Sales Prospecting Techniques that work in the 21st Century

Sales Prospecting Techniques are written about all the time – unfortunately most of what’s said is either outdated or simply wrong. Here is an example of what one famous sales trainer recently wrote,

“When I am working with my coaching clients I find that a lack of consistent sales is caused by a lack of consistent prospecting. A failure to prospect on a regular basis is what causes the feast and famine syndrome of sellers, why one month they earn a great commission check and the next they don’t.”

Sounds right doesn’t it? But is it really? Is it really that simple? Let’s look at the solutions this trainer recommended:

  • Cold calling
  • Direct mail Fax blast (is that even legal?)
  • Voice mails
  • Regular email newsletters
  • Monthly printed newsletters
  • Customer ‘reactivation’ calls
  • Face-to-face door knocking
  • Seminars
  • Sending a catalog of your product listing to your customers
  • Offering a free white paper
  • Website lead generation
  • Offering a free trial
  • Radio, TV, Newspaper, Online, Magazine Advertising

How many of those sales prospecting techniques have worked for you? How many of them work for anyone? In fact how many of them can a customer facing salesperson actually execute on? Advertising? Really. Building a website or holding a seminar? With the demands to hit your numbers, endless paperwork, customer support and the work closing current opportunities do you have time to write a white paper or arrange a conference? This is the kind of sales prospecting techniques that get told to sales people as legitimate advice. And they are all, well, err, how can I put it nicely – nonsense.

Being ineffective is only part of problem. Not only is the advice counterproductive but it is demotivating. You feel guilty because you don’t have time to do them but think you should. Worse – they make you feel bad if you’re actually doing them but not getting much in the way of results. In short you blame yourself because your company…

  • Doesn’t have an offering that excites the market
  • Doesn’t provide you enough sales ready leads
  • Expects results and only offers cold calling as your sales prospecting technique

In that entire list of prospecting activities there are only a few that a salesperson can actually do, like cold calling and door knocking. Most, like advertising, website building, and product trials are the marketing department’s job. Of the remaining activities a sales people can actually perform the question becomes are they effective? Sure they keep people busy. Sure some results trickle in – even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then, but do they really work? In a world of voice mail, a delete button on every keyboard and with people who are frazzled, over-worked, over-messaged and over-stressed do these sales prospecting techniques produce substantial results?

In my experience that sales trainer wants to blame the lack of leads on the salesperson. Many Sales Managers do the same, ranting at their team “you’re not cold calling enough.” Is the problem really in the salesperson or in the outdated sales prospecting techniques foisted upon us as legitimate prospecting methods?

It is time to stop the insanity. Let’s accept that our companies are not going to generate enough sales ready leads for us to sell into. That doesn’t mean that we have to chase after every piece of bad business or continue on the treadmill of bad sales prospecting techniques. We have to find out what works for today’s buyers – you know those that do business in the 21st Century, not 100 years ago when many of these methods were first developed.

No Question: Sales Prospecting is a key Element of Sales success

There is some truth in the conventional wisdom about lead generation. If you don’t have someone to sell to you won’t win business. Selling starts with a lead. Sales won’t happen unless you first engage with prospects. Sales people that actively prospect every day will always outperform those who just sit and wait. If a salesperson simply sits at their desk hoping the phone will ring they won’t be very successful. I have never met a wealthy passive salesperson. I have met plenty of wealthy sales people who aggressively prospect using strategies and messages that buyers are receptive too.

If sales prospecting and lead generation is so important why is it that most salespeople don’t do it? Years ago famous sales trainer and world class marketer Dan Kennedy wrote,

“It’s been my observation that the weakest link in the selling chain for most salespeople is prospecting. Most people can do at least an adequate job of presenting their products or services, if there’s a reasonably interested prospect in front of them. But most of the salespeople I’ve encountered simply hate prospecting. Consequently, they avoid it, both consciously and unconsciously, and do it only when the dire necessity of imminent starvation pushes them to do it. And then they do it poorly.”

There is no question that to get more business you have to have a full pipeline of opportunities and that they are created by effective sales prospecting techniques. The challenge is prospecting is hard and, for many people, a daunting task. The simple fact is few salespeople like prospecting. And in today’s hyper-competitive market and down economy prospects aren’t tripping over themselves to see us. Truth it, no matter who I talk to the biggest complaint is just getting in the prospect’s door. We have to work to get leads, hard and consistently, so we can close sales consistently. After all, even if you’ve mastered all the questioning, closing and objection handling techniques in the world, you must have someone to sell to. If you don’t have any prospects to use your selling skills with nothing else will matter.

Top sellers know that prospecting is the key to success, to making quota, and cashing large commission checks. I have never met a top performer where prospecting isn’t central to their sales activities. However top guns, the rainmakers of selling, are not cold calling or knocking on doors uninvited. They have discovered what methods work and then consistently execute on them.

