Too many managers and salespeople think of prospecting as a numbers game. They focus on contacting as many prospects as possible in the hope of occasionally finding that rare individual who is just waiting for someone to walk in the door so he can buy. Such an approach — concentrating on the quantity of the calls you make — demands a large expenditure of your most precious commodity: time. The result of this approach is often a failure to fulfill your responsibilities to your established customers. Quantity prospecting, or canvassing, is a task best left to telemarketing people.

As a salesperson, one of your primary goals should be to improve the quality of your prospecting. The key to that end is to qualify the account before the first call, so your efforts will be better focused and will more likely lead to new business. If your company is large enough, or farsighted enough, it probably has already done much of your homework for you by identifying specific target accounts.

Think long term

A response to an advertisement or a telemarketing lead does not guarantee the creation of a new customer. The prospect must still be sold! “Selling” him or her demands more than a follow-up telephone call or a brief, unplanned (and usually unproductive) visit to the prospect''s plant or office one day when you happen to be “in the neighborhood.”

Your initial call to a prospective customer is critical because it often represents his first personal contact with your company. You want the prospect to be comfortable in your presence.

You must set real goals for your first call and plan accordingly. Briefly, these goals should include establishing contact and penetrating the account sufficiently in order to:

  • Verify the information that led you and your company to designate the prospect as a target account.

  • Qualify the individuals who are the decision-makers or key influences.

  • Learn more about their business and people, understand their problems and needs, and recognize the cause of their satisfactions/dissatisfactions.

  • Show you recognize these problems/needs and are committed to help solve/satisfy them.

  • Inform the prospect on how you and your company can assist the prospect through your products and services.

  • Create interest and a desire to continue the process. More often than not, successful prospecting requires time to bear fruit. Except in the most unusual of circumstances, you cannot expect to obtain an order on the first call. Don''t, therefore, succumb to discouragement when the customer puts you off. See it instead from his point of view. To most prospects, you are an unknown; and unless they need your products or services, they will not make hasty decisions.

To convert prospects into customers, you must first understand their business and their operations. Only then can you effectively recommend potential applications for your products and services. If a prospect is a relatively large company, you will probably have to move past your initial customer contact. You will need to penetrate the account to obtain access to decision-makers and key influences. Even if you''ve been successful in achieving these goals, you must still sell them. All of this takes time.

Reduce perceived risk

Successful salespeople are empathetic. They view themselves, their company, and their products and services from the prospect''s perspective. You must accept the fact the prospects normally (and correctly) view a change in suppliers or a new approach to their business as an increase in risk. Accordingly, you must direct your initial effort to decreasing the prospect''s perception of risk.

You should strive to replace risk with confidence by making the prospect comfortable with you and your company. You should offer proof in the form of testimonials from satisfied customers, particularly those whom the prospect holds in high esteem. You must be prepared to supply hard technical and statistical evidence or to arrange visits by competent, customer-focused members of your technical staff. If appropriate, you can suggest that the prospect visit your facilities to see first-hand your company''s commitment to quality or other areas of high priority to the prospect. Depending on the account''s potential and the level of the ultimate decision-maker, you can suggest a joint meeting (with a definite agreed-upon agenda) including the decision-maker, key influences, your contact, appropriate personnel from your company and you. You can instill a sense of legitimacy by providing the prospect with a historical sketch of your company and its place in the industry. In all of this, you must stress those areas that are particularly meaningful to the prospects and their company.

Recognize and accept change

Successful salespeople don''t limit their view of what constitutes a good prospect. Potential customers exist all around you, and their numbers are constantly changing. Therefore, the likelihood of regaining former customers or of selling prospects you were unable to convert in the past can increase dramatically due to growth and economic conditions, or from changes in management, design, decision-making criteria, etc.

Ultimately, it all boils down to this: You must sell the prospect on the value of the differences between what his company is doing now and what it could be doing. You must proceed carefully here and refrain from any sort of open criticism of their current way of doing business. Your goal is not to prove that their present methods are inefficient, ineffective or stupid. (The people you are dealing with might have a personal stake in the operation and strongly resent any criticism, whether open or subtle.) Instead, you should take a positive approach and focus on how you can help them improve their business.

Sell service

Successful salespeople view good prospects just as they view established customers. To convert a prospect to a customer, you must make a difference before you close the first sale. By the personal attention you provide, by your willingness to listen and learn about the prospect''s business and its problems and needs, you give potential customers a taste of the kind of dedicated personal service they can expect to receive after they buy.

