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The Art of Prospecting for Customers

“The Art of Prospecting for Customers”

Strike a gold mine of new customers by polishing cold-calling, referral and direct-mail techniques.

Let’s face it, new customers just don’t stroll through your door, ready to hand over their business. If you want to grow, you have to chase after those dollars.

There are a variety of new tools for reaching out to potential customers, ranging from flashy multimedia presentations to sophisticated selling software. Unfortunately, sizzle too often has become a substitute for substance, and many salespeople have forgotten the basics of prospecting. They’re sending out e-mail messages and waiting for prospects to call them. When the phone doesn’t ring, they blame their product or the process.

Today people are bombarded by marketing messages to buy things, which makes it tough to break through the clutter and get their attention — let alone grab it. That’s why proper planning, persistence and professionalism are more important than ever.

Take Charge With Cold Calls

The big advantage of cold calling: It’s proactive. Especially for a startup that might have a limited network of clients, cold calling enables you to reach out and start touching potential prospects.

The big problem with cold calling: Salespeople hate it. It sparks high anxiety. In fact, many salespeople would rather have a root canal than make a cold call. Yet the right kind of preparation not only breaks down psychological barriers — it gets results.

Define your market. Not everyone is your customer. Before you start prospecting, map out what kind of demographics you’re looking for.

Most companies discover their target market as they go along. But prospecting will pay off faster if you qualify cold calls. Example: If you’re selling customer relationship management software, your prospecting criteria might be all companies with more than 100 employees. If you’re selling financial services to consumers, you might focus on individuals with more than $500,000 in net worth.

Do your homework. After you compile a list, learn specifics about those prospects to position how your product or service will benefit them. A statement such as "We helped Acme Widget (a similar company) increase its production more than 15%" gets their attention and establishes credibility.

Do it daily. Cold calling is a numbers game. The more calls you make, the more new customers you’ll get. "Cold calling is based on the law of sowing and reaping," says selling expert Paul Goldner, who makes between 20 and 50 cold calls each day. "The rewards are in proportion to your effort. Like a diet or working out, if you want results, you’ve got to keep at it."

Set aside a specific time for prospecting each day. Have a list prepared so that you can work without stopping to look up another prospect’s name. The more calls you make in succession, the more you refine your pitch.

Be brief. A cold call is not intended to make a sale, but to get the appointment. When you call:

  1. Greet the prospect by name.
  2. Introduce yourself.
  3. State a reason for your call that includes a benefit for the prospect.
  4. Ask questions to determine the prospect’s needs.
  5. Set an appointment for a longer conversation. Have a couple of dates in mind to suggest. The idea is to optimize your productivity. Besides, if your calendar is empty, it hardly makes you appear like an industrious, successful professional.

This entire process should take only two or three minutes.

Use a script. Three key points to bear in mind:

  1. Scripts must be interesting. Just like ad copywriters, salespeople need the right words to be persuasive.
  2. Scripts must be concise. Get to the point quickly. It’s a lot easier to be concise if you know what you’re going to say.
  3. Scripts must be delivered confidently and conversationally. Too many people don’t practice, which makes even a well-written script sound canned and insincere.

Your script also needs to include answers to FOOs (frequently occurring objections). Because most objections are predictable, it’s possible to come up with eloquent responses. Prepare multiple answers to each objection.

Without a script, you’re not prepared.

Referrals Jump-Start the Trust Bond

The most important advice about referrals can be summed up in three little words: Ask for them.

Salespeople often fear that asking for a referral might put them in a negative light — as if they’re begging for business. Many folks are also afraid it might endanger their relationship with a customer.

Yet referrals can be a powerful way to boost business. Because they shorten the selling cycle, referrals can be cheaper and easier than a cold call. In fact, experts estimate referrals as being four to six times less expensive.

Transferring trust. There’s also a psychological advantage. A referral reduces the fear of potential rejection because people almost always take your call.

The reason: Trust comprises about 40% of the selling equation; determining someone’s needs is another big chunk (about 30%). When prospecting, you must build trust before you can even begin to ask questions and understand needs. Referrals usually come from people who trust you. And since there’s already a relationship of trust between the referral and the source of that referral, that trust bond is transferred.

Acquiring referrals. Most people will rarely volunteer referrals. At the same time, few people refuse to give one if asked. So it’s important to devise a system for constantly collecting referrals.

Here’s one entrepreneur’s secret: Whenever he completes a transaction, the entrepreneur sends the client a letter asking for three referrals — and a letter of reference on company stationery. Getting that reference on the client’s letterhead is especially important for growing companies. You may have worked for impressive customers such as Sony and GE, but how are you going to prove it? The reference letter provides instant credibility.

Some other ideas:

  • Take a customer to lunch with the expressed purpose of generating referrals.
  • State your request up front. Tell new customers in the first visit: "You pay us not only with money, but with referrals."
  • When discussing financial terms, you might add, "We also expect clients to provide three referrals over the next year."

Ask the right way. Don’t ask a close-ended question such as, "Do you know anyone who might like to buy my product/ service?" It’s too easy for the customer to say "no." Instead, nudge them along: "Who do you know in your (manufacturing department, country club, civic group) who could benefit from my product/service as you have?" If they can’t think of anyone right away, ask them to check their database or address book.

People usually just give you names and numbers. Ask clients to go a step further by prefacing your call so that an individual expects to hear from you.

Better yet, ask the client if he or she could arrange a lunch or meeting. (A personal introduction is the highest form of referral.) At the meeting, your goal is not to sell yourself, but to glean information about the prospect. Remember: Build trust by listening, not by talking. You have prospects’ attention when they’re speaking, not when they’re listening to you.

Direct Mail Warms Up Cold Calls

A preapproach letter addressed to the prospect should be standard operating procedure. It establishes you as a marketing expert, not just another person peddling products. In the letter, include benefits and testimonials to validate your company. When
you call, refer to the letter to start a conversation.

When it comes to your preapproach, it’s wise try a combination of media: direct mail, e-mail and fax. That way you can track results and funnel money into the channels that perform best.

One caveat: With today’s blitzkrieg of direct mail, it’s hard to stand out. Here are a couple of new tools:

  • Audio business card or brochure. Many people are auditory thinkers; they remember messages better when heard. An audiocassette of your message can be produced inexpensively — about 50 cents each if produced in quantity.
  • Videotapes. If you’re blessed with good looks and charisma, a video can be especially effective. Costs can be under $2 per video, which compares to $300 for an average face-to-face call.

Both audiotapes and videotapes help warm up your cold call. Though a personal visit or even a phone call can be intrusive, audio and videotapes introduce you to prospects when it’s convenient for them. Who knows? Prospects may even call you. What’s more, you make the most of your time; in essence, you’re multiplying your salesforce.

Yet before you invest in either a cassette or video, make sure you have a good script. Production doesn’t have to be slick, but content and delivery are crucial.

Keep it simple. Besides saving money, a plain-Jane approach may be more effective than glossy materials. When everyone else is circulating four-color brochures, using recycled paper or a simple postcard can set your message apart.

Another advantage of the postcard: There’s nothing to open. If a letter looks like junk mail, many people may toss it in the trash without opening the envelope. A message on a postcard stands a better chance of being read. What’s more, if it’s delivered to an office, more than one person might read it.