We’ve spent a lot of time on the blog talking about the early stages of planning a company, so let’s flash forward a bit. Say you’ve built out your product. You’ve validated your idea to death, formulated your pricing strategy, built out social channels and put out press releases.
You flip the switch, launch your product, and… crickets. Not a customer in the pipeline, not a signup on your website. Nothing.
So what now? Is that it? Do you throw in the towel, pack up and go home? Not by a long shot.
“If you build it, they will come,” is great and all, but sometimes in the startup world, if you want customers, you have to go out and get them yourself. So grab your email lists and your spreadsheets, folks, because we’re going sales prospecting.
Joining us on this expedition are a couple of guys who know a thing or two about sales prospecting:
Here, Ryan and Josh share some of their top insights about sales prospecting – and what it takes to get results:
First things first: what exactly is sales prospecting?
Simply put, sales prospecting is the process of going out and finding customers for your business. You might be saying to yourself, “Now wait a minute – isn’t that what marketing is for?” Well, yes and no.
Most marketing methods, like email blasts or social media advertising, are like fishing: you put your bait out on the line, and you wait for interested folks to come to you.
Sales prospecting, on the other hand? “Prospectors are hunters,” says Ryan O’Donnell. “They don’t wait for the magic to happen; they charge right into it to get a quick yes or no.”
Sales prospecting is particularly important during the early days. You’re the new kid on the block. No one has heard of you. It makes sense that you have to really put the work in to convince people to give you a chance.
As your business matures and other forms of marketing kick in, you may be able to ease off the prospecting a bit. Or, depending on who your audience is, sales prospecting may stay a central component of your customer acquisition strategy.
Which brings us to our next point…
One of the big advantages about sales prospecting: it allows you to get super picky with who you’re targeting. That makes it a particularly handy tool for companies with a more specialized product and a more specific audience.
“For us, sales prospecting is the art of finding out who might be a serious buyer for our services,” says ChopDawg Founder Josh Davidson. “We’re very niche, so if we spoke to everyone and anyone who interested in us, the reality is, only one out of one hundred would actually be the right fit to be our client.”
Like sifting through the sand to find nuggets of gold, sales prospecting helps you sift through (hopefully) mountains of leads to find those precious few that are a perfect fit for you and your company.
But it’s not just about making sure a client is the right fit for you. You have to be the right fit for them, too. In that way, sales prospecting is a lot like speed dating. It gives you and the prospective customer a chance to get a feel for each other before you invest more time and effort in a relationship that might not be the right fit for either of you.
Sales prospecting is a higher-touch, more hands-on approach to selling. But that’s not the same as saying that you have to develop a custom outreach strategy for every single prospect you contact. Otherwise, we’d all do nothing but write prospecting emails all day.
So how do you develop a kickass sales prospecting approach that feels personal and relevant to each individual prospect without making it personal to each individual prospect?
That’s where audience segmentation comes in.
Audience segmentation is the process of breaking your audience up into groups based on traits that they have in common.
As for how you develop your groups? “Take your client roster, look up each person’s profile on LinkedIn, and make a simple spreadsheet with columns for name, title, company, industry, keywords, location company size etc,” advises Ryan O’Donnell. “Then look for clusters.”
“Clusters” can be commonalities of age, gender, income, geographic region. For B2B, they might include things like business size or industry. The important thing is to base your groups on characteristics that allow you to quickly and easily spot what’s important to the people in that group – and build your outreach around those common points.
Once you’ve got your clusters identified, says Ryan: “Each segment turns into an experiment where you can try different tactics/approaches to find what works.”
This brings us to one of the best-kept secrets of sales prospecting: it’s all about experimentation.
The perfect sales prospecting approach doesn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus, ready to close all the deals. It takes trial and error to find the methods and the messaging that are going to connect with your audience the best.
“Our team built our a process for prospecting in the very early days of Junto that revolved around scraping a handful of different sources for businesses that had expressed a need for marketing services, finding contact info for the head of HR/founder of the company, then conducting outreach with follow-ups 2-3 days later.”
After a few months of this, though, Pat and his team took a look at the metrics – and they noticed something that changed their prospecting approach forever. “We looked back on the metrics after 4-5 months and realized that cold outreach was driving negative ROI for us,” Pat said. “So we cut it out completely and shifted our efforts entirely to driving inbound leads through thought leadership (content marketing, teaching workshops, etc.”
Pat’s story touches on one of the most important lessons about sales prospecting: experimenting is not about experimenting for the sake of experimenting. It’s about experimenting for the sake of figuring out what works. Pat and his team tried cold outreach, and they tried other methods like thought leadership, and when they saw what was working and what wasn’t, they made a judgment call – and it paid off.
“Three months later, we’re consistently seeing four to five quality inbound leads per month, on top of much more regular referrals,” he says.
As you’re trying out different sales prospecting tactics, remember to always track, track, track. Track your contacts, track your methods, and track their results. Then, you find an approach that’s getting your foot in the door with prospects, let go of the tactics that were working less well, and focus all of your energy on the tactic that’s getting you the results you’re looking for.
As we’ve mentioned on the blog before, process is key because it makes success repeatable. Having the right process in place – or not – can make or break a business. And sales prospecting is no different.
So what does an effective sales prospecting process look like? The particulars will depend on your company, your audience, and your goals. But, here’s a general outline, based on the process Ryan O’Donnell follows for his companies.
Gather all the information you can about your current, prospective, and/or competitors’ clients
Build prospect segments/personas based on your research.
Find your prospects, get their contact info, and start building lists for each segment.
Develop a detailed, multi-step, multi-channel strategy for making contact with your prospects (channels can include email, social, phone).
Execute on your contact strategy and start the conversation
Review the results of your outreach, including open/click/reply rates and look for areas to optimize
Dial up or dial back the intensity of your outreach and the number of prospects you contact, until you find a pace that consistently delivers an optimal number of warm leads.
Keep working the process, following the steps, and building a pipeline of awesome prospects for your team and your product to wow the crap out of.
You’ve heard the old mantra about the ABCs sales, “Always be closing.” With all due respect to Glengarry Glen Ross, when it comes to sales prospecting, we recommend you follow a different alphabet: ABV – Always Be Valuable.
“Add value” is one of the phrases that gets thrown around so much in the business world, it almost loses its meaning. But when it comes to sales prospecting, what it means is this: show your prospects that you genuinely care about what their goals are, and helping them meet those goals – whether that means they become your customer or not.
“Our prospects need our help to build their visions and see ROI for their investments,” points out Josh Davidson. “We try to never ‘sell,’ – instead, we actually listen and learn their needs, and just see if we have the solutions for those needs in-house and advise them on what we believe they need, whether we have it in-house or not.”
No matter what stage of the funnel a prospective customer is in, every interaction they have with you and your brand should be valuable to them. Sound like work? Well, it is – but it pays off.
“If you’re on top of things, help the prospect, and give value, you’re always more likely to close the deal,” says Josh. “Always.”
Looking for more tips on how to grow your audience in the early days of starting up?
Check out Morgan Brown’s tips about Growth from User Zero.
Got leads and need help understanding where to go from there?
Check out Hiten Shaw’s advice on Sales Funnel Optimization.
Want to learn more about the human side of customer acquisition?
Read our chat about how effective startup lead generation is all about relationships.