The Sales Pro’s Guide to Sales Prospecting
Sales prospecting is vital to the success of any sales organization. Simply learning how to find, approach and engage new customers is at the heart of being able to meet and exceed your sales goals.
Why Is Sales Prospecting More Important Than Ever?
Selling has become increasingly competitive. Only 60% of sales teams and reps hit their annual quotas in recent years, and 69% of sales professionals agree their job is harder now than it was in 2021.
Sales performance has suffered because the landscape is evolving for both buyers and sellers. Buying and selling preferences are changing — and they aren’t always compatible.
In terms of buying behaviors, we’re seeing an increased preference for self-service and digital interactions along with general uncertainty and hesitancy (often leading to inertia or sticking with the status quo) when it comes to the purchasing decision.
Meanwhile, sales teams are grappling with lower quality leads, prolonged sales cycles and generational shifts that are making selling more challenging. According to research by Gartner, Millennials and Gen Xers are far more skeptical of the claims of sales representatives than Baby Boomers, with both Gen Z and Millennials preferring to have no interaction with sales representatives at all.
In addition to making the sales environment more challenging, these variables have made the competition to win new customers that much fiercer. They’ve also put new pressure on salespeople to hone their prospecting skills and redouble their efforts so they can turn effective sales prospecting into their success differentiator.
Research shows there is a direct correlation between a salesperson’s ability to consistently hit their targets and their prospecting success. Despite this connection between sales performance and prospecting, most salespeople simply aren’t prospecting enough. In fact, according to Salesforce, salespeople spend less than 9% of their time prospecting.
With seemingly limitless avenues to explore in pursuit of new business, it’s easy to become overwhelmed when faced with the idea of prospecting. And while it is challenging, salespeople who have the right mindset and approach will be able to connect and meaningfully engage with new prospects.
What is Sales Prospecting?
At Integrity Solutions, we define prospecting as a process of proactively identifying organizations and individuals whose problems you can help solve. Despite the barriers presented by new digital culture, 82% of prospects say they still accept meetings with salespeople who reach out to them. While buyers and their behaviors may have changed, customers still have problems that are better solved through collaboration with a knowledgeable salesperson.
After all, people buy experiences, not products, and prospecting has to always keep that in mind. Buyers need information — but not the basic, self-serving “features and benefits” and customer logos and testimonials information that is now so accessible online and on social forums. They control the sales funnel to a greater extent than ever, but the salesperson still plays a vital role, one that the digital experience simply can’t replicate.
This is why salespeople need to be able to establish trust and rapport immediately with buyers and have deep knowledge of their market as well as the industry and individual needs of their customers. In addition to understanding their buyer’s business and unique challenges, they have to tailor their messaging accordingly.
Whether you’re selling B2B or B2C, focused prospecting is about creating the connections necessary to drive your sales. Against the backdrop of an increasingly competitive sales landscape, more complex buying processes and limited time, sales teams have to be laser focused on prospecting strategies and tactics with the highest return on investment. By prioritizing this approach to prospecting, your salespeople will be more effective and efficient and filling their pipelines with viable opportunities that can turn into future business.
Psychological Barriers to Sales Prospecting
If we know prospecting can fuel sales success, why do so few salespeople make it a priority? There are a variety of psychological barriers, emotional challenges and unconscious beliefs that can inhibit prospecting activity or lead to avoidance behaviors. Research shows there are over 55 self-limiting narratives that can create psychological barriers to prospecting.
For instance, approximately 59% of salespeople report a fear of not being liked. Other common limiting beliefs include:
- thinking it’s impolite to talk about money
- feeling unqualified or lacking the experience to get an audience with senior leaders or decision makers”
- Striving for perfection vs. progress
These and other beliefs translate to ineffective sales behaviors, including a salesperson’s reluctance to have the conversations they know are required to get the desired results. This is why it takes more than just process to ensure prospecting effectiveness. Because mindset plays a significant role in what a salesperson is willing to do, training has to address these potential barriers and managers must be able to coach to the issues as well.
Prospecting is a long game, and too many salespeople are looking instead for the quick hit or the easy route (which simply doesn’t exist). Salespeople need to candidly reflect on their approach to prospecting by answering some hard questions:
● What’s your email-to-phone-calls ratio? Are you strictly using email because it’s easier to hide behind and churn out activity? When was the last time you actually physically mailed something to a prospect?
