Every time I hear the word “prospecting,” I think of one of these crotchety old miners knee high in some icy mountain stream panning for hours in search of a few tiny flakes of pay dirt.
Not a pretty picture, particularly when updated to reflect the efforts of many creative professionals today when it comes to prospecting for new business; hours on the phone looking for someone who needs a new logo or Web site overhaul. What could be chillier?
Prospecting is anathema to most creative professionals and downright frightening for many. But the fact is, sometimes you have get out there and prospect, so you might as well do it right and get the unpleasantness out of the way quickly as possible.
Here’s the good news: prospecting is not selling. Really, it’s not. In fact, one way to overcome an aversion to prospecting is to remind yourself that you’re not trying to sell anybody anything. Prospecting is about two things:
- Qualifying potential clients. There’s little use in trying to market your services to a company that truly can’t afford you or doesn’t need you (which is different from them thinking that they can’t afford you or don’t need you). So the first goal of prospecting is it separate the wheat from the chaff — to find potential clients that are worthy of your future efforts. Prospecting done well will determine if you have a qualified lead. Focus on the “gold.”
- Building relationships. Prospecting may eventually lead to a sale, but before you can even get there you have to build a relationship, and prospecting is the first step in doing so.
If you can achieve these two goals with a one or two phone calls, you’re almost out of the prospector’s river.
Seven Steps of Successful Prospecting
- Create your list. Cold calls may work for time-share sales, but they have no place in the creative professional’s marketing arsenal. Prospecting works best when you’re making warm calls. These are calls to contacts with whom you have some connection — any connection — that will get you started in the conversation. There are plenty of sources for your warm list, including current clients, past clients, people you’ve met through networking opportunities, colleagues, vendors, that stack of business cards you’ve assembled, and yes, even relatives.Don’t overlook the most important source: companies in your industry or region you’d like to work with and are undergoing a change — a company that just purchased a subsidiary, hired a new VP of marketing, or is coming out with a new line of products. Look for this type of info in your local or trade press, the Internet, or through networking. As soon as you have that nugget of information consider the company a candidate for warm calling.
- Set your goals. Be clear about what the goal is for each particular call. It might be to set up a face-to-face meeting, to send literature, direct someone to your Web site, or simply to mine the name of a key decision maker. Know your goal before you call and you’ll know how to score a success.
- Be persistent. Avoid leaving voice mail messages the first couple of times you call (though Caller ID is making this more difficult). It’s doubtful that a person with buying authority will quickly return unsolicited sales calls. But if after a few attempts, you still can’t reach them, then leave a voice mail message. Just make sure you’ve scripted a powerful message and keep it short.
- Script every call. Not preparing an informal script is perhaps the biggest mistake novice prospectors make. That’s not to suggest that you’ll need script the entire conversation, just the first few key statements. Though this may seem artificial, most successful salespeople use a script to ensure that they consistently have a strong impact. On the telephone you don’t have time to make mistakes. Every word counts, so you’ve got to be prepared.Start with the piece of information that makes it a warm call. “I had lunch with Rajiv Patel yesterday, who mentioned that you…” , “I understand you’ve won a contract with Megacorporation X…”, “I use your Web site as an example when I teach classes and I think I’ve got a few suggestions I’d like to pass on to you…”
Now give your prospect some control. Follow with something like, “Do you have a moment to talk?” If they do, great, then keep chatting. If they don’t, ask for a good time to call back and follow-up accordingly.
- Qualify, qualify, qualify. In some cases, the decision-maker is not necessarily the person who does the buying. The organization may have a separate purchasing department for that purpose. So ask the receptionist or anyone you speak with who the decision maker is.Once you’ve got the right person on the line, if the time is right, move into the qualifying phase. “What are your current needs in this area?”, “If you could change anything about your present service provider what would it be?”, “Is there anybody else besides yourself who might be involved in the decision-making process?”
- Be brief. Keep prospecting calls brief and to the point. You’ll have more in-depth conversations later. You might, however want to add a little something to enhance your legitimacy, such as “We’ve just finished a Web redesign for ABC Industries that resulted in a 25 percent jump in page visits.” The more specific you can be in your case history, the more compelling your proposal will be. So, give actual numbers and percentages if possible.
- Ask questions and listen. In nervous desperation people often try to own the conversation. Try not to. The more talking the prospect does, the more successful the call. Ask the customer questions about his or her goals, challenges, and personal and business philosophies. How would you define success? What’s the time frame? What problems have you encountered in the past? Get them talking.
- Learn to deal with rejection. Rejection happens. It’s part of the package of prospecting. Be ready for it and — as hard as it often is — don’t take it personally. See rejection as a necessary evil in the process and be ready to move on. Or think of it this way; a quick “no” is often better than uncertainty or delaying tactics that result in a “no” much later, after you’ve invested time and money in a proposal.
No one likes prospecting, but sometimes it’s the only way to find that nugget of gold.