Exercise common courtesy

Business people are busy. Given the surge in personnel cutbacks, most are busier than ever. In most instances, calling on a customer without an appointment is a waste of time and, at best, will lead only to a meeting with someone who is neither a decision-maker nor a key influence. More important, however, making a drop-in call is both unprofessional and insulting.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the effects of rudeness and other forms of insulting behavior is by example. Not long ago, a senior engineer for a large electrical utility told me of a remarkable telephone conversation he once had with a salesperson. The engineer was intrigued by a new computer program he had read about in a trade magazine and wrote a letter to the software firm requesting information. The subsequent phone call, initiated by a salesperson for the firm, went something like this:

“Hello, this is John Smith from ABC Software. I''m calling to follow-up on your letter.”

“Hey, that''s great. I was impressed by what I read about your program. Do you think you could send me some information on it? I think we might be able to use something like that around here.”

“Certainly. But first I''d like to get a little background information on your company.”

“Oh…Okay. What do you want to know?”

“Well, first of all, what''s you title?”

“Senior project engineer. Why?”

“It''s just for our mailing list. Now, are you the final approval authority for software purchases at your company?”

“Well, no. I''m not. I merely recommend…”

“Then who does have final approval?”

“That would be Bill Harris, director of information systems. But I''m on the committee that…”

“Can you give me Mr. Harris'' phone number?”

“No!”

With that, the prospect hung up and immediately called Bill Harris and suggested that he ignore any calls from ABC Software.

If I hadn''t had a number of similar experiences, I''d have trouble believing that anyone could make so many mistakes in one brief phone call. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I''ll list some of the more critical errors this salesperson made:

  • He ignored the customer''s primary concern — in this instance the computer program and how it could help the customer''s company. The customer''s initial reaction to the call was one of interest and enthusiasm, something the salesperson failed to capitalize on. As a result, enthusiasm turned to indifference, and ultimately to hostility.

  • He interrupted the customer — and did so repeatedly. When you interrupt someone, you are, in effect, telling him, “What you''re saying might be important, but what I have to say is more important.” Don''t do it!

  • He was following some sort of script that called for obtaining certain specific information about prospective accounts. Obtaining such information is a necessary part of the selling process, but success depends on how you obtain it. Slavish adherence to a script at the expense of the customer''s self image just about guarantees rejection.

  • He believed that he should waste no time with nondecision makers. And yet, how many of these people represent key influences on purchasing decisions? (The customer even tried to tell him that he was a member of the software development committee.)

  • He belittled the customer by indirectly, and not very subtly ignoring him, concentrating instead on obtaining access to the person he thought was the real customer, the approval authority.

There are more examples, but these suffice to make our point. As stated above, the salesperson, by means of a brief telephone conversation, converted enthusiasm and interest into sheer hostility. In doing so, he lost an excellent sales opportunity.

There''s nothing wrong with being aggressive; in fact, it''s one of the successful salesperson''s most valuable attributes. But internal aggressiveness must be directed toward the attainment of your long-range objectives. Don''t sacrifice this objective — the establishment of a long-term favorable business partnership — on the altar of seemingly attractive, and often counterproductive, short-term goals.

Get organized

Successful salespeople realize that planning without organization means little. If you are personally organized, you will have more time to approach and call on prospects in addition to handling your other responsibilities. You should maintain organized records on current accounts and prospects. You need to keep track of promises made and fulfilled, needs and problems identified, and people seen or spoken to. Good personal organization will also permit you to react quickly to requests and to coordinate the corporate resources needed to convert prospects into satisfied customers.

If you are not organized, do something about it. You can consult a colleague who seems to have his act together and see how he organizes his work. Then do the same. Or you can refer to any one of a number of excellent books designed specifically to help salespeople improve their organization skills. There is really no excuse for personal disorganization since it is a problem that anyone can correct easily and quickly…if he or she wants to.

Sell inside

Successful salespeople know they can''t do it all themselves. Prospecting and converting prospects to customers requires the assistance and willing cooperation of others within your company. You need to encourage your colleagues in other functions to be alert to potential customers and to pass along this information in a timely manner.

You should follow up on all leads promptly and always provide feedback — especially positive feedback — to those who generated them. You need to ensure that your “inside” people are aware of the amount of potential business a good prospect represents. They need to realize, too, that converting a prospect to a long-term satisfied customer is necessarily a team effort demanding empathy, attention to detail and a commitment to customer satisfaction by all involved. Last, you must never forget to personally thank those whose supportive efforts resulted in the creation of a new customer.

Prospecting is an important part of your work as a salesperson, but it must be followed by good, old-fashioned selling. Establish contact, penetrate the account, determine problems and needs, develop proposals to address these needs, overcome the prospect''s objections and close the sale.

