Nobody is answering that door.
Prospecting has changed, folks.
Smart sales reps need to think digital and be creative if they hope to win the attention of qualified prospects.
How do you prospect in this new era of sales?
Read on to get the ASLAN take on what it takes to succeed in sales prospecting.
ASLAN is here to help you create influence and results, not just lob another sales pitch. Prospecting is an early-stage strategy to any sales cycle, and one that reps need to master if they’re going to earn fresh opportunities. Realize your team is lacking modern approaches to prospecting? We’re here to talk anytime.
Definition of Terms and Categories
First, let’s define some of the terms we’ll use throughout this guide.
Access — You’ll see this term used below, and it’s a term we use a lot here at ASLAN (and in industries like Pharma where it’s embedded in the vernacular). Access refers to what prospecting should result in, i.e., a rep’s ability to get in front of a decision maker.
Caveat: every company defines prospects and leads differently. Here’s how we’ll define them for the purposes of this guide.
Prospect — Someone who matches qualifying criteria and could buy from your company.
Lead — A prospective customer who a sales rep has the ability to contact or communicate with.
Lead generation — Lead generation refers to the efforts it takes to identify and cultivate prospective customers until they become viable leads.
Lead scoring — An analysis of pre-defined metrics and scoring based on how likely a lead is to convert.
Example: Sales qualified lead (SQL) — A sales qualified lead has moved from being marketing qualified to being the responsibility of the sales team. Goal = conversion.
Lead nurturing — A process of proactively, consistently, intentionally communicating with a lead to encourage them toward conversion. This is usually done in a sequence.
Outbound prospecting — Outbound prospecting is an outward effort whereby a rep goes out and pursues new accounts/individuals they may or may not have any existing connection to or relationship with.
Example: outbound prospecting may include tasks like cold calling and cold emailing or direct messaging.
Inbound prospecting — Inbound prospecting attracts new accounts, using a