● Are you committing time to leveraging social media to grow your personal brand, add value to your connections and stay consistently visible? As little as 15-20 minutes a week on social media can yield returns.
● How effective is your prospecting mix and approach? Use the equation of # of opportunities/# of touches to evaluate your “prospecting efficiency score”. It’s important to review the quality of the touches, not just the quantity, and get others’ opinions as well. Every prospecting touch must answer for the recipient: (a) why am I special to you, (b) why are you contacting me, (c) who are you, and (d) what do you want me to do?
Salespeople also have to be able to help the customer get over their own psychological barriers, because you’re asking someone to make a change, and that implies risk. In most cases, the biggest competitor won’t be another external organization; it will be inertia or the status quo. And bad prospecting with low-value, uncompelling messages will keep the prospect with what they know and are already comfortable with, even if it’s not the ideal solution.
To overcome this, one of the things a salesperson has to convey during prospecting is that the customer won’t regret the decision to go with you and that the solution you’re proposing will do what you say it will do, both in terms of features and outcomes. This is how you move from being a solution to being the solution. It’s a very tight, narrow path to navigate.
The Sales Prospecting Mindset: 4 Principles to Transform Your Approach
Changing mindsets is one of the most significant steps you can take to get more return from your prospecting efforts. Here are four mindset principles to transform the prospecting approach:
- Prospecting is an investment in success. If you’re not prospecting, you’re jeopardizing your ability to hit your targets. While you may not see immediate returns on your investments, these activities are foundational to future success. Diligently protect the time in your calendar to prospect on a weekly basis, and apply a structured approach.
- Prospecting is about making connections – not selling. Take the pressure off! Prospecting is a part of the broader sales process. Your goal within the prospecting stage is not to sell; rather it is to create enough connection and interest to begin building a relationship. Remember: people still buy from people, so you need to inject yourself into the equation.
- Prospecting requires conviction. You need to have conviction in your solutions, and the value you are bringing to the market. You must be able to clearly and simply articulate that value in a way that resonates with different audiences. This means having intimate knowledge of your solutions and all associated ROI. This is critical in helping to connect real people to your solutions.
- Prospecting requires market knowledge. You need to do your homework. Period. There’s no getting around it. To create connections, companies and clients need to know that you understand (really understand) their needs and pain points. To be able to demonstrate this you need to not only understand your target audience, but their audience as well. You need to know who your customer’s customer is. What do they care about? This information is critical to approaching prospecting with confidence.
The Skillset Essential to Sales Prospecting Success
We have to connect mindset to skillset in order to get down to doing the work of prospecting! Data and information about potential clients and customers is at your fingertips. In fact, all of that information can be overwhelming and actually distract from the process of prospecting.
It’s essential to develop a methodological approach to prospecting so that you can use your time more effectively and see greater returns on your efforts.
Start by identifying your Ideal Customer (or Company) Profiles (ICP):
- Think about your current most successful current customers. How would you describe their profile(s)?
- Consider industry, size of the organization, role/seniority, etc. Where do you play well? And where do you not.
- How well do these prospects align with your ICPs?
- How many variables does each prospect share with your ICP?
- Be very clear and honest about how well-aligned your prospect list is with your ICP. This is an area that requires significant thought and effort because everything else cascades from it.
Define your Prospecting Communication Strategy
While you likely use many prospecting strategies, it’s important to note that the most effective way to prospect is through a mix of emails and calls, so these are the techniques you should rely on most. Research shows 49% of buyers prefer to connect with sellers over the phone, and when it comes to the C- and VP-level, this number actually jumps to 57%.
Based on what we know about connection, you should prioritize existing clients (for upselling and cross selling purposes), past clients and potential referral partners.
Whether you are emailing, cold calling or connecting with a prospect at a conference, once you have identified a good target, your ability to convert that prospect now relies on your ability to communicate well.
Some core communication guidelines will support your ability to prospect well, no matter the medium.
Know your audience.
This is the #1 rule of effective communication. You must keep your customer or client top of mind — their priorities, pain points, metrics, goals, industry trends that are helping or hindering them, etc. In initial communications, be brief and build trust by focusing on them and how they define success. Think about what’s important to your audience. It’s not the features and benefits of your products; it’s the outcomes you can help achieve for them and the emotions that drive their decisions. Be clear about why you are connecting, and outline how you can help in a single sentence.
You may need to be creative in capturing your prospect’s attention. The level of creativity you apply should align with what you believe will resonate with them. That said, don’t underestimate the power of erring on the side of creativity.
