Sales Prospecting 101

Everything you need to know about effective sales prospecting.

September 15th, 2019   |    By: The Startups Team

##What is sales prospecting? 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.

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##Leads vs. prospects Before we dive into sales prospecting, let’s do a little defining of terms. A lead is different from a prospect. Here’s the difference:

###Prospects A prospect is a potential customer who fit three specific criteria: -They fit your target market. -They have the money to afford your product. -They’re authorized to make buying decisions, for themselves, their family, or their company, depending on the type of company you’re running.

###Leads A lead is a potential customer who hasn’t been qualified as a prospect yet. So you might find out someone is interested in your company, but when you take a closer look, you realize they don’t fit the criteria listed above for a prospect.

##Sales prospecting methods There are two types of sales prospecting: cold and hot. The most well known is probably cold-calling, which involves calling up random people and trying to get them to buy what you’re selling. And while, sure, it’s a numbers game — all you have to do is look at telemarketing to know that it’s possible to make some money that way — it’s definitely not efficient. Let’s take a look at some prospecting methods that are much more likely to bring you the results you’re looking for.

Cold sales prospecting can be really daunting. The difference between a cold prospecting fail and a cold prospecting win (aka a positive or negative ROI) is the proper collection and utilization of data. In a sense, you’re not going in totally cold. Maybe “warm-ish” is a more accurate description.

###1. Social media Different social media platforms are going to be more or less effective for cold prospecting, depending on exactly what your startup does. And, honestly, you probably know in your gut which ones are the right fit!

For example, if you’re going for a more professional, leader-in-the-industry vibe, make sure you’re utilizing groups, messaging, and News on LinkedIn. If you have a visually appealing product, Instagram might be your spot. And if you’re quippy and good at the back and forth, get yourself on Twitter!

One note: Be sure not to scrape, especially with LinkedIn, as companies are cracking down (by suing) on that method these days.

###2. Email A cold email is a daunting task. And you should never just hit an entire list with an email. Definitely use a lead generation tool to get information about your hits before jumping in. Then, use social media — or any other source available to you — to make sure you have enough information about each lead to personalize each message you send.

It’s okay to keep the body of the email the same, but don’t get lazy. Make sure to integrate your opening (personalized) few lines, or a savvy recipient will read right through your move.

###3. Snail mail Believe it or not, snail mail can be an effective cold approach! But don’t send junk mail — everyone already gets enough of that. Instead, identify your high-quality leads and send them very personalized letters, postcards, or even packages. This method is obviously pricier than email, but it can have a high ROI when done right.

###4. Become a thought leader When you’re recognized as a thought leader in your field, people are more likely to trust that your product is the thing they’re looking for.

“When your audiences see that you know your stuff, they’re more likely to work with you,” John Hall, CEO of Influence&Co, writes. “Your job as a leader, then, is to demonstrate that you’re an expert. Thought leadership through content marketing can help. No matter what your specific thought leadership goals are, the right content has the power to achieve them.”

###5. Networking events Networking events are a great way for B2B startups in particular to connect with potential clients. But good networking is an art and a science — and doing it incorrectly will not turn out well.

“For those of us who attend conferences, workshops and industry events regularly, it becomes easy to spot the different ‘networker’ profiles,” startup founder Mauricio Palacio writes. “There’s always the ‘straight out of college’ marketing intern who fires out business cards at light-speed and performs the same pitch to every person. The quiet developer who slinks in the background avoiding eye-contact. And the somewhat creepy terminator-esque sales whizz who scans the crowd for his next target, then pounces.”

Check out Mauricio’s full article on networking for more tips.

###6. Referrals There’s a reason Yelp is so successful: People like to hear from (supposedly) unbiased sources whether a service or business is a good one. So there’s no better way to get new clients than through referrals from current, happy ones. A great move is offering clients some sort of benefit for referring new clients. Maybe it’s a discount or even a credit on your site if they refer someone to you. The goal is to get them to spread the word about your company to people who trust their opinions.

###7. Live events Hosting a live event or teaming up with another company in your field can be a great way to reach potential clients. When you team up with another company, you’ll get the value of both of you promoting the event to your respective networks, which then brings both networks into your circle both digitally and in person.

###8. Webinars Hosting a webinar is a great way to pull in warm leads, because you know if they’re there then they’re interested in what you’re talking about. But don’t be like Andy in The Office, just trying to hook them into a sale without offering anything of value. Create a webinar that truly brings value to your potential customer’s lives and you’re much more likely to close the deal.

##Sales prospecting process 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.

###Step 1: Research Gather all the information you can about your current, prospective, and/or competitors’ clients.

###Step 2: Segment Build prospect segments/personas based on your research. Audience segmentation is the process of breaking your audience up into groups based on traits that they have in common.

###Step 3: Build Find your prospects, get their contact info, and start building lists for each segment.

“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.

###Step 4: Plan Develop a detailed, multi-step, multi-channel strategy for making contact with your prospects (channels can include email, social, phone).

###Step 5: Engage Execute on your contact strategy and start the conversation

###Step 6: Evaluate Review the results of your outreach, including open/click/reply rates and look for areas to optimize.

###Step 7: Adjust 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.

Pat Ahern, Director of Traffic Generation at Junto, shares this story of the trial and error his team went through to find the lead generation process that worked for them.

“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.

###Step 8: Rinse & Repeat 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.

##The most important thing to remember about sales prospecting 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.”

About the Author

The Startups Team

Startups is the world's largest startup platform, helping over 1 million startup companies find customers, funding, mentors, and world-class education.

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