The Definitive Guide to Sales Prospecting
Salespeople and gold miners have a lot in common. No, I don’t mean the tireless ambition, the deep-rooted desire to be successful, and the unstoppable drive for precious minerals. Instead, salespeople and miners share one key activity: prospecting.
Back in the gold rush days, with the sole company of a burro, thousands of scruffy-looking miners poked around on a riverbed, knee-deep in cold waters, and took a shot at panning for gold. That was prospecting: searching for nuggets of gold buried in the mud with the hopes of locating a gold vein, and a life of glory thereafter.
Today, salespeople don’t raise a pickaxe to prospect, but still, they need to sift through muddy waters to find potential customers, separating good targets from bad ones. This is called sales prospecting… and it might not be your favorite step of the sales process. Let’s change that.
Sales Prospecting: Definition
Sales prospecting is the process of identifying potential customers, either people or companies, that match your ideal customer profile and, therefore, are relevant for you to contact.
And… what is NOT sales prospecting?
Sales prospecting is not the act of purchasing a pre-made list of potential customers based on minimal criteria so that salespeople can cold-call non-stop and fill their time at work. Some time ago, flipping through the yellow pages or passing on a list to a telemarketing company were suitable means to identify potential customers. This is not sales prospecting, and not really a method, either.
Prospecting is a methodical, exhaustive, and precise activity.
Table of Contents
- The First Step of the Sales Process
- Outbound Sales Prospecting
- Get Ready: What You Need First?
- Step-by-Step Guide to Sales Prospecting
Prospecting: The first step of the sales process
A sales process that works starts with prospecting, simply because before you pick up the phone and start dialing, you need to know whom to call, right? Prospecting gives an answer to a fundamental question: what company is interested in the products and services you're offering?
In theory, if you ask as many companies and people as possible, you’ll find prospects who want to buy what you're offering. It goes without saying that’s not a very sustainable business model. Yes, you might improve your sales figures, but you and your company will be perceived as a nuisance. We all know how annoying an untimely sales call is. There’s another word for it: spam. This isn’t what sales is all about.
A true salesperson is someone who understands the potential customer’s needs and helps them solve an existing problem. You can’t be helpful if your sales process is based on guesswork.
Therefore, before you sell, you need to prospect. A systematic sales prospecting process will improve sales figures, but more importantly, robust prospecting will ensure your outreach is professional, and you’re relevant in every step of the sales process so you provide value to the prospect immediately.
A true salesperson is someone who understands the potential customer’s needs and helps them solve an existing problem. And, more often than not, you won't be helpful if your sales process is based on guesswork.
When to prospect
As the song goes, you don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry… and, you don’t miss your prospects ‘til your pipeline runs dry. If prospecting is not in your routine, your pipeline eventually will dry up (panic! 😱). Because pipelines are meant to hold a steady stream of prospects, a good salesperson is constantly prospecting.
Make sales prospecting a daily habit, even when you don’t need new to find new prospects. Fortunately, today, with the help of technology, you can automate much of your sales prospecting process. As organizations change, a company that is a bad fit today can become a strong potential customer once circumstances change. Sales intelligence tools let you track these events, so-called buying signals. A bit more on this later in this post.
There are several ways to find people who may want to buy:
- Inbound marketing, based on acquiring leads thanks to content marketing and SEO
- Offline sources, like networking and referrals, based on relationships
- Social selling, based on activity on social media
- Outbound sales prospecting, based on identifying prospects and reaching out to them.
There are downsides to each of these methods. Inbound is a resource-hungry, long-term strategy, mostly dependent on the marketing team. Referrals might not be enough, and networking is often a long shot. Outbound prospecting, however, lets salespeople be in control, transforming them into explorers, panning for gold by the river.
Traditionally, pretty much every organization trusted the sales department and their prospecting efforts to drive business to the company. As customers became more selective and knowledgeable, inbound grew stronger and companies saw this strategy as a solution to their prospecting problems. Marketing departments aimed to attract as many leads as possible to the website, and then, pass the best ones to the sales department. This created a new set of problems as many companies struggled to find quality leads.
Many salespeople despise prospecting, because the wrong prospecting methods put them in the uncomfortable position of speaking to people who are not interested in hearing about the product or service.
It’s the long-standing debate between lead generation and sales prospecting. Both processes share the same goal—turn potential buyers into revenue-generating customers—but use different methods and skills. Handled by the marketing department, lead generation is a long-term tactic for companies to drive awareness and get in front of the buyer. It is casting a wide net to attract as many fish as possible. Whereas sales prospecting, handled by the sales team, is all about urgency and short-term activities intended to convert existing leads into paying customers, separating the good prospects from the bad.
