The Prospecting Problem: Balancing Inbound and Outbound Sales Strategies


Many companies wrongly think they have to either build an inbound prospecting strategy or an outbound one. What you actually need is a strategy that incorporates both.

Prospecting is something every sales organization needs to master. Without it, there would be no deals to close. And yet, while many sales teams celebrate closing deals, very few spend time defining, experimenting, and executing on a quality prospecting strategy.

Let’s take a look at the best practices for inbound and outbound sales and how you can balance both to fill the top of your sales funnel with lots of high-quality leads.

Choose a Primary and Secondary Sales Strategy

Most sales prospecting falls into two broad approaches — Inbound and outbound sales.

Inbound, sometimes referred to as high-velocity marketing, is a newer strategy that’s been popularized by companies like HubSpot. It focuses on allowing potential buyers to find you (through marketing, SEO, etc.), and then developing their interest in your company’s solution. One of the most popular ways to achieve this is to create relevant content for the prospect to consume.

Outbound, often referred to as ABM or account-based marketing, is what many consider the traditional approach to developing leads. It’s a tried-and-true strategy that targets a set of prospects by building outbound email and call campaigns.

A strategy that includes both inbound and outbound will always have one as the primary sales strategy.

Whichever strategy is your primary will dictate where you spend money and apply resources. It also has a significant impact on the shape of your organization and your cash burn. Keep trade-offs related to strategy changes in mind (e.g., the tools you pick or the first hires you make).

To figure out which strategy should be the primary one for your org, let’s look at the trade-offs of each strategy on the sales motion you have in place, the type of buyer you sell to, and the sales team you’re building.

Your Sales Motion

First, ask yourself what your average deal size is and how many deals you make on average?

In general, small deals in large quantities lend themselves to an inbound strategy. Inbound is an efficient way to reach a large audience. It casts a wide net for prospects.

Larger deals usually require a targeted outbound strategy. Outbound allows you to aggressively target a specific list of targeted companies and buyer personas.

Your Buyer

Next, determine your ideal customer profile (the company that would have the greatest need for your product) and your buyer personas (the people who will evaluate and ultimately purchase your solution).

A broad ICP favors an inbound strategy, and a niche market will push you towards an outbound strategy.

Your Team

Finally, identify the practical limitations of your startup — money, people, and resources.

In general, an inbound strategy is less expensive to set up than an outbound strategy. Inbound strategies typically involve content creation and search engine optimization (SEO), which can be done by one person or a small team.

Most outbound strategies require many more salespeople or business development reps (BDRs) to generate leads.

One startup I work with, a leading crowdsourced security platform, spent the first few years building a world-class, inbound, prospecting program. Then, they took what they learned to build an outbound program targeting larger enterprise customers. They now have a fantastic mix of large and small customers, all using their platform to reduce security vulnerabilities.

This is a fantastic way for startups to begin without costing huge amounts of resources initially.

Building Outbound Capabilities

Careful preparation is key to developing a winning outbound strategy. Here are 6 steps you can follow to get started.

Develop your ideal customer profile. Your ICP should consist of both your target markets and your targeted accounts.

Be sure to include:

  • Firmographic information: verticals, geography, and company size
  • Environmental information: regulatory issues, tech stack, or internal processes
  • Behavioral information: actions a company takes like advertising, mergers and acquisitions, or other behavioral characteristics

Define your buyer personas. You’ll need at least three personas to develop multiple touches and messaging within a targeted company. Personas should include a definition of their role, what they care about (personal wins), and the tools they use today.

Consider naming your personas — it makes them feel real and much easier to teach to the sales team.

TOPO, an analyst firm that helps sales and marketing organizations grow revenue, recommends developing three persona types: the entry point, the decision-maker, and the business owner.

Another approach is to define the executive, manager, and individual contributor personas who will be the ones evaluating and using your product.

Build your lists. You can now build out a list of target companies along with people/titles within those companies to contact.

A common best practice is to start small (lists of 20 to 40) and gather as much information as possible. This is both for qualification and messaging personalization.

Consider using tools like DiscoverOrg and LinkedIn Sales Navigator, as well as data augmentation services to enrich the lists you’re building. Finally, make sure it’s in a customer relationship management (CRM) tool like HubSpot or Salesforce.

RELATED: How to Use LinkedIn to Build High-Value Relationships

Create personalized messaging. Prospecting messaging includes introductory emails, call scripts, and supporting content. The more specific the message is, the better your chances of garnering attention.

Personalize messaging by industry (or other categories in your ICP) as well as by persona type. For example, a message to the chief information officer of a large bank will be drastically different than a message to the engineering manager at a software company.

