immediately pivot, but it helps your product team craft your offering based on what people are looking for.
How does inbound sales fit with product-led growth?
We’ve talked a lot about product-led growth (PLG) sales here on our blog, so we didn’t want to leave it out of this discussion.
In PLG sales, the prospect first becomes a user of your product before they become a lead or buyer. So how does PLG overlap with inbound sales?
There are three potential inbound sales motions with PLG strategies:
1. Pre-product demo: Some people may come directly to your website and request a demo before trying your product. This will follow a more classic inbound sales process.
2. In-product demo: Most commonly, people will first try your product (either free or paid) and then request a demo. They’ll reach out either because they want to learn how to maximize their use of the product before upgrading or to learn more about the paid features. In this case, sales will look more like customer success, where your main job is to help your users get value out of the product.
3. You reach out to product users*: We’re giving this one an asterisk because it’s partially inbound and partially outbound. In this motion, you identify users who came inbound to your product but didn’t upgrade or request a sales conversation. For example, you may notice many users from the same organization, indicating a possible team or enterprise plan opportunity. In that case, you would reach out to organizational decision makers—which may require more outbound-like tactics.
In the latter two cases, the prospect is already a user of your product. So sales is all about understanding the user’s context (why are they using your product?) and creating urgency (why do they need to upgrade now?).
Further reading: For more on PLG sales, check out Why Every Product-Led Growth Company Eventually Needs Sales
Support your inbound sales strategy with Dock
Once you’ve gotten the prospect in the door and conducted a product demo, you can use Dock to follow up and nurture your relationship with your potential new customer.
Dock lets you organize all your sales and marketing materials for each prospect in one collaborative workspace. This helps enterprise sales teams build stronger relationships with prospects and ultimately close more deals.
There are two ways to use Dock to support your inbound sales efforts:
1. Introduce Dock at the end of your demo: At the end of your product demo, introduce the Dock space you created for your client in the last five minutes of the call.
Let your client know you’ve set up a shared workspace to collaborate where they’ll find the demo recording, the pitch deck, and a mutual action plan with next steps.
This makes it incredibly clear what needs to happen next in the sales process.
2. Reduce the follow-up clutter: After a product demo, most inbound salespeople send a follow-up email with a clumsy collection of links and attachments. These links and files inevitably get lost once the email thread goes back and forth a few times.
In Dock, you can create a beautiful shared workspace for your clients that contains all your proposals, demo videos, and buyer enablement content.
Not only does this workspace help you curate your company’s position after the product demo, it also makes it easier for your prospects to pass the information along to someone else in their organization.
3. Track content usage: The other benefit of storing all your follow-up content in a Dock space is that you get full analytics on who accesses each piece of content and when. This helps you understand what type of content resonates most with your buyers and who’s part of the buying team, which can feed back into your inbound strategy.
Want to set up your own Dock space? Sign up now for a free trial.