The Dirty Little Secret About Prospecting

Many of us in the sales profession have been persuaded to think of prospecting as painful and miserable. But that’s not true! Here’s why…

By Tracy Larson

Many of us in the sales profession have been persuaded to think of prospecting as painful and miserable. We hate it and really don’t want to talk about it because, soon we’ll be confronting the fact that we haven’t been on top of it like we should have, conjuring up a long list of negative “coulda”, “woulda”, “shoulda” excuses that only make us feel worse. 

Prospecting is in that category of realizing that our pants don’t fit any longer after letting free-wheeling eating habits go unchecked a little too long and suddenly knowing, it’s time to do something about it. So, we figure we’ll quickly jump back into exercising as the best way to get back on track. The sheer “ugh” of setting aside the time, motivating ourselves to perform activities that we know will initially make us feel achy, sore and more out of shape, is that terrible tasting medicine we must take. The realization that the effort must be made, if we want to get back into our skinny jeans and feel great again.  So, we set our minds to the task at hand and start playing catch up without much consideration for a long term, more fruitful plan.

The Funny Thing About Prospecting

The funny thing about prospecting is that when the economy is booming and prospects are knocking down the door, we’re so busy answering calls and getting quotes out that we decide to live in the moment – it’s all good!  There is plenty to go around. It becomes so easy to ignore those “top performer” best practices echoing in the back of our mind telling us: get self-performed prospecting activities on the calendar, track success, change tactics as needed, confirm that we are filling our own pipeline.   

Of course, you’re ok for a little while, it’s not a big deal you think.  I’ve still got some live wires in my pipeline and marketing will work on drumming up more interest.  Soon enough though, you realize that a couple of deals aren’t going to close as quickly as you thought, or one of your best customers lost funding, or any other of a myriad of sales delays are happening – beyond your control – and you are now facing a very anemic pipeline. 

And that’s when you get ticked off at yourself for not having developed and stuck with a prospecting plan.  Going to the gym on a regular basis means I can eat more of what I like just like continuing to perform simple prospect generating activities keeps the pipeline healthy at all stages of the sales cycle to help us to have more deals to close. 

The problem is that eventually or, even suddenly (as we have all recently experienced), that seemingly endless supply of new prospects we knew we could count on dries up.  And then what do we do?  We quickly and haphazardly go out hunting again, starting from a much different and scarier place.

Why don’t we learn how to prospect?

One of the questions I think about as I look back on my own career is “Why didn’t someone along the way coach me on developing my sales prospecting skills?”  It is so basic and necessary. Why weren’t there a few “lunch and learns” focused on prospecting, why it’s so important and how to do it?  Maybe some of you were much luckier than me and had a great sales manager or mentor along the way who emphasized this aspect of sales.  I’m sure the true sales pros did.  I’m sure they knew the importance not only of identifying and performing opportunity generating activities but, also nurturing and tracking those to find success.  Those of use who kind of fell into sales may not have been as fortunate.

But, don’t sweat that – it’s never too late to learn or to improve.  Other than hearing about those panning for gold in the 1800’s, I wasn’t a person who understood the significance of the word “prospecting” much less the action it is meant to represent, until I became an individual salesperson who needed to produce for me and in order for my company to grow.  You see, prior to that, I had a team around me who looked for and developed new opportunities that I helped win and then continued to manage and nurture to fruition.  And I thought I was in “sales”! 

I think that part of my journey was not identifying myself as a salesperson.  For many years, I identified as a project manager and as someone who “took care of” customer needs.  Somewhere along the way, I combined the two roles, without recognition of what I was becoming, into one that allowed me to “sell” and to “manage” from an account level.  Eventually I found myself on the frontend getting to know prospects, determining needs, figuring out solutions and creating investments to be approved – sales.