Use conversational language.
Remember prospecting isn’t about selling — not yet. It’s about creating enough connection and interest to begin building a relationship. Your language should drive connection, so be conversational. Say out loud what you have written. Does it sound like you? Authentic? Don’t write it if it’s not how you would say it.
Define your cadence.
Cadence is both art and science. It’s determined by several factors, including the type of sale and intuition. There are 4 elements of a sales cadence:
- Attempts: The total number of touches made. Aim for three, with a maximum of six. This doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning your target if it is a company, but it does mean finding another prospect there. It can be difficult to walk away from a prospect after investing time and energy due to the sunk cost fallacy, but it’s important to be able to refocus efforts on greener pastures.
- Media: The type of communication methods used. Whatever cadence you choose, vary the media and messages. Using three types of communication has a 165.9% higher success rate than just one type.
- Duration: The time between the first and last attempt. Although the average duration between attempts is 21 days, aim for 12. Going past the optimal durations is not necessarily bad, just be aware of moving past the point of diminishing returns.
- Spacing: The time gap between contact attempts. The optimal spacing is up to two days between attempts. This gives prospects time to breathe in between conversations — but not forget you.
What’s great about effective prospecting is that it should not only lead to more sales opportunities and a more robust pipeline, it can and should be fun, too. Using unconventional and creative approaches to prospecting, letting your personality shine, even making a prospect laugh along the way will make you more memorable, and it will almost always be more effective than scripted or bland sales-speak.
As Ryan O’Hara says, “Everyone acts like prospecting is binary — there’s sending and not sending. It isn’t. It’s more than that. It’s sending WELL vs. not sending well.” Ultimately, prospecting is about authenticity, humility and listening, wrapped in empathy. The goal is to make it easy for the customer to find you valuable and credible.
The Role of Social Selling in Prospecting
In terms of outreach channels, most salespeople recognize that social selling is an increasingly important tool in the prospecting toolbox — but simply having a LinkedIn profile doesn’t mean you’re engaged in social selling. You have to be authentic and put yourself out there in non-self-serving ways. Follow target companies and their key leaders on LinkedIn. Comment on their posts and contribute additional insights. Share links to related, interesting articles rather than just posting your own company’s content.
As social selling expert Sam McKenna puts it, “Your LinkedIn network is your net worth.” LinkedIn can be much more successful than cold email outreach, but you have to use it effectively. Salespeople who use platforms like LinkedIn right are adding value and bringing perspectives with no strings attached. They aren’t expecting an immediate, direct return for what they’re giving. They’re also proactively reaching out to their network to build a portfolio of recommendations, because they know their prospects will inevitably be checking out their profile.
In fact, even the term ‘social selling’ is outdated in many ways because it’s simply how selling is done today. This is what modern selling is, and the majority of salespeople aren’t leveraging social media and social selling tools correctly or consistently. The ones who are, though, have a distinct advantage.
They recognize that people are looking for more than a carefully constructed prospecting email sequence. Buying is individualistic now, which means sellers need to embrace the artistry and humanity of social selling.
Prospecting and Meeting Customer Needs
Buyers are constantly self-educating and getting far down the buying path before ever engaging with a salesperson. Part of that is their overall brand experience and part is the messages they’ve been receiving through prospecting. Even if they are not responding, they’re often reading/listening and forming very lasting opinions.
So what do they want when they do actually engage with a salesperson? According to a 2022 Salesforce study, 73% of buyers expect sellers to “understand [their] unique needs and expectations” and use this knowledge to inform tailored messaging and solutions. In other words, the more knowledge a salesperson has about a prospect the better chance of converting them to a lead.
Existing knowledge or access to insider knowledge is ideal. This includes things like:
- Priorities/pain points and solutions to those pain points
- Industry research, trends and their potential impact
- Competitive knowledge
- Decision makers and/or influencers
- Recent organizational changes or disruptions
- Typical objections to overcome
- Where they source their information (publications, news sources, industry associations, podcasts, industry experts)/what influences their thinking
- New products/services being introduced
- Their customer’s customers’ needs and challenges
The Importance of Brand on Prospecting Efforts
Brand is the organization’s promise to the market, and the salesperson is the personification of that. How the salesperson “shows up in the room” matters. Salespeople have to buy into the brand they represent because buyers will pick up on if they don’t. In other words, salespeople are brand ambassadors, and the way they prospect — the promises they make, how they communicate, the degree to which they come across as experts, show empathy — will be a reflection of the brand itself.