CUSTOMER PROFILE CHECK LIST

Salespeople usually retrace every step when they lose sales, but too often they don''t explore what happened when they close sales. They bask in the comforts of success. After all, a professional should always identify and make a written record of what was done that produced a sale.

But, it''s dangerous to depend solely upon your ability to remember what you did — and what actions you avoided. A written record will help salespeople when they run into a selling situation that has all the markings of a previous successful sale in which they overcame similar obstacles. An account profile can come in handy to review what went right in successful sales situations.

Not reviewing successful sales situations happens all the time. One company that I worked for almost never examined successful sales. Worse yet, if a selling situation was wracked with problems, there were no written records made of the reasons for those less than-satisfactory results. As a result, the same errors were made again.

Your objective is to help customers avoid potential problems and to help solve existing ones. You have a better chance of making this happen when you know — with the help of records — as much as possible about each account.

This checklist will help you look at accounts from several angles so that you can better assess where you went right, where you went wrong and be better prepared for next time.

  • List key influences on the buying decision and their attitude toward your company.

  • Does the account purchase from other areas of your company? If so, who made the selling contact?

  • Do any of the account''s buying influences have personal relationships with any of your other employees? If so, who are those buying influences?

  • Who are the employees in your company that the buying influences know?

  • What type of business is the account engaged in?

  • What is the account''s estimated annual purchases (from all sources) of the product you sell to them?

  • Of the amount listed above, how much have you sold them in the last five years?

  • What do you feel will be the greatest obstacle to achieving this goal?

  • Have you had problems with this account? If so, what has been the nature of the problem or (problems) and how recently have the problems occurred?

  • Have there been personality conflicts? If so, whom did it involve? Describe the conflict.

  • Do they use a buying committee?

  • Does the primary buying contact require approvals? If so, from whom?

  • What is the customer''s attitude toward being supplied entertainment? Demand it? Expect it? Accept it? Opposed to it?

  • What type of entertainment is most highly regarded by the primary contact?

  • What is their attitude toward receipt of gifts? Expect gifts? Is there a company policy that prohibits gifts?

  • If there is a company policy against accepting gifts, is it enforced? Does this policy include gifts such as pens and calendars?

  • Does the customer have problems that you are competent to provide assistance? Packaging? Office or plant methods? Engineering? Finance? Other?

  • What is the key determinant in their buying decision? Quality of product or service? Speedy shipment? Discount offered? Price? Post-sale service? Other?

  • What evidence supports your answer to the previous question?

  • In what area of your performance do you feel you can do a better job?

  • How do you regard the need of any changes in the level of service provided this account? Urgent? Needs prompt attention?

  • Do you feel this account now requires a visit or visits from executives of your company? Why? Who should call on them?

  • Does the customer have plans for expansion? If so, how much additional business can it potentially represent for us? When will the impact of the expansion be felt by our company?

  • Does the customer plan to merge with or acquire other companies?

  • Does the customer plan on adding products to the product line? If yes, what are they, and do they represent additional business to you or to other parts of the company?

  • List the primary buying contact''s specific buying days or hours.

  • Have you read a credit report on this account? What is the account''s credit rating?

  • What is the extent of the technical knowledge of your products possessed by the primary buying contact? Extensive? Moderate? Limited? None? If less than moderate, can you get technical information to people in the organization that can influence the primary buying motive? If not, what is the problem?

  • What should be your company''s long-range objectives for this account (include date and give justification for estimate)?

  • What is your goal for this year with the customer?

  • Does your company provide other products or services that the account buys from other sources? Which of these products or services should you attempt to sell?

  • Can you call on this account as often as desirable? If not, what prevents you from doing this? How much more business could be obtained if it were possible to service this account more frequently?

  • If you are losing business, or lost the last order, what do you believe are the reasons?

  • Looking to the future, what changes would occur that could affect your position with this account and what actions, if any, should you be considering?

  • Who are your competitors? What are the key strengths and weaknesses of each competitor?

PROSPECTING NUGGETS

Here''s a recap of some highlights from the first three parts of this series.

  • If you''re a salesperson, prospecting for new business is a major aspect of your job, whether or not you recognize it as such.

  • Always be on the lookout for leads.

  • Don''t be random; plan your prospecting.

  • Set priorities according to likelihood of a “hit,” using these categories:

    • Current customers
    • Former customers
    • Interested (active) prospects
    • Disinterested prospects
    • Unknown prospects
  • Address the special needs of each group of prospects.

  • Define a hierarchy or prospects according to the following criteria:

    • Short and long term dollar potential
    • Needs you can satisfy
    • Prospect''s relationship with your competition
    • Your knowledge of the prospect
    • Your access to the prospect''s decision-makers