What is Sales Prospecting?

Sales prospecting is what it sounds like: Sifting through a mountain of businesses and individuals to uncover the prospects who are most likely to convert into paying customers with a little effort, like a miner panning for gold.

Like prospecting for gold, it takes a lot of time. But first it also relies on knowing where to look.

Complicating the process is the changing way businesses and individuals find vendors, qualify them and make the decision to strike a deal.

In the old days, sales prospecting consisted of cold calling, dropins, daily meetings and networking over lunch: Basically putting yourself in front of a lead at every opportunity.

Those days are over.

In the digital world of today, where roughly two-thirds of the B2B buyers make their decision via online content, the rules of sales prospecting have changed.

The Age of the Customer

Forbes says the sales process has shifted as the Age of the Seller is replaced by the Age of the Customer.

"The buying decision and access to information about how to make that decision are now controlled by the customer, leaving sellers with control of just the product," Forbes said:

  • "The expectation of buyers meeting with vendors as a daily course of business is over.
  • "After 10,000 years of needing a salesperson to provide information to make a decision, buyers are acquiring much of that information on their own online.
  • "Prospects are now self-qualifying themselves, and then pre-qualify prospective vendors they choose to meet with, perhaps as few as two, or even just one.
  • "Prospects are essentially ruling competitors in or out before first contact, often before the business knows the prospect even exists."

How does this work? LinkedIn has previously shown the following:

  • 75 percent of the business-to-business buyers use social media to make buying decisions.
  • 50 percent of B2B buyers use LinkedIn as a source for making purchase decisions.
  • 76 percent of B2B buyers prefer to work with recommendations from their professional network.

Related: How the Sales Prospecting Game Has Changed

As LinkedIn has previously reported, information is power, and as access to information increases, the buyer’s ability to control the sales process also increases.

Gone are the days when, upon discovering a need, buyers pick up the phone and reach out to a handful of companies to get info, advice, pricing, etc. And gone, too, are the days when sales reps can pick up the phone, reach decision makers and help them uncover a need they did not previously know existed.

In fact, 90 percent of C-level executives say they never reply to cold calls or cold emails.

For centuries, the only way for buyers to find the information they needed to make a decision was through sales people. Not anymore. Today, roughly two-thirds of the buying process is performed digitally, via online content.

To gain access, sales professionals must abide by the new rules of prospecting. 

The challenge to a sales organization is clear. Entrepreneur sums it up like this:

"When it comes to drumming up new business, like anyone involved in sales, your first big challenge will be to reach the right individuals. To successfully find new prospects for your products and services, you'll need a hard-working prospecting program that reaches out to qualified prospects and moves them through the sales cycle from cold to warm to hot. Your program must incorporate a range of marketing tactics that, over time, bring prospects incrementally closer to a decision to hire you."

What does this mean for your company's sales prospecting techniques?

LinkedIn has previously written about the challenges facing sales organizations within companies and how to adapt sales prospecting techniques to the new realities.

  • Create a strong professional brand. Be an active participant in your industry. Join LinkedIn groups and engage in discussions.
  • Ask insightful questions. Follow news about your prospect’s business. Join LinkedIn groups so that you are in-tune with any relevant discussions. Connect with prospects to understand their LinkedIn activity and what they care about. Find and share interesting industry publications with your prospects.
  • Build trusted relationships. Get introduced through referrals or common connections. Meet the needs of the prospect first, selling second. Sell the problem and the solution, not the product.

This downloadable tipsheet from LinkedIn is designed to improve your prospecting skills. The information and corporate case study contained within will help your sales team learn as much as possible about your prospect before you conduct outreach.

The tipsheet focuses on “gathering intelligence on prospective clients” and “identifying decision makers and influencers” at the outset of your outreach strategy.

Let's take a closer look at some proven sales prospecting techniques and approaches.

Build a strong personal brand

A strong personal brand shows you are an active participant in your industry. It leads to more inquiries from prospects. It leads to more responses to your communications.

In an age when sales prospects are pre-qualifying prospective vendors and sales reps online, you can’t afford to let your personal brand disqualify you from the buying process.

To stay on top of your game, your personal brand needs consistent attention because an unattended online presence can grow stale quickly.

ABC: Always Be Connecting

Networking has always contributed to sales success, but today networking is absolutely essential for finding high-quality prospects and gaining access to the buying process.

People buy from people they like and trust, and there’s no easier way to become liked and trusted than having a mutual connection vouch for you.