Today, the fastest-growing organizations use a mix of all of these methods to source prospects. In combination with actionable insights from company data provided by sales tech, companies can target the prospects most likely to convert, and be more relevant in every step of the sales process.
Outbound sales prospecting
You just read it: prospecting is at the core of sales. And yet, many salespeople despise prospecting. It’s understandable. Using the wrong prospecting methods puts salespeople in the uncomfortable position of speaking to people who are not interested in hearing what they are being told.
Not so long ago, the prospecting process was not very precise. Salespeople would use a list of companies that were segmented by a few basic characteristics such as industry, location, and company size. There was very little intelligence built into the process. As a result, it is not surprising salespeople often make irrelevant calls, and are seen as a bother. Not only that, salespeople themselves get frustrated, as prospecting takes much of their time and yields poor returns.
That said, it’s not true that nobody wants to talk with a salesperson. The use of effective and modern prospecting techniques will connect salespeople with people who are genuinely interested in what you have to say, as they have a need that you can fulfill.
I already wrote that effective prospecting techniques can build the foundation of an adequate sales process, making you relevant in every step of it.
Let’s see how—step by step.
Pre-prospecting: what you need to know first
From LinkedIn to a trade show, you can source potential prospects from a variety of channels, quickly gathering vast amounts of contact details, names, and other information. This is the easy part of the job. Next, get ready to do the digging. Prospecting will unveil the potential customers that are a good fit for your organization, and you can move through the sales process.
But before you dig, make sure you have all the necessary tools.
The use of effective and modern prospecting techniques will connect salespeople with people who are genuinely interested in what they have to offer.
A gold miner’s bag included chisels with pickaxes, hammers, shovels, pans, and some other tools to find and dig out those golden nuggets. Before you start prospecting, make sure you have the required tools and skills. You’ll need:
- Inside-out knowledge of your product—to confidently present and answer objections.
- A thorough description of your ideal customer profile (ICP).
- Crazy good researching skills—prospectors have to dig, right?
- Extensive and accurate company information—to understand prospects’ needs.
Using this set of skills and tools, once you're finished with a sales prospecting session, you not only have a list of promising prospects to contact but also a relevant reason to contact them at the right time.
Step 1: Determine your ideal customer profile
Goal: Describe the makeup of your ideal customer.
In any prospecting session, your ICP will be your guiding light. Frequent readers of this blog know it well: an ICP is a fictitious description of your most perfect customer. That type of customer that costs the least to acquire, stays with you for a long time, and has a strong lifetime value, is less likely to churn, and, eventually, champions your brand. We all need an ICP in our lives. 😉
Firmographics, like location, countries of operation, and number of employees are common attributes used to build an ICP, but you should outline a set of characteristics that are relevant to your company. Consider technographics (the tech stack a company uses) such as the use of a marketing automation platform. This attribute, for instance, can indicate a company is investing heavily in content marketing.
Extensive knowledge of your ICP lets you determine which prospects will be worth your time. A deal is a deal, but you don’t want to sign customers that are a bad fit and likely to churn. Your company should not dedicate resources to unhappy customers. Don’t be afraid to disqualify a prospect!
Our 60-page guide to sales prospecting walks you through the process of defining a top-notch ICP. No time? Here’s the short version:
- Look at your happiest existing customers.
- Prioritize customers that will stay with you.
- Find ready, willing, and able companies.
Takeaway: Define the ideal customer profile for your organization to ensure you don’t waste time talking to people who don’t need you.
Step 2: Find the companies that fit your ICP
Goal: Create a list of companies that match the description of your ideal customer profile.
In their hunt for gold, I can imagine prospectors carefully studying hand-drawn maps before stepping through muddy waters. Brave explorers put their lives on the line in their search for gold. Wasting time and energy on the wrong stream bed could mean the difference between death and glory.
Salespeople don’t quite risk their lives, but similarly to gold-digging, the success of prospecting greatly depends on research and what you know about your prospects. At this stage of the prospecting process, any information you can compile will help you create your very own treasure map to figuring out the companies that share characteristics with your ICP. The closer your prospects are to your ICP, the stronger the potential of your prospects will be, and therefore rank higher in your priority list.
You can build a list of best-fit prospects by manually searching for relevant information through Google. However, reading countless About us pages can only get you so far, and you would miss less obvious attributes. Plus, the amount of time you need will hurt. Simply put, building a prospect list manually is the slow, painful death of a salesperson.