Your personal and company brand are continually being built up — or eroded — with every experience and exchange with a prospect. Cohesion with the company brand and personal brand of the salesperson is where it all comes together. The salesperson is the final, physical manifestation of the brand that will hopefully translate into a deal at a future point in time. In that sense, brand and prospecting are the fertilizer for growing the sales funnel. They have to be cultivated every day, not just when you feel like it.
If they’re not humble, salespeople can mistake hearing what their customers are telling them in the here and now as the only truth. This is why curiosity is such an important trait, especially in complex sales: Who else is involved? What do they care about? What are their goals? Adapt your prospecting approach and messaging accordingly. Leverage marketing content about what’s coming down the road to convey what is coming and will be important to the customer.
A positive, consistent brand helps break down barriers and allows you to be seen as an authoritative, consultative resource. Through repeated exposure and recognition, prospects will gain familiarity and validation that will remove some of the perceived risk. That will open up more doors for you to have more substantive conversations.
Removing Roadblocks to Getting Referrals
If you want to go back to customers later and ask for referrals, then continuously cultivating your brand and elevating it is critical. The customer does not want to put someone they know in a bad or awkward situation.
And you should be going back for those referrals. Research shows that referrals are THE most underutilized source in prospecting, with only 11% of salespeople regularly asking for them.
The psychological barriers to prospecting are even further amplified when it comes to referrals. The stakes are higher since a relationship exists and, therefore, so do the potential risks of damaging it. Common barriers to asking for referrals include not wanting to:
- pressure the customer
- put them in an awkward position
- assume a stronger connection than actually exists
While these fears are understandable, data shows that over 90% of customers are willing to provide referrals. If salespeople are not consistently asking for referrals, they might have subconscious limiting beliefs related to confidence, belief in product or other issues.
To feel more confident in asking for a referral, focus on crafting a communication that balances the health of the connection with the associated ask. Don’t ask the customer to do the work for you by asking vague questions about who they can refer you to. Be proactive and make a list of 10-12 customers who know what it’s like to work with you and the difference that you’ve made. Ask their permission to look through their LinkedIn network for 12-15 people who might have a need you can help them with. Then get specific about asking if there are 2 or 3 they might know well enough that they’d broker an introduction.
We believe emails are the best channel because an email doesn’t put your referrer on the spot; they can have a moment of reflection. With email, you can also put together key points in writing for your referrer to copy in an introduction. And email allows you an opportunity to ensure you’ve done your homework.
If your referrer/customer doesn’t feel they have a strong enough connection to offer a direct referral, ask if you can reference the work you have done with them in a cold email or call directly to the prospect.
Structural Barriers to Sales Prospecting
Prospecting doesn’t succeed in a vacuum. Structural barriers are those that exist within systems or processes or lack thereof. They can be described as logical challenges that create barriers to prospecting. Consider whether your organization is set up to support or inhibit effective prospecting.
Common structural challenges include:
- Failure to include prospecting in a CRM-supported sales process
- An overwhelming number of sales tools
- Over-reliance on marketing-generated leads (i.e., wanting more opportunities handed to you when they’re already on “second base”)
- “Not enough time in the day.” Similar to the “no time for coaching” excuse, this is the ultimate avoidance excuse since we make time for what we value and feel confident we can do. The root cause is structural — either a lack of accountability, skill, connection to purpose, confidence, coaching or all of the above.
The Power of Creating Connections
While knowledge and information are helpful in influencing the prospect, connection offers exponential power. Where there is a connection — any personal or professional connection — there is a higher likelihood for a lead.
Studies consistently show that leveraging connections is, by far, the most effective way to generate new business. In fact, 73% of executives prefer to work with sales professionals referred by someone they know. Additionally, B2B referrals have a 70% higher conversion rate than non-referrals and a 69% faster close time. In short, customers found through connection have a higher win rate, a higher retention rate and are proven to bring more value to business.
In a heightened competitive environment and a much more challenging sales landscape, prospecting has never been more important to sales performance. Yet very few salespeople are taking advantage of this critical success driver. While there are both psychological and structural reasons for this, salespeople who shift their perspective and approach will overcome these barriers, develop strong networks and mutually beneficial relationships, and consistently outperform the rest. These tools will support you in connecting a new prospecting mindset and skillset to transform the way your prospect.
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