Finding Gold

Edition: August 2007 - Vol 15 Number 08
Article#: 2736
Author: John Graham

Prospecting for new business should be easy. With more than 1 million Google entries on the subject, there should certainly be more than enough advice available to make anyone selling anything a great success.

If that’s true, then why is prospecting the most daunting task every salesperson faces? Why do they fight over leads and plead with their employers to get them more?

There are more than 1 million Google entries for just one reason: prospecting is incredibly difficult — as every salesperson can attest. The Google list grows longer by the day because none of those hundreds of thousands of sure-fire, “you can’t miss if you use our system” prospecting solutions don’t work and salespeople keep hunting for the “silver bullet.”

The prospecting nonsense is endless. Here are a few examples:

• “Prospecting is the easiest path to new sales,” says the president of a market research firm, who goes on to suggest these tactics: “Sales reps should focus their efforts,” determine “which SIC codes match a distributor’s product mix,” and “pre-qualify the best prospects.” How do you do all that? Easy. Hire his company. Then sit back and watch the orders pour in.

• Since prospecting can be so daunting for salespeople, “magic wand” solutions are incredibly appealing. Where human beings fail, software is the answer. One prospect software company claims that their product “delivers an on-demand sales prospecting and lead generation service for sales and marketing professionals looking to quickly identify prospects and gain access to buyers.” The stock in that company must be through the roof!

• “Prospecting programs can help new insurance agents learn how to develop new customers and use their time more efficiently. Programs can be used to teach agents how to find prospects, how to make contacts and how to close a sale. “Agents who use the programs for several years and develop some experience can improve their closing rate by 300 percent,” claims one author, the group manager for a software company. With so much going for them, why do so few salespeople make it in insurance? There’s one answer: most have trouble with prospecting!

• A sales training professional points out the importance of prospecting and indicates that “appointment scheduling, database management, territory management, and prospect rating” are the keys to prospecting success. That’s right, but why can’t most salespeople make it happen?

• Another consultant makes prospecting easy with his 10 tips: Make an appointment with yourself to prospect one hour a day, make as many calls as possible, make the calls brief, be prepared with a list of names before you start, work without interruption, consider prospecting during off-peak hours, vary your phone times, be organized, see the end before you begin and don’t stop.

Every salesperson wants more sales, and there’s no absence of advice on how to prospect. Then why do only about 18 percent of salespeople meet their goals if it’s so easy? Is the problem obstinate salespeople or ineffective sales management? The answer is neither.

The truth is that what passes for prospecting is nothing more than dialing for dollars. No matter what else they may recommend, the consultants’ advice for success focuses on the telephone. In other words, make enough calls and you’ll get lucky. That is the prospecting plan. Getting on the phone isn’t prospecting. It’s dialing for dollars that has about the same chance of winning as the lottery or getting lucky in Las Vegas.

If anything, those who prey upon the prospecting plight of salespeople who are trying to make it should be condemned to survive in sales by following their own advice.

Prospecting principles

If you prospect with the correct principles, you get the desired results. Here are five prospecting principles:

1. Prospecting today is not a quick fix for making the next sale. Ignoring or attempting to circumvent this first principle leads to failure. It’s essential to understand that the buyer is in charge of the sale, not the salesperson. The harder the salesperson pushes for the sale, the more the buyer pushes back. In this process, even quality prospects run for cover.

For example, salespeople tell marketing professionals, “Our radio station is just right for your client. It’s great exposure ….” The message is the same no matter what the advertising venue. It’s the best way not to get an appointment and it applies to every field of sales.

2. Prospects will not tolerate being told; they want to learn. Finally, companies have figured out that one of the primary objectives of marketing is to drive prospects to their Web sites. Prospects look for venues where they can be informed. The corollary is equally pertinent: if your Web site is all about your company, prospects will ignore it.

More companies recognize that the 30-second TV spot is too brief to get their message across and a strategy change is necessary. “The Super Bowl has begotten the Super Web, says USA Today (Feb. 2, 2007). “Multitasking viewers start before the game ends: As the fourth quarter was winding down last year, the 22 Super Bowl advertisers with major Web sites already were drawing 679 to 782 visitors a minute, according to Akamai Technologies, an Internet traffic specialty firm.”

Get them to the Web site. If they connect with your message, you have prospects who will see you out.

3. Focus on finding the right prospects. Simply put, prospects must come before prospecting. It seems so obvious, but most salespeople spend their time chasing would-be prospects that don’t know them and have no interest in what they’re selling. The key is spending time determining exactly who fits the profile of what you want to sell and then building the prospect database.

4. Create ways for prospects to approach you. Reaching out to prospects is only half the prospecting task. New York-based License Monitor, a technology company, had spent a couple of years attempting to penetrate the property and casualty agents in New York State. In the end, success was extremely limited.

Then, its marketing counsel suggested a different approach, starting with identifying a group of “most likely” agents. An ongoing direct mail campaign was soon initiated, along with a special Web site for insurance agents and an ad campaign in two insurance publications. Each direct mail package included a faxback form, offering a series of response options.

It worked. Each response was treated as a lead, followed up with care. True prospects are those who respond to your invitation. The recipients also have the option of visiting the special Web site or calling an 800 number.

5. Cultivate continuously. The major weakness in most all prospecting is the ill-conceived belief that prospecting is an event, rather than a process. Make a call and if there’s a negative response, then cross the name off the list.

Even though this is how most salespeople behave, they are the first to let it be known that in sales it’s the “relationship” that counts. The purpose of continuous cultivation is to build that relationship, something that salespeople have difficulty doing when they’re faced with being blocked from direct contact.

The benefits of a prospecting plan

Objectives are reached by having a plan, working it, making revisions and staying on it. A plan is not an impulsive quick fix. That includes prospecting. ZINK, the successor company to Polaroid, the inventor of instant photography, gathered a number of former Polaroid engineers who came up with a pocket-sized device for making instant prints of digital photos.

Why? Do consumers want prints today? The answer is no. Digital photos are e-mailed, uploaded to MySpace or YouTube or sent to cell phones. But they are not being made into prints. While the former Polaroid engineers may want to relive the glories of the 1970s, that day is gone.

It’s the same with salespeople who want to make the contact with the prospect to make the sale or get an appointment. But that’s gone, too. Auto dealers report that those who come through their doors are there because they’ve done their research on the Internet and are now ready to buy. That’s the prospecting process that works.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He is the author of “The New Magnet Marketing” and “Break the Rules Selling,” writes for a variety of business publications, and speaks on business, marketing and sales topics for company and association meetings. He is the winner of an APEX Grand Award in writing and the only two-time recipient of the Door & Hardware Institute’s Ryan Award in Business Writing. He can be contacted at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170 (617) 328-0069; fax (617)471-1504); The company’s Web site is