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 be, instantly conjuring a 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 to get back on track. The sheer “ugh” of setting aside the time, motivating ourselves to perform exercises 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 of the effort we must make, to get back into our skinny jeans and feel great again.  So, we set our minds to the task at hand and start playing catchup. Why not this time put in play a long term, more fruitful and rewarding plan?

The Funny Thing About Prospecting

The funny thing about prospecting is that when the economy is booming and prospects are knocking down our doors, we’re so busy answering calls and getting quotes out that we 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, and confirm that we are filling our 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 I’m working on. Marketing will drum up more interest.  Soon enough though, you realize that a couple of deals aren’t going to close as quickly as anticipated, 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 then what do we do?  We quickly and haphazardly go out hunting, starting from a much different and scarier place than if we had a prospecting plan we had been systematically working all along. (For more on how to better leverage your CRM to help with prospecting, click here.)

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 who emphasized this aspect of sales. I’m sure the true sales pros did. I’m sure they understood the importance not only of continually identifying and performing opportunitygenerating activities but, also, of nurturing, tracking and monitoring activities that most often led to opportunities.  Those of us who kind of fell into sales may not have been as fortunate.

But don’t sweat that, it’s never too late to learn and improve. We need to embrace our role and all that it entails.

 For example, I think that part of my journey was learning to identify myself as a salesperson. For many years, I didn’t. I thought of myself as a project manager and as someone who “took care of” customer needs, a problem solver. 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 front end, getting to know prospects, determining needs, figuring out solutions and creating investments to be approved; in other words, “sales.

I was successful at it! 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 devised 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. 

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 that it took a team to successfully win these opportunities. But if I had recognized that I was truly in “sales” and could foresee the path my career would take, perhaps I would have been more proactive in learning how to prospect because – looking toward my future — I would have understood its importance and necessity as a skillset.

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 would have real knowledge of that project. 

I would then start to reach out to introduce myself, ask a few questions and present some small nugget of important information related to the project that made me memorable. 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 finalizing 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 players and found ways to stay connected to each, reasons to continue talking that were beneficial to both parties.  My “Surround ‘em” tracking diagram looked like concentric circles, dots and lines 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 chances of striking the best leads to target.  Establishing connections was all for the purpose of creating interest, sparking a memory, so that when it was time to issue the bid list, I would be one person everyone agreed should receive an invitation.  And it worked.  In fact, as I think back on it, it’s a little reminiscent of a manual version of “LinkedIn”, finding connections that lead to opportunities and establishing a web of connected contacts.

I thought this approach was fun.  I enjoyed the strategy and loved linking connections that strengthened my position and future potential.  I liked seeing how each connection got me closer to my “Surround ‘em” goal. You see, I knew that the more people who knew of me and my company, and what we brought to the table would lead to someone volunteering at the right time, “Yes – I know Tracy and I know the company.  They do great work.”  Just one connection like that, provided opportunity galore, keeping my pipeline strong and full of the most sought after prospects.

We’ve Always Been Prospecting

If we think back to the first person we tried to negotiate a piece of candy from, or that coveted ice cream cone when we were little, indeed we were prospecting!  Back then we used our personal powers of charm, wit, maybe even “cuteness”, to get someone else to give us what we wanted.  We were motivated to negotiate for a “reward”.

As we grew, 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 they were goals we wanted to achieve. Each of these interactions, from the time we were small through today, are experiences that boil down to prospecting.  I don’t remember these actions 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. 

Why Does Prospecting Get Such a Bad Rep?

For something we’ve effectively done throughout our lives in order to help us achieve our goals and has led to many positive interactions and great results, why does prospecting get such a bad reputation?  I think it’s primarily a matter of 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 customers. Not only do we want 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 is what builds our absolute belief in the products and services we sell, and in turn, our customers belief in us. 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, a positive attitude toward prospecting and prospecting activities is a must. We know there will be people interested in talking to us 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.  (For more on how to maintain a better attitude while dealing with COVID-19 sales challenges, click here.)

The Dirty Little Secret About Prospecting Is (Ironically) 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 than others. I’ve learned from experience, from fighting hard to win and coming up short, 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 the many important lessons this has provided.

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, maybe trying something different. 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 and that too is ok.  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 them.

What are some of your most fruitful prospecting activities?