The sales call — one of the most imposing, potentially uncomfortable realities of sales life.
Successfully conducting one can be a tricky process to navigate. On one hand, you can't script your call. You don't want to come off as too nervous to deviate from some rigidly defined course you've set for the conversation. On the other, you can't just wing it. A sales call isn't an appropriate forum for trying to practice your improv skills.
No, neither of those options will help your case. That's why you have to strike a delicate middle ground between the two, and that comes from comprehensive, calculated preparation.
Here we'll get a better picture of what your pre-call planning strategy should look like and a helpful template to guide you through the process.
Conduct extensive research on your prospect's business and industry.
Know who, specifically, you're going to be talking to.
See if you and your prospect have any overlap in your professional networks.
Establish firm goals for the call.
Have whatever support materials you might need on hand.
Prepare some thoughtful, key questions to ask.
Have a feel for objections and questions your prospect might have.
1. Conduct extensive research on your prospect's business and industry.
Here's where you establish your baseline. Take the time to develop a fundamental understanding of what your prospect is dealing with. That means taking a deep dive into factors like their industry, competition, financial situation, and resources they're already leveraging. This lets you get a sense of how to best articulate the specific value your product or service can offer them.
For instance, say you're a rep selling a conversational intelligence platform for sales reps. Your prospect represents a company that sells an ecommerce platform to small to midsize businesses. Before your call, you would need to understand the general landscape of your prospect's industry and specific issues they might be coping with.
How is your prospect's company fairing relative to other ecommerce platforms? Is it already leveraging a conversational intelligence platform to support their sales efforts? Is it in a good place financially? Does it have the budget to invest in a platform like yours? Can you pin down the specific hiccups the business is constantly running into?
Let's say you conduct enough research to cover those points — among others. You find that the company has been stuck in place as a mid-tier solution due to less-than-stellar sales. It also hasn't invested in one of your competitors yet.
Its finances are sound enough to invest in a platform like yours, and through some digging and outreach, you find they're struggling with slow onboarding ramp time for new sales hires and inconsistent messaging on sales calls.
With that kind of research behind you, you can pin down specific, relevant pain points to address during your call. You can trim the fat from your conversation and offer solutions tailored to the prospect's needs — allowing you to present a thorough, well-crafted value add.
2. Know who, specifically, you're going to be talking to.
Before your call, you need to know as much as you can about your specific point of contact — namely their role and decision-making authority. An initial chat with a lower-level rep won't be the same as a conversation with a C-level executive. Beyond that, conducting some more personal research on your prospective caller will be a big help.
LinkedIn is one of the better starting points for that process. How long have they been at their company? How long have they been in the industry? What are their specific responsibilities? Do they have any other content — like interviews or thought leadership content — that can offer some insight into their expertise and personality?
Let's refer back to the conversational intelligence platform example. You, the rep, find out that you're going to be speaking with someone named Charles E. Cheese. Immediately after learning who's going to be on the call, you pore through Charles' LinkedIn page to see what you can find about him.
You learn that Charles is a sales director with several impressive accomplishments and critical responsibilities under his belt. He's been in the SaaS industry for about 20 years — nine of which were spent at his current company. And he's published some thought leadership pieces that took a conversational tone to discuss relatively inaccessible topics.
From that background, you could deduce that Charles probably has decision making authority regarding sales enablement technology. You could also assume that, given his extensive experience in his field, he's more interested in proven solutions as opposed to younger, more novel products. And finally, his writing tells you that he's relatively laid back but values technical knowledge.
Having that kind of insight helps you bolster your pre-call planning and account for factors like the tone you'll speak with, the specific points you'll stress, and the degree of technical knowledge you'll need to demonstrate.
3. See if you and your prospect have any overlap in your professional networks.
Perhaps the most crucial component of a successful sales call is trust, and there are a few avenues you can take to build it — the previous two points being the most important. Still, the trust you build with your extensive knowledge can always be supplemented with other, smaller components.
One of the most effective means of doing so is referring to mutual contacts. If you can talk about your relationship with someone your client trusts and respects, you can add a new degree of legitimacy to your call. This information, like so much other background on your prospect, can come from LinkedIn.
In the example we've been running with, you might look over Charles E. Cheese's LinkedIn and notice that he's connected with another sales director you sold your platform to at a company of similar size — we'll call her Lola Bunderson.
In your conversation, you could plan on bringing up Lola during any initial small talk. If he speaks highly or familiarly of her, you can briefly describe your relationship with her and subtly mention that she bought your platform.
This step isn't necessarily the easiest or most reliable one on this list, but it's still worth exploring. Take some time to see if your and your prospect's networks overlap. It's a nice tidbit to keep in the back pocket that might help you put your contact at ease and establish some extra credibility.
