There have been "travelling salesmen" for about as long as there have been "salesmen" (and "saleswomen"). Whether it was a cross-country flight or a quick drive to the nearest golf course, travel has been an integral part of the sales professional's job for generations. But something happened about 30 years ago that changed everything: the advent of the Internet.
The Internet has changed how the world operates, and cloud technology has changed the way business is done. Today, sales has come to a divide. On one hand, we have the traditional approach, in which reps pack up and go meet each customer person-to-person. On the other hand, we have an inside sales approach, where teams of sales reps are lined up on the phone.
The Real Cost of Jet-Set Sales
Travel is such an ingrained part of sales that a perception exists in which you can't have one without the other. But I've talked to reps who end up spending half their time on the road making phone calls from their hotel room. Why? Because that's the new norm. It's what buyers expect, and more importantly, it's what they want.
The business advantages of an inside sales model for an organization seem obvious. Transitioning to inside sales can reduce costs for the average company by 40-90 percent. But many salespeople will argue to send reps on the road in spite of the costs, because they perceive the benefits to be even greater. That's where they're (mostly) wrong.
Historically, travel has been an important part of sales because it was a means of establishing trust. Meeting face-to-face, bonding, and getting to know one another as people was a way for sales reps to show potential customers that they'd be as good as their word. People are more likely to take buying advice from someone they've spent the day at the golf course with than someone they've never met and have no reason to trust. But that's where the Internet has changed things dramatically.
Customers don't need to take salespeople at their word anymore. A simple Google search can take them to a review site where they can double-check how good the product really is. There are thousands of objective voices filling the same role that used to be filled by a single voice: the voice of the salesperson.
As a result, the role of the salesperson has changed. It's no longer a matter of convincing customers of your honorableness and your product's quality. Today, salespeople need to be able to understand customers and be able to explain to them why the product is a fit for their needs--and that's something that's best done remotely, where the rep can easily access customer data with a few clicks.
So is travel dead completely? Will the salespeople of the future never again set foot in another airport? Actually...no. It just means that when they do, it will be for a different reason.
How to Use Travel Effectively
There are many times that travel is critically important for modern sales. Today they just happen to occur less often. The first example is industry events. Conferences and tradeshows have long been a staple of the sales world, and will continue to be, in my opinion, for the foreseeable future. The number of potential partnerships and new customers is simply too valuable to pass up. Conferences are a great way to attract new talent, learn new techniques, and make new connections that could end up turning into major deals. That type of networking is absolutely worth showing up for.
The other time that travel is warranted is at the end of the deal, when the customer is seriously interested or ready to commit and the time has come to negotiate terms. These discussions tend to be extremely delicate, and are best managed in-person. Flying out also sends the message that the salesperson is highly invested in the customer's success, and willing to see things through smoothly.
My company, Velocify, is in the process of implementing a hybrid inside-field sales role. Those salespeople will spend three weeks a month operating as an inside salesperson, and the fourth week they will be expected to travel. It's not a very common structure right now, but my opinion is that it is the way of the future. Salespeople no longer need to travel, but at times when it is strategically advantageous, they should make a meaningful visit.