Fortunately, we live in a time where there’s a megaton of automation at our fingertips. The sales process is starting to look like this: press a ‘start’ button, sit back and let a supercomputer take care of the rest. Ok, not quite. While we haven’t nailed that futuristic scenario just yet, sales intelligence software gives you the ability to make data-driven decisions when conducting your sales prospecting. By looking at the account insights provided by data, and listing both your required and wishlist characteristics for a potential customer, you’ll figure out which companies you should reach out to, increasing the hit rate throughout the whole sales process.
Access to data—and the ability to make sense out of it—increases the quality and efficiency of your sales prospecting. The data points you look at in this phase should correspond with the characteristics you use to define your ICP. For example, if your ICP listed certain technographics, you should access the information that reveals these technical attributes.
Real-time prospect lists
Static data doesn't cut it anymore. Companies and organizations, like people, are continuously changing and evolving: new hires, new offices, international expansion… There are moments when your product or service will be needed more than at another time. Organizations will fall in and out of your list of best-fit prospects. Thus, it makes sense to use real-time prospect lists instead of relying on static lists with data that can (and will) become stale and outdated.
Working with accurate data from the very beginning will increase your close rates, simply because you’ll be able to focus on prospects that matter. Leave old data in the past, where it belongs, and avoid reaching out to disconnected phones or having emails bounce back due to invalid addresses.
- Trust data to determine what constitutes a best-fit prospect.
- Create a real-time target list with the same criteria as you’ve included in your ICP.
Step 3: Prioritize
Goal: Dedicate your strongest efforts and resources to the prospects that are most likely to become customers.
Once you’ve done your research, you’ve uncovered the prospects that are worth your while. Now that you’re armed with a good understanding of your prospects and their motivations, you need to decide whom to reach out first or dedicate most of your resources to. You’re ready to prioritize your prospects.
To prioritize your prospects, create a few groups of prospects based on their likelihood to buy. This way, during the outreach phase, you can focus on one group at a time.
Nothing is harder than selling to people who are not ready to buy.
Traditionally, marketers and sales pros have referred to this step as lead scoring. In modern B2B sales organizations, as rarely a person makes an enterprise purchase individually, it’s become more usual to talk about account scoring to rank prospects based on the organizations' likelihood to become a customer.
If your research is sound, lead qualification should be a walk in the park. Break down the qualified dimensions you use during your research into percentages between 1 and 100 based on how important they are to the sales process. This tells you the weight of each dimension. Like this:
- Social media presence = 15%
- Marketing automation technology = 5%
- Number of employees larger than 100 = 20%
Next, assign a value between 1 and 100 to these dimensions for each prospect in the list to determine the prospect’s value.
- Prospect Company A
- Social media presence: 30
- Number of employees: 40
- Use of marketing automation tools: 15
Finally, multiply each prospect’s value by the percentage weight to have a total score.
- Total score = Prospect’s value x Dimension’s weight
Don’t worry if your math is not the best. Lead management software can do this step automatically.
Takeaway: Prioritization and account scoring will increase salespeople's morale as data ranks the prospects interested in the service offered.
Step 4: Identify prospects with the right window to reach out
Goal: Use trigger events to increase your chances of landing at the right place at the right time, and with the right angle.
Once your research skills have produced a list of prospects that would be ideal customers, you could be tempted to pick up the phone and start calling. Hold on. Nothing is harder than selling to people who are not ready to buy. You may feel the pressure to hit quota, but contacting prospects at the wrong moment will not help hit your targets. On the contrary, you’re likely to reach prospects that are not ready to buy just yet, resulting in missed opportunities.
The next step of a successful prospecting process is establishing the right moment to reach out by following a set of buying signals. A buying signal gives you a reason to contact a company that is matching your ICP. During sales prospecting, buying signals serve as your sixth sense to be aware of when a window of opportunity to sell opens up. Open positions, funding rounds, office moves, new product releases, mergers, or acquisitions are all revealing sales trigger events.
With the help of sales intelligence software, you can track a large number of buying signals, but you should choose those that are most relevant to your ICP. If your ICP is companies expanding in Asia, but not in China, you should track these signals specifically.
A buying signal can also alert you of events that take companies closer to your ICP, so you can include them into your lists or prospects—or exclude them if that’s the case. What might have been an unqualified prospect yesterday can very well be a great target tomorrow.
How to choose trigger events
First, take a closer look at your existing customers: what happened in their organizations before they became customers? You might see a pattern there and see which signals preceded them signing a deal with you.
Once you find a correlation between a happy customer and a buying signal, you’ll find a large number of warm prospects. And, when you have a long list of prospects, you can use trigger events to prioritize companies. This template shows a list of the ten most common trigger events.
Takeaway: Track buying signals that are most relevant to your ICP.