Sales Prospecting Techniques that Work in the 21st Century

No doubt cold calling and the other strategies on that list worked years ago. That explains why they became so popular and are still promoted. Problem is that buyers have changed with technology and the times while most of us in sales haven’t. Voice mail neuters cold calling. Prospects keep their finger on the delete key while reading their email. Technology has become a barrier to sales instead of the boon it was meant to be.

Sales people are no longer the principle source of buyer’s information and so they’re ignored, even shunned until a price or quote is needed. We’ve put our product information all over the web, along with white papers, free newsletters and all kind of information customers use to find out about our products and services instead of us. Google is now their principle source of information. Salespeople no longer have the reason (or excuse) of providing timely industry and product updates to get a meeting with a prospect or client. The effects of this information glut has been most damaging to lead generation.

So what is to be done? The answer is found, as with the solutions for most of selling’s challenges – by asking our prospects and clients. Recently several research firms have done just that. The results are very revealing. Over 80% of prospects now use 5 principles methods to learn about the companies and salespeople they want to buy from. These 5 sources are…

  • Colleague’s referral
  • Existing vendor recommendations
  • Personal recognition
  • In-person seminar
  • An introduction at a conference or presentation

Prospects now use other people to find the product and services they need, along with the companies and salespeople selling them. Over-whelmed, over-worked and over-scheduled prospects block out everything but the most urgent messages, emails, and telephone calls. When they need something they call someone they trust or use their own personal contacts. Sales lead generation is about who you know (and who knows you), not frantically trying to connect with only 8% of the people who are buying this quarter.

That people use other people to find suppliers shows how out of sync our sales prospecting techniques are with the way leads are actually generated. Buyers actually find salespeople and companies to purchase from by referrals, recognition, recommendations, and personal contacts.

The lack personal contact and recognition explains why cold calling, direct marketing and most other methods being used today are so ineffective. Individuals get an estimated 3,800 marketing messages every day. They erect barriers to keep additional sales efforts away from them – voice mail, private email addresses and gatekeepers. When they want to find a supplier they contact a peer or ask for advice from colleagues. You must become known in the circles your buyers consult with. Today effective sales prospecting techniques are those that get referrals, establish industry status and develop the salesperson’s visibility with his target market. Let me give you an example of just how powerful this idea is.

sales prospecting techniquesIf Oprah Winfrey called you would you take the call or let it go to voice mail? If the governor of your state called would you meet with him or her? What about a famous celebrity or an established leader, like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet? Would you meet with them no matter how inconvenient? Most probably. Why? Because they command respect and are known by you. They are people you desire to meet. Of course the majority of us are not going to become world famous or command national attention. We don’t have to. We simply have to be known by the people we want to meet and want to do business with. So the only question left is how can you become a person that others want to meet – especially the buyers and prospects in your industry, territory and market? The great news is that this isn’t that difficult. You simply have to learn how to…

  • Determine who is important in your territory and market
  • Find ways of meeting those people through other people and by networking
  • Take advantage of the meetings and presentations you attend by having a clear objective, a plan and research prior to the event
  • Provide value to those you meet so that they want a relationship with you
  • Consistently follow up and stay in contact with the important people and influencers in your market

Now you may be thinking: hey isn’t that called referral marketing or networking? Yes and no. Open most books that even bother talking about referral marketing and what you get a lesson on is how to get a few arbitrary names out of your customers. “Joe, you’re happy with my services aren’t you? Know anyone else that you can refer me to?” That isn’t referral marketing. Neither is showing up at a meeting and passing out business cards considered networking. We need a connection process, a systematic and effective set of sales prospecting techniques that get us involved, interconnected and top of mind with the influencers and prospects that can send business our way.

At the last training meeting I held I asked salespeople to write down their last 10 sales and the source those sales came from. I then asked them by a show of hands how many had gotten those leads by referral or recommendation from someone who knew them. Over 80% of the attendees raised their hands. I then asked them to make a list of the top 5 sales prospecting techniques they had actively performed in the past month. When I asked the crowd how many people had referral prospecting on that second list less than 15% of people raised their hands. See why we’re failing at lead generation? We know what works but don’t consistently act on that knowledge. We also don’t have a process or a system in place to lead generate in the way most buyers want to be found: by and through other people.

Connecting is the Sales Prospecting Technique that Works

Connecting in terms of lead generation means establishing meaningful relationships with other people who will either be in the market for what you sell at some point or people that influence those buyers. Connecting isn’t having a collection of business cards in a shoe box or glad handing at meetings. Connecting means becoming a memorable salesperson sought after by the thought leaders, experts and buyers in your territory. While that might seem like an impossible task it is actually simple, which doesn’t mean work or effort free. In today’s new economy we are only 6 degrees of separation from anyone else, to borrow a famous movie line. Connecting is actually a process that you can quantify and measure.

Step 1: Segment your territory into small market niches and segments

Step 2: Research who are the thought leaders, buyers and influencers in those targeted markets

Step 3: Find out through research and networking how to reach those people and what their interest are

Step 4: Touch those people by lead generating activities, such as attending meetings and conferences they attend. Write or call people they know and find out what interests them and what is important to them.