I was successful at sales. The evidence was all around me: I was closing multi-million dollar deals for regional and national accounts regularly. I was challenged by my role. I derived and employed strategies for each opportunity I worked on, an aspect of sales I really enjoyed.  I responded to “RFPs”, creating detailed and solution-oriented customer-centric responses that got us a coveted seat at the table for final presentation and negotiation. I diligently worked on estimates, found and negotiated with subcontractors, wrote detailed scopes of work and prepared and made numerous presentations.  And through all of this, I never really thought much about finding opportunities on my own. You see, I had my role and responsibilities in the process, my swim lanes and the truth is, it took a team to successfully win these opportunities.

We’ve Always Been Prospecting

Looking back, the first company I started on my own required me to prospect.  I had to go find work.  I was the company at that point.  It was a commercial design and project management company. If I didn’t allocate some portion of my time to finding work, well you can surmise result.  The thing is that I didn’t think of myself in sales.  I thought of myself as establishing and growing my business.  I thought of myself and the services my company provided as being solutions other companies could really use and benefit from.  I understood the best recipients of our services and recognized when were not a good fit.  We specialized in areas most companies did not have resources for and needed our expertise for a fixed period of time.   

If we think back to the first person we tried to negotiate a piece of candy from, or that coveted ice cream cone when you were little and had no money, indeed we were prospecting!  Back then we used our personal powers of charm, wit, maybe even “cuteness”, to get someone else to buy or give us what we wanted.  We were motivated to negotiated for “reward”.  As we got older, we learned how to expand our social networks.  We had reasons why we wanted to know new people or deepen connections with others.  We were motivated by these reasons because there was something we wanted to achieve. Each of these experiences from the time we were small through today are experiences that boil down to prospecting.  I don’t remember these actions taken to reach a goal as being negative at all. In fact, the opposite, sometimes they were fun, sometimes a little challenging, some I won, some I lost but, they were viewed as connections, conversations, learning experiences, and expansions of my world that helped me and enabled me to help others. 

Prospecting must have a strategy.

At one point in my career I was thrown into “business development” aka: finding new work.  Again, no mention of the word “prospecting”.  I had a goal. I wanted to get my company on bid lists for the best upcoming construction projects.  I wanted a shot at the prize. So, I began figuring out how to meet certain people, how to get an invitation to the next RFP that I wanted to win.  I devised a strategy and coined a phrase calling it “Surround ‘em”. The idea was rather simple, and it proved to very effective.  When I knew of a project and I wanted to have an opportunity to participate as a bidder, I would create a list of all parties and connections I knew or could know, who might be involved, might be able to connect me, or have knowledge of that project. 

I would then start to reach out to introduce myself, ask a few questions and present some small nugget of information important that made me memorable related to the upcoming project.  I would attend industry events, reconnect with old colleagues, send emails, reach out to entities I knew were already connected to the project – all with the goal that they would know my name when it came to a point of devising the bid list.  Funny, with no formal sales training, I had no idea at the time that I was doing the dreaded prospecting activity of “cold calling”!  I just knew the connections I wanted to make and tried to make them because I wanted to reach my goal.

I tracked all connections and found ways to stay connected to each by providing some small nugget of important information, some reason to continue talking that was beneficial to both parties.  My tracking diagram looked like a “Surround ‘em” picture with the target in the middle and my spider web of connections leading inward. I knew that the greater the number of connections, the higher my changes of striking the best leads to target.  Establishing connections was all for the purpose of creating interest, sparking a memory of me and my company, so that when it was time to get that list together, I would be one who would receive an invitation to bid.  And it worked.  What I didn’t know was that what I was doing was “prospecting”.  In fact, as I think back on it, it’s a little reminiscent of a manual version of “LinkedIn”, finding connections that lead to an opportunity for an introduction and establishing a web of connected contacts.

I thought this approach was fun.  I enjoyed the strategy and loved checking a connection made from my list.  I liked seeing how each connection got me to my “Surround ‘em” goal and to understand what I presented resonated.  How important in the big picture our products and services were to the success of their project.  You see, I knew that the more people who knew of me and my company, of what we bring to the table and how we work, would lead to someone else saying, “Yes – I know Tracy and I know the company.  They do great work.”  Just one connection like that, provided opportunity galore.

Why does prospecting get such a bad rep?

So, for something we’ve effectively done throughout our lives in order to help us achieve our goals and that has lead to many positive interactions and results, why does prospecting get such a bad reputation?  I think it’s a matter of primarily two things:

  • Belief in what we are selling.
  • Our attitude toward prospecting.

Let’s tackle belief first. If we do not fully believe in what we are selling, or that our team can properly deliver and support the solutions we sell, then it is difficult at best to get behind performing prospecting activities to build our web of connections and our pipeline.  Belief for salespeople is hyper-critical in our daily sales process and how we relate to it.  It is personal. 

Good salespeople are focused on identifying and understanding customer challenges and strategically working to provide comprehensive, high quality and meaningful solutions for those customers.  We want not only to provide great solutions to initially identified problems we want to develop relationships that are proven over time because we consistently deliver to our customers.  That consistency in delivering well to customers is what builds our absolute belief in the products and services we sell. Salespeople work hard to build trust. Representing a portfolio of high-quality products and services reinforces our moral fiber and that impacts belief.

If you are questioning your belief in the products and services you represent, then it’s time to figure out why that is and if you can work with your team to come to resolution.  Identify exactly what is standing in your way and what it would take to change your beliefs.  If there is no way to find resolution, it may be time to sell something else.

“Attitude is everything” is a belief very important to all we do in life.  In terms of sales, having a positive attitude toward prospecting and prospecting activities is a must.  We know there will be people interested in talking to us about what we bring to the table and there will be those who are not.  There will be those who nicely turn us down and those who make it clear we are intruding! The negative reactions can easily impact our psyche and our desire to get back out there and make another call, or send another email, or introduce ourselves to someone new.  Expect the nos. They are just part of the process and have nothing to do with you. You job is to plant a seed.  It may grow today, it may germinate awhile, it may die there. Challenge yourself with a fun counterbalance to rejection.  Every time you hear a no, or someone who was totally engaged goes dark, or someone is rude, do something positive to move that out of your way.  If you head into the process knowing that not everyone will be a “yes” and understand that this is ok, you will leave a heavy weight behind you.  Prospecting “nos” have no impact on your personal value.  That’s yours. 

The dirty little secret about prospecting is funny.

As I’ve come to realize I’ve been prospecting and in “sales” my entire life, I find that thought a little bit humorous, maybe a little ironic too. I didn’t always have my head on straight about it. Yes, I’ve been “judgy”, letting negative ideas about “sales” and salespeople influence me to shy away from truly understanding how dynamic and interesting a career it truly is.  Today, I have a very different perspective.  It is one forged from having been to the sales battlefield many times, sometimes better equipped or more ready that others. I’ve learned from experience, from fighting hard to win and from tasting and recognizing the sweetness of victory.  I’ve come to understand that everything I had thought was so hard when I had a team around me was a real gift. I know what it’s like to have to build, literally from the ground up without the support of a team and I really appreciate that, as it provided such important lessons.

You see, the dirty little secret about prospecting is that we all are doing it every day and have been since the time we were tiny tots.  In your lifetime you will repeatedly have to set your sights on what you want to achieve and figure out how to get there.  Prospecting is all about that.  It’s that simple.  Prospecting is about having goals and doing the things we normally do to achieve those goals – meeting someone new and interesting, asking questions, listening, and learning. Looking for advice and offering possible solutions someone else might need and being ok if they don’t.  Prospecting at its heart, is about planting seeds, giving and receiving, being curious and open to opportunities. Not everything leads you to the end you first had in mind.  Tending to the garden you plant will bring you success and keep your sales and life pipelines active and full just the way you like it.

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