Like it or not, you will always need to develop and implement your own plan for prospecting.
One of the primary reasons that salespeople have a hard time sticking with the discipline of prospecting is that they are forced to use a process that doesn’t align with their sales strengths. Human nature dictates that people will avoid discomfort -- and salespeople are especially adept at avoiding activities that make them feel uncomfortable.
Prospecting is not a one-size-fits-all activity. A little experimentation is required to find the approach that best suits your personality, your skills, and the goals you need to achieve.
To determine the prospecting strategy that will work best for you, ask yourself the following questions.
1) How much prospecting must I do?
To begin, you need to quantify the challenge you face. How many leads do you need? Be specific. Start with your quota and work backward. Look at your sales history, and calculate your close ratio over the prior 12 months. What percentage of your sales opportunities did you convert into orders? Don’t inflate this number. It’s important to be accurate and honest with yourself.
Once you have your close ratio in hand, use that to calculate how many prospects you will need in order to meet your quota. The last step is to estimate what percentage of those leads will flow in from marketing activities and what percentage you will need to develop through your own efforts.
The percentage of leads that you have to develop -- the lead deficit you need to make up -- will give you a pretty good estimate of how much time you must to devote to prospecting. Having this information in hand will let you determine whether cold calling or some other prospecting activity is the optimal strategy to achieve your prospecting goals.
A rule of thumb that I suggest to my clients is that the percentage of time that a salesperson needs to devote to prospecting is approximately equal to the percentage of the lead deficit she needs to fill. For instance, if you are a new salesperson, your lead deficit might stand at 100%, in which case you will need to spend 100% of your time on prospecting until it begins to shrink. An experienced and established salesperson might have a 30% lead deficit. She will probably fill two-thirds of that deficit with repeat business and referrals, leaving a 10% gap. That salesperson would then need to spend about 10% of her time on prospecting.
2) What am I good at doing?
It’s essential to align your prospecting activities with your sales strengths. This may seem obvious, but I work with a lot of companies that have rigid sales procedures that fail to take advantage of the strengths of their individual salespeople.
In fact, not everyone has to be good at all forms of prospecting. Take cold calling. Success in cold calling, or the lack thereof, can be due as much to salespeople’s temperaments as their skills. And no amount of training can change that.
I worked with a great salesperson at one company who was painfully shy. He was not going to pick up the phone and cold call a potential customer. He was skilled at using referrals to build his pipeline. Fortunately, he worked for a manager who showed flexibility in letting his people determine how they could best meet the challenge of prospecting.
Some people are comfortable with cold calling. Some are not. Others might be stronger in creating emails that get noticed. Or perhaps they are adept at connecting through LinkedIn. Maybe they have created a strong industry presence through a blog or speaking at conference. Or perhaps they are really strong at tapping customers for referrals.
The point is to identify a method that will work for you consistently and put it to use every day. Prospecting is a skill that improves with practice. In his book Talent Is Overrated, Geoffrey Colvin describes research demonstrating that individuals who are successful in a particular endeavor are not naturally gifted or innately skilled in that field. Instead, these experts are skilled at consistently practicing their craft at high levels and at improving their performance by closely monitoring and learning from their past performance. This discipline, known as “deliberate practice,” has been popularized with the shorthand saying that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master any skill.
What this means is that great salespeople are not born that way. It takes an investment of time over a long period to become really expert at prospecting. Choose the specific skills that you want to become expert in, and start practicing them on customers.
3) What prospecting activity is the most effective use of my sales time?
The ultimate decision about which method to employ should depend on which one gives you the best return on the time you invest in it. This means that you have to measure your results against the time you spend on prospecting. You have to track the actual amount of time that you spend on prospecting, and the number of leads and qualified sales opportunities you generated during that time.
Let’s say that you have a 20% lead deficit to fill, but it requires 50% of your available selling time to develop the required number of sales leads. You have a problem. You either need to change the prospecting method you are using, or you need some coaching and guidance on how to improve what you’re doing. If you have to make 50 phone calls to develop one new lead while John, sitting in the cubicle next to you, develops five new leads from 50 phone calls, then you need to ask for help. Shadow John and listen to him make his calls. Have John or your sales manager listen to you make calls and provide some feedback. (Remember that a crucial part of deliberate practice is learning from past performance to improve future performance.)
Prospecting, as performed by salespeople, is entrepreneurial. If a company employs you, you should consider your territory to be a franchise. Your employer is the franchisor, and you are the franchisee with the sales rights within a certain territory. You are the owner of your territory of potential customers, no matter how that territory is defined. And, just as in standard franchising agreements, if you, as the franchisee, do not invest the resources to deliver on the potential within your territory, then the franchisor can terminate your franchise and replace you with another entrepreneur.
It’s up to you as the franchise owner to do whatever it takes to build a profitable business in your territory.
Small business owners commonly face this issue. They may have a marketing budget, but if that doesn’t create enough leads, what are they going to do? Go out of business? Of course not! Maybe the weak willed ones would give up and throw in the towel. But most entrepreneurs are more tough-minded that that. They will steel themselves and go out and undertake the activities necessary to generate sales leads.
That could mean going door to door or joining the local chamber of commerce. It could mean attending networking events or researching a list of local prospects and then committing to making a certain number of cold calls every day before 9 a.m. They might not like doing these activities, but sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.
And so it is with you. Start your prospecting with the activities that are best aligned with your strongest capabilities. But if those activities aren’t generating enough leads, then you have to try something else -- even if it means picking up the phone and making cold calls. (As Shakespeare said, “Ay, there’s the rub.”)