Step 5: Listen carefully to what is important to those people and learn how you can bring value into their businesses and lives, not what they can do for you

Step 6: Lastly deliver value to those people by keeping your commitments, following up with them and deepening the relationship over time

Of course those 6 steps need to be fleshed out in much greater detail. I’ll write out more about each on my blog. For now let me just tell you a quick story that illustrates each of the steps and demonstrates how to execute a great connection strategy. Of course I have a entire coaching suggestion on sales prospecting techniques that you might be interesting about learning more about.

Mr. Chase (name changed here for privacy) is a consultant that works with hospitals designing the specifications for new construction medical providers are considering building. Mr. Chase was in an ideal position to recommend my equipment when hospitals were expanding. I needed to be known and involved with Mr. Chase. I called several hospitals that had used Mr. Chases’ services and asked if they would recommend Mr. Chase for an upcoming project I needed help with. The goal was to learn about Mr. Chase from the people that knew him.

After multiple calls and a bunch of Internet research I learned that Mr. Chase was respected not only because of his professional abilities but because he raised money for many of the facilities he helped create. He did that because his mother had died of cancer. I started to think about how I could become a valuable person to Mr. Chase by providing help in that area since that was very important to him. Well, one of my friends, an event organizer had arranged several golfing events for non-profits to raise money. I called Mark up and explained that Mr. Chase was influential in the medical industry and asked if I could get them together if he would do at least one event for free just to demonstrate his services. Mark agreed. Now I just had to meet Mr. Chase.

Well I learned by talking to other architects that every quarter the state association of medical architects met at the capital. Mr. Chase was an officer and had to attend. I called the association and asked if vendors were allowed to attend those meetings. Absolutely, just pay the dinner fee and visitors can attend the general session was their response. So I sent off a check and attended the meeting. However before attending the meeting I sent each of the association officers a letter letting them know that I was coming to learn how my company could support their association in the future. As expected most associations are always looking for sponsors and donations. This got me an introduction to the officers after dinner and most importantly a chance to talk with Mr. Chase.

I told Mr. Chase that his reputation as a benefactor for his clients was well known and asked him when and why he had started that kind of work. After a great chat on the subject I mentioned that I had a good friend who specialized in fund raising using golf outings. Mark often offered his services for free for the right cause so was he interested in meeting Mark to discuss that further? Mr. Chase took out his card and wrote his private email and phone number down. He told me to call him anytime and that he would make sure he was available whenever Mark was in town. I thanked him and promised to make sure he and Mark got together as soon as possible.

Well long story short I arranged that meeting within a week. Soon after Mr. Chase and I had lunch during a fund raiser that Mark put together. I was introduced to 3 of Mr. Chase’s clients that were in the process of expanding their facilities and I got to play a great round of golf. I’d estimate that I sold over a million dollars of business from that lunch over the following two years. That doesn’t even begin to count the people and leads that have come in from Mr. Chase’s recommendations. While I was in that business I continued to add value by my expertise and contacts to Mr. Chase and he did likewise. All because I found out who I needed to know, researched what was important to him, and then planned out and worked on delivering value to that person.

Of course I’m skipping many of the details and even some of the fantastic peripheral benefits I attained from that process. My company did sponsor the association and contribute to their newsletter. We became the subject expert on radiology equipment and siting for the entire association throughout the state. We solved a lot of tricky problems for them over the years and consequently got first position shot at many new opportunities that we would have otherwise missed or only been one RFP responder out of 20. That’s the power of connecting and using sales prospecting techniques that buyers appreciate and actually want.

Bottom Line on 21st Century Sales Prospecting Techniques is…

Sales prospecting techniques that are effective use one or more of the 5 ways buyers learn of salespeople and companies…

  • Colleague’s referral
  • Existing vendor recommendations
  • Personal recognition
  • In-person seminar
  • An introduction at a conference or presentation

Becoming known by the thought leaders and buyers in a market requires connecting with people. Establishing the right connections with the right people, like all effective lead generating activities, takes planning, consistent execution and delivering on the value and commitments you make. Sure it is work. It takes effort. However it is certainly less difficult and far more effective than cold calling or any of the other tired methods mentioned in the beginning of this article. Plus it’s fun – it’s actually working with people, networking and selling – not pushing paper, writing letters or becoming a computer geek in some kind of effort to be a sudo marketing guru instead of a salesperson.

Finally the big payoff is that done consistently over time and you won’t have to search out new leads or business – opportunities will seek you out. Buyers will want to do business with you based on your reputation and experience. Start today by connecting with people you know and finding new people you want to know. You’ve got nothing to lose but cold calling, thin sales pipelines, and small commission checks. Now go out and connect…go out and sell something.

Are You Ready to Get More Leads than You Can Handle?

For a limited time I’m offering coaching and free sales prospecting help to other salespeople who are tired of cold calling, fighting for any scrap of business they can find and simply worn out by ineffective sales prospecting techniques. To learn more just click here.

Russ Emrick

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