Step 5: Prep the outreach
Goal: Gather in-depth information on your prospects in order to prepare your pitch and personalize your outreach.
It’s one of our sacred mantras at Vainu: the more you know about your prospects, the better your sales prospecting process is. When preparing for an interview, reporters can only come up with interesting questions if they know everything there is to know about their subject.
The same mindset applies to sales. Before you pick up the phone or write an introduction email, you must learn what the prospects care about and what motivates them. This way, you can prepare your pitch and the tailor-made messaging that enterprise deals require.
Tailor your pitch based on the prospects’ current situation.
You can gather information on your prospects in different ways:
- Read the company’s website and blogs. With this information, you’ll understand the prospect’s industry, needs, and motivations. What do they like talking about?
- Social media presence. Do they have a strong following? How are their clients? You’ll learn about a prospect's personality and identity.
- Sales intelligence platforms. These tools give you plenty of less obvious information. Buying signals alert you when there's a good moment and reason to reach out.
The time you spent researching earlier will pay off now with the account insights you gathered. The information about the prospects you have now, including the not-so-obvious factors that define a company lets you personalize a pitch that addresses and resonates with the prospect’s needs and objectives. And more importantly, it also gives you a reason and the right context to contact them, being timely and not spammy. As you use real-time prospect lists, you can tailor your pitch based on the prospects’ current situation. This way, the prospect will feel like you understand their business, which is extremely valuable for building trust.
Are they using technologies that are relevant to your offering? Are they opening new offices? Answers to these types of questions will help you prepare the outreach. Technology brings you insights to your fingertips, and these insights, but in data, will lead to the best possible outcome.
Takeaway: Use the information you've gathered to prepare a personalized pitch.
Step 6: The first touch
Goal: Establish the first contact. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Congrats! You’ve done the leg work. Now, do you feel the butterflies in your stomach? It’s time to reach out and establish the first touch, either by email or by phone. This is the moment that reveals the success of your prospecting process.
At this step, rejection anxiety is a major feeling, but remember, if you followed the previous prospecting steps thoroughly, you can rest assured, you’ll be reaching out to prospects that are expecting to hear your message. You’re there to help them.
The prospecting process also has given you the information you need to be relevant and personal, so your first touch can be highly tailored to the person you are contacting.
Whether you use email or phone, keep the following general tips.
- Stay relevant
- Be human
- Help, don’t upset
- Underline the reason for your call
- Don’t overpromise
- Use the time scheduled
Takeaway: Stay relevant as you advance through the next steps of the sales process.
Step 7: Iterate
Goal: Assess what you know about the prospect after the first touch and follow-up.
In sales utopia, you'd close the deal after the first call. But the reality is not that kind. After the first touch, the relationship with your prospect has just started, but you should be in a position to nurture this relationship. After each first touch, keep notes and review: what generated value, what are the obstacles. You should consider the following things:
- Uncovered challenges
- Helped create well-defined goals
- Confirmed availability of budget
- Understood decision-making process
- Identified potential results of success
- Determined consequences of inaction
Takeaway: Review your process to learn and improve your prospecting techniques in the future.
Sales prospecting tools
If nothing else, by the end of this long blog post you’re well aware that a modern sales prospecting process can’t escape technology. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of sales prospecting tools in the market these days. However, choosing the right one for your business can be overwhelming—there are so many!
To help you select a sales prospecting tool, take a look at our Best Sales Tools eBook. We’ve selected the best ten sales tools in ten different categories, including prospecting.
Gold miners kneeling by the river, panning for gold, are from a time long gone. Sales prospecting is not. Prospecting will continue to be a pivotal activity for any salesperson.
In times where we’re just a click away from vast amounts of data, your sales prospecting process will only be as good as your data is. That is because data, and the insights it provides, are what allow you to continually focus on quality over quantity when you do outbound sales prospecting.
Whatever the way you execute your sales prospecting, afterwards you should know which company to approach, who to contact there, when to contact them, and what to talk about.
Whatever the way you execute your sales prospecting, the end result should produce this: which company to approach, whom to contact there, when to contact them, and what to talk about. Prospecting is finding the right people to reach, at the right moment, and with the right message. Just like in every other aspect of the sales process, you need to focus on people and accounts that are suited for your product or service.
When done incorrectly, prospecting is hard. But when it’s backed by data insights, it will yield more precise results and build the foundation of a highly functioning sales process. Instead of searching for gold at the wrong stream, you'll be in the right place. Prospecting will be not only a more precise activity but also will make you, as a salesperson, more relevant in every step of the sales process. And, you'll arrive before anyone else. The vein of gold is near.