Winning by Design proposes the three R’s for effective emails: relevance (why reply), reward (insights or content you offer), and request (engage with you).

Marketing is best-equipped to develop key messaging. As long as they are closely aligned with Sales and receiving sales feedback. Call scripts should include current challenges, discovery questions, expected benefits, and proof points or metrics.

Set engagement goals. Weekly engagement goals like calls made, demos given, or opportunities created can be a great way to keep your prospecting on track. Schedule call blitzes where no activities are scheduled except outbound cold calling.

Where possible, automate parts of the process using tools like Outreach and SalesLoft

Measure and adjust. It’s important to adapt based on what’s working and what’s not. Tools like Gong are great to record calls, but sometimes, it’s as simple as including prospecting feedback as part of weekly meetings.

An outbound strategy may require hiring either a dedicated BDR team for demand generation or sales reps with specific prospecting skills and networks.

RELATED: How to Create an Epic Coaching Culture (5 Steps & 3 Tips)

In general, early-stage companies should only hire salespeople with strong prospecting skills. They can do the prospecting themselves while still working with a BDR on a prospecting strategy.

Building Inbound Capabilities

An inbound strategy involves attracting people to your website, developing content, and optimizing searches through keywords so prospects can find you.

Once you have a good flow of visitors to your website, you can qualify and engage with the ones most likely to buy your products.

Here are 6 steps to get started developing your inbound strategy.

Start with your website. The most important tool for an inbound strategy is your website. Post as much content as possible. Educate your prospects. Teach them about the problem your offering solves, how your product works, expected benefits, and customer case studies.

Consider landing pages for pricing, product offerings, and even a freemium product if possible.

The goal is to drive as many eyeballs as possible to your website.The better your website, the more traffic you’ll be able to capture.

Develop content. The general rule here is to produce lots of high-quality content with a strong, unique point of view.

Content should include blogs, product data sheets, industry articles, whitepapers, and customer case studies. Be creative and include video as well as other forms of content to engage prospects.

In addition to content, develop an active social media strategy to amplify your online presence.

Use SEO keywords. SEO is essential to website traffic. Consider both paid and organic search as both have big benefits. Research the SEO keywords that will lead people to your website.

You can use tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, and google analytics to determine what keywords you are already ranking well for and what keywords you should be targeting.

Qualify (or grade) your inbound leads. Once you’ve got the quantity, you need to determine quality.

Consider using tools like HubSpot to grade leads and determine which prospects are ready to engage with the sales team.

Automate parts of the process and develop nurturing campaigns. If a prospect isn’t ready, your goal should be to educate and engage them until they are.

Build your content so that it guides customers through the early parts of an education and buying process — a “buyer’s journey.”

It’s also vital to develop nurturing campaigns to recycle less qualified leads to develop over time.

Ensure a timely and accurate follow-up. One study found that companies that respond to customers within an hour are nearly seven times more likely to qualify leads than those that wait longer than an hour. And they’re over 60 times more likely to qualify leads than those that waited 24 hours or more.

Sales and Marketing should make sure their expectations for lead follow-up are the same, and ensure that no leads are falling through the cracks.

In general, an inbound strategy requires broader messaging, more content development, and more automation.

Key hires include:

  • Demand gen specialist
  • Website developers or an agency
  • Content writers (often product people and industry evangelists)

If you sell in broad categories, casting a wide net and then qualifying and prioritizing leads can be very effective.

Putting It All Together

Close communication between sales and marketing is the most important aspect of a successful prospecting strategy. Make sure both teams are aligned and have clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

Marketing is generally better at content development, and Sales has a good understanding of customer needs and what’s working. Communicate often and make adjustments as needed.

It’s also important to document everything. Condense content and processes to a single page or slide, and keep a master strategy document that everyone can reference.

Keep it simple and experiment rapidly — you’ll know when you’ve hit Sales and Marketing gold.

By keeping these, and the above tips in mind, you can create both a strong inbound and outbound sales strategy and keep the top of your funnel full for the sales team.

6 step checklist to balance inbound and outbound sales


I’d love to hear of other success stories around building inbound and outbound strategies. Let me know in the comments below!


Jim Wilson, operating partner at Costanoa Ventures, provides sales and market entry strategy advice to enterprise technology startups. A seasoned sales executive with more than 25 years of experience, he serves on boards of several startups. Prior to Costanoa, Jim held many sales leadership roles, including vice president of worldwide sales at Sumo Logic, senior vice president at NICE Systems, and vice president of worldwide sales at Merced Systems.

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