There are a multitude of steps that go into the sales process: appointment setting, presentations, proposals, negotiations, closing. But in my experience both as a salesperson and sales manager, the absolute most critical step in the sales process is prospecting. Kind of like the surgeon that successfully removed the wrong kidney - if you are selling to the wrong prospects it won't matter how good you are with the rest of the process.
Ever start driving only to realize miles later that you are going the wrong way? That's what bad prospecting does - it makes you feel like you are making progress until you realize you just wasted a bunch of time. Establishing who your prospects should be and qualifying them quickly is the best way for you to be successful in the rest of the sales process. Here are four steps to successful prospecting:
1. Create your ideal client profile. Sales is all about time management, and to be successful you need to spend you time on the companies and contacts that are most likely to buy your service. Otherwise you risk spinning your wheels on "prospects" that will never need what you are selling, aren't the decision-maker, or are a bad fit for your company. An easy first step is to review your best clients and look for patterns - industry, skillset, size, geography, etc.
2. Disqualifying is even more important than qualifying. You want to narrow your prospect list to the best few. Odds are there are a lot more companies out there that can't buy your service than can, which means you need to disqualify a significantly higher number of companies. For example, Jigsaw (www.jigsaw.com) lists over 25 million contacts at over 4 million companies in its database. There is no way you would want or be able to qualify all of those contacts. Realistically you want to be able to disqualify all but maybe a couple thousand (even less if you are in a niche field), which is a much more manageable number and a better use of your time. By using the ideal client profile you can quickly trim down your prospects and start on step 3, which is:
3. Use pre-qualifying questions. We've all set up appointments from cold calls, only to realize very quickly in the meeting that this was not a qualified prospect. Its a waste of time for you and the person you met with. It also can be expensive when you figure in travel costs, marketing collateral, printing costs, etc. That's why it is critical to pre-qualify over the phone before setting up an appointment. Develop a list of 5 or 6 key questions that will give you a much better idea whether there is truly an opportunity for you to do business with this person.
4. Lose early. The Achilles heel of most sales people is that they just don't know when to move on. Good sales professionals by their nature are competitive, and even though they know that they are chasing a bad prospect, they can't bring themselves to "give up". Once you realize that its not giving up but rather valuing your time, it is much easier to move on and focus your energy on better deals.
Prospecting is the foundation that the entire sales process is based on. Without a stable foundation, the rest of your sales efforts will be bogged down chasing dead ends. Take the time to implement the steps above and you'll find the rest of the sales process moves much more quickly, efficiently, and ultimately results in more new business.