4. Establish firm goals for the call.
Not every call is going to land you a deal. In fact, that's generally not the endgame. What you want or can expect out of a call varies based on where you are in your sales cycle and who you're talking to.
Maybe the call is to learn more about your individual point of contact. It could be to better understand the circumstances of the specific team you're targeting or the company as a whole. You might be trying to move the deal forward by getting put in touch with someone up the food chain — ideally with decision-making authority.
The point here is that you need to know what you want out of your call. That will set the tone and dictate the nature of the conversation. If you're engaging in a preliminary phone screen with a mid-level manager, you're probably going to focus on asking thoughtful questions and accruing the right information.
If you approach a conversation like that trying to immediately close a deal, you're going to put your prospect off.
In our example, we'll assume that you've been in contact with the ecommerce platform company for a few months now. You started with an initial call to learn more about the company and the challenges it's facing. From there, you had a few more calls where you detailed more specific benefits of your platform.
Now, you're in touch with Charles — a legitimate decision-maker. You understand that you probably won't be able to close on this call, so you manage your expectations and decide that your goal is to schedule a demo with him. That becomes your endgame. That's what you tailor your pitch and messaging around.
5. Have whatever support materials you might need on hand.
Thorough preparation for your call is key. You need to be able to reference relevant information — whether it be technical, process-oriented, or anecdotal. It can be tough to memorize all that, and frankly, you shouldn't be expected to. That's why it doesn't hurt to have some support materials on hand to help you explain the ins and outs of your product or service.
Technical specs, case studies, and specific insight about your prospect's company can and should be at your disposal for your call. Gather whatever you can that you feel will help guide you through the process.
Make sure you're thorough in sourcing and organizing this information. You don't want to find yourself hastily and haphazardly shuffling through support materials you don't totally understand, mid-call.
For our example, you might want to have some technical specifications on hand. You're trying to book a demo with Charles, it could help to provide some insight into how your product works and what he can expect to see. You might also want to have a relevant case study for a similarly sized SaaS company that saw success with your platform at your disposal.
Being able to cite and apply the specific ways your product enhanced that kind of business's sales efforts to help frame your understanding of Charles' situation can demonstrate familiarity with companies like his — helping build the trust you need to get the most out of your sales call.
6. Prepare some thoughtful, key questions to ask.
Here's where you most explicitly demonstrate that you know their company. In asking thoughtful, relevant questions, you're demonstrating that you took the time to understand the nuances of your prospect's business.
Preparing questions ahead of time might sound like scripting — which you need to avoid at all costs — but it's not quite the same. Thoughtful questions start a discussion whereas scripting tries to dictate one.
That being said, if you plan your side of that dialogue and stick to it rigidly, you're crossing the line.
In the example we've been referencing, you might refer to your extensive research and prior conversations and ask Charles questions like:
"In some of my previous conversations, your reps have discussed some trouble your company has been having in terms of ramping new hires. Is that something you've noticed?"
"As I've spent more time with your company, I've gathered that your reps excel further down your sales pipeline. It seems like the issues you're running into are with prospecting — namely reply rate — Is that a fair assessment?"
"Your platform's point of sale feature is something of an industry standard. Do you think your messaging is doing enough to stress its value?"
It's important to ask questions that reflect your prospect's company both internally and externally. Show that you understand how the company is operating, its place in its industry, and how its industry functions as a whole. That way, your prospect knows you value their time and potential business.
7. Have a feel for objections and questions your prospect might have.
It's important to think a few steps ahead when pre-call planning. You can save yourself a lot of stress and trouble by getting ahead of the issues you're likely to run into.
Familiarize yourself with the most common objections you deal with during your general sales efforts and plot compelling responses for your upcoming call.
Make sure you also apply your company research here. Identify concerns that your prospect, specifically, might raise. Try to see if you can see if there are problems that are particularly relevant to their industry, businesses of similar size, or companies operating under similar financial circumstances.
In our ecommerce platform example, you could consider his company's financial circumstances. The business's budget might be tight, but you've dealt with businesses in similar positions. In this case, you could apply your experience and prepare yourself to answer concerns that might arise around pricing.
Pre-Call Planning Worksheet Template
Pre-call planning can take a lot, and engaging in it can be an arduous process. Here's a helpful template that covers its fundamental bases.
Pre-call planning can be tedious and frustrating, but if you want to make the most of your sales calls, you have to do it right. Cover all your bases before you get on the phone.
Make sure you know what you want out of the call. Know who you're talking to and what they're dealing with, and be ready to maintain authority throughout the conversation while still giving your prospect room to participate. Calculated preparation is key to addressing all those points.
Originally published Aug 27, 2020 8:00:00 AM, updated June 11 2021