By expanding your network and staying engaged with the key connections, you are creating warm paths to reach prospects and opportunities to earn referrals.

Lead with insights or trail those who do

Today’s buyers expect more from sales reps. And the best way to capture the attention of demanding buyers is to lead with insights.

Give your prospect a clear, compelling reason to meet with you to learn more. It shows you’ve done your homework, and it establishes the all-important relevance factor at the outset.

As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Make it count. Do your homework and wow sales prospects with specifics. Anything less is forgettable.

Create a pleasant buying experience

Make yourself memorable by creating a pleasant experience. Then, when prospects are ready to take the next step, they will recall fond memories of dealing with you.

We all want to make more sales faster, and there are certain tactics you can use to naturally speed up the sales cycle. But what doesn’t work is force-feeding an agenda to prospects.

Force yourself to align with the buyer’s agenda, objectives and timeline.

If you use social listening to uncover top-of-funnel questions, answer them to the best of your ability and focus on being helpful.

Prospect smarter, not harder

The ability to focus on the right people and companies daily is what separates those who prospect smarter.

  • Find the right people efficiently
  • Keep track of leads and existing relationships
  • Prioritize the right companies, prospects and sales activities

Smart sales pros empower prospects by helping them save time, by providing insights that aid their decision-making process, and do so in a way that garners trust.

Out-of-the-box Sales Prospecting Tools and Techniques

The Rain Group offers up a few unorthodox suggestions to boost your sales prospecting.

  • Become a Video Rock Star. "You’ll be surprised how even a simple video will boost [Email] opens, the number of people who are engaged with your content, and the number of leads that begin to move down your sales funnel."
  • Leverage Your Losses. "Think about the last five-10 deals you didn’t get. Now think about why you didn’t get them. Do you know why? If not, go find out." Either you’ll improve, you’ll resurrect the deal, or you’ll generate referrals.
  • Gang Up with (Non-Competing) Competitors. "Whoever you’re selling to has dozens of other services and products being sold to them. ... By establishing alliances with others selling different products to the same people, you get some major benefits."
  • Organize Your Very Own CEO Luncheon. "To make this work, you need to tackle the 3 Ps:
  1. Presence—It has to be a small group of very, very senior players
  2. Packaging: It has to feel, sound, and be exclusive
  3. Positioning: It has to combine lunch/dinner with a “big question."
  • Perform a Walk-In. "The next time you meet a friend, business contact, or former colleague for lunch, ... make a simple request: 'Hey. Before we go out, would you mind introducing me to your boss/CEO/VP of marketing? I’ve been wanting to get in touch for a while, and considering I’ll be over there anyway?'"

The Three-Minute Prospecting Workout

If cold calling is still your prospecting method of choice, this simple three-minute prospecting workout from Paul Castain, might be all you need to increase the volume and quality of your sales prospects.

  • At the beginning of the day, leave yourself a 30-second prospecting voicemail
  • Focus on recent relevant talking points
  • Analyze the voicemail during the middle of the day
  • Make notes for ways to improve
  • Leave another voicemail at the end of the day
  • Repeat tomorrow

Castain emphasizes the power of small, consistent practice, concluding that if you perform this three-minute exercise every day, you’ll accumulate more than an hour of steady sales prospecting practice every month. Consistency over time equals results.

Multi-Threading: The New Key to Successful Sales Prospecting

More than a third of respondents in Demand Gen Report's 2014 Buyer Behavior Survey reported that the number of team members involved in their company’s B2B buying process has increased, making the need for multi-threading ever more pressing.

You’ve been there before: You’re speaking with a prospect, he’s excited about your offering, and everything seems to be going wonderfully—when, suddenly, the deal drops dead. What gives?

Even if you’ve completely sold one decision maker, that’s no guarantee that your deal will move forward. In today’s buying environment, you need to reach out to multiple stakeholders.

When it comes to priming a sales prospecting pipeline, most reps have been trained to focus on a single prospect or lead at each target company. But new research suggests that this approach is losing effectiveness in a modern, social-driven sales world.

Not only does a focused, one-relationship approach increase the potential that a deal could fall through unexpectedly, but it also fails to take into account the ways in which B2B sales have transformed.

For buyers of all sizes, the number of decision makers involved has increased. Now, an average of 5.4 people must sign off on each B2B purchasing decision, CEB research reveals.

To close more deals and minimize the risk of a deal falling through, sellers should build relationships with multiple decision makers at every target organization in their sales pipeline.

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