Although prospecting is an important aspect of your work as a salesperson, it is still only one aspect and you cannot let it monopolize your time. You do not serve yourself or your company well if by concentrating all your time and energy on beating the bushes for new business, you neglect to serve your existing accounts.

To this point, let me tell you a poorly kept secret: Customers talk. They talk about the things that please them — and the things that displease them. If, therefore, you keep your current customers happy and satisfied, I guarantee that they will tell others. When it comes to influencing a prospect, a single personal referral, particularly one from someone the prospect trusts, packs more punch that a year''s worth of advertising. Unfortunately, a dissatisfied customer who is both vocal and influential does an equal amount of damage.

Your reputation for customer satisfaction will then greatly ease your prospecting effort. A strong reputation has the effect of moving prospects into the interested category that we discussed in last month''s article. It will open doors for you and give you a hearing.

Unfortunately, you cannot expect every prospect to be aware of your reputation or to have seen your company''s advertising. For many, you will be the first formal contact they have had. For some, it will be the first time they have even heard of you or your company. Turning these disinterested or unknown prospects into customers takes time. If you have done much prospecting, you will know that deciding which prospective accounts require your valuable time with quickly becomes the critical and determining factor. You must, therefore, become an efficient prospector and learn to manage your time wisely.

Applying general time-management principles to a specific task like prospecting should be fairly straightforward if you remember that prospecting is only one aspect of your work as a salesperson. In general, effective time management involves only three elements:

  1. Set long-range objectives and complementary short-range goals that reflect the requirements of your work.

  2. Based on these goals and objectives, assign priorities that will determine the allocation of your time.

  3. Practice self-discipline by following your priorities.

Because objectives and goals vary widely with market conditions and the unique demands of your management, we cannot really address them here. We will therefore assume that you and your manager have already established your prospecting goals, and we will move on to the second principle: assigning priorities.

Determining priorities among prospects — deciding where you must spend your valuable time — is either simple or complex depending on the size and makeup of your market and the amount and quality of the information you possess. If you work an established and well-defined territory or market, you should have little difficulty coming up with an accurate list of prospects. If, however, you are establishing a new territory or if your company is expanding its offerings to include new product lines, your task becomes more challenging. This challenge arises from a lack of knowledge; a large number of prospects may fall in the “unknown” category.

Whatever the case, you still face the problem of separating the most approachable, and potentially profitable, prospects from the others. If your company possesses and applies the sort of marketing sense and organization needed today, much of the necessary work will have been done for you. Customer surveys and other market-research vehicles can narrow the field by identifying these specific target accounts most worthy of your time. Telemarketing helps, too.

If, based on market research and presale efforts, you and your manager have defined goals relating to target accounts, we can assume that these target prospects will take top priority. But even among these you must come up with some logical method to determine the allocation of your time. So let''s approach the task systematically by defining a set of priorities based on a balance between an account''s potential and the time you must devote to the account to convert it from prospect to customer. Although other factors certainly apply, the following represents many of the key decision-making elements that you should use to define your hierarchy or system of priorities.

Potential

What is the dollar potential of the prospective account in total sales and profit? Consider both long- and short-term potential.

Understanding this requires that you look beyond the prospect''s current situation. What are their plans for the future? Do they have an aggressive management team with realistic growth plans? How do they compare with their competition?

Need

What are the prospect''s pressing needs and problems? Addressing and satisfying these concerns will lead to sales, but first you must discover them. Don''t view the prospect''s pressing needs too narrowly. Service considerations, delivery, inventory and assistance with technical and other problems often outweigh the more basic concerns of product and price. Consider, too, the prospect''s future needs, those evolving concerns that often demand major changes.

Organizational needs also come into play. What are the prospect''s purchasing priorities? What major factors drive their buying decisions? Price? Delivery? Brand or supplier loyalty? Quality? Personal loyalty? How do you, your company and your products measure up?

Competition

What is the depth and nature of the prospect''s relationship with your competition? Is it long-standing and based on years of mutual respect? Or is it superficial and subject to change as conditions change? Why do they buy from their current suppliers? Are they experiencing any problems? Is there anything about their suppliers that they don''t like? How do you and your competition compare in these areas?

Has the prospect expressed interest in changing suppliers or product lines? If so, why? Does this interest affect only a narrow range of products or is it across the board? How strong is their interest? Are they exploring by testing the waters? Or are they actively looking for a new supplier or different products?

Simply being as good as your competition does not offer prospects an inducement to change. A customer may ask, “Why risk the unknown that provides no real advantages over the known?”

You must prove to their satisfaction that you are better, and your advantages must relate to areas truly important to them.

Knowledge

The depth and quality of your knowledge of the prospect will affect your initial sales plug and how you approach the account. But just as critical and often overlooked, is the prospect''s knowledge of your company. What is their purchasing history with you? Check the records. If the prospect is a former customer, what caused them to stop buying from you?

Does the prospect have a current business relationship with your company? Although not a steady customer, they might make occasional emergency purchases or buy small quantities of products not readily available elsewhere. Even infrequent or seemingly inconsequential contacts are important because each will contribute to the prospect''s perception of your company and the products and services it offers.

Access

How difficult is it to gain access to decision makers and other key influences? Are you free to penetrate the account and talk to others that can educate you?

How much access do you need? This varies widely depending on the size of the company, the prospect''s approach to purchasing, and the roles of decision makers and key influences. Who make the purchasing decisions? To whom do they listen? Who, specifically, must be sold? To sell each of these people, you need some minimum level of access.

Who can you count on to support you? Why? How much support can you expect? Who in the prospect''s organization represent obstacles? Can you win them over? How? If not, can you neutralize their influence?

Consider your personal network. Do you have any business or personal relationships with employees at the prospective account? Take this one step further and consider the relationships that exist between the prospect and others in your network. How you take advantage of such relationships will depend on their nature, the position and influence of those involved, and the ethical considerations that sometimes exist. In the absence of any ethical conflict of interest, these relationships will be a source of valuable information and can even lead to personal introductions and direct referrals.

When assigning a priority, your task is to weigh the first of these factors — the sales and profit potential of the prospective account — against the other factors that all, ultimately, relate to time. Whatever system you use, keep it simple so your most likely prospects will quickly become apparent.

One effective technique involves making a chart (see “Prospecting Priorities” on page 57) that lists each prospect in order of potential. If you lack the information to estimate your prospects'' sales potential in dollars and cannot easily determine their relative positions, use the best information you have and place each in one of three general categories — high, medium or low — with the highest potential accounts at the top of the list.

The vertical columns represent the other afore mentioned factors that indicate the prospect''s receptivity to your sales effort, the relative strength of your competition, the extent of your access, and your company''s ability to solve the prospect''s problems and satisfy their needs. Once again, let simplicity be your guide. Use a straightforward rating system that balances your strengths in each area against the perceived strengths of the competition. Something like the following is effective:

3) Definite advantage

2) Possible advantage

1) Disadvantage

0) Unknown; must uncover more facts.

Once you have assigned a value to each factor for a given account, determine the account''s relative priority by adding these values and comparing the total with that of other accounts in the same general category.

This approach is not pure science. The totals provide only general benchmarks designed to help you allocate your time among prospective accounts. Due to special considerations affecting individual accounts, you might, in fact, want to assign greater weight to one factor or another.

In the next article, the last of this series, we will focus on specific techniques for converting prospects to customers; that is, what you can do after you''re in the door.

PROSPECTING PRIORITIES
Prospect name and size Sales and profit potential Prospect''s needs Strength of competition Prospect''s knowledge of our company My access to account Rating and potential
G.R. Owen Co. (medium) High; Increasing (3) Expanding needs for most lines (3) Recent problems with supplier (3) We were second source for years (2) Access to purchasing and technical 11
High
MaxOut Inc. (large) Medium; Stable (2) Evident needs in most product lines (1) Strong relationship with competitor (1) Dropped us three years ago; delivery problems (1) Access only to low-level buyer 5
Medium
Evertiny Inc. Low; No growth potential (1) Limited needs; poor credit (3) Wants to buy from us; frequent requests (0) Unknown (0) Unknown; Never called 4
Low
RATING SCALE: (3) Definite advantage, (2) Possible advantage, (1) Disadvantage, (0) Unknown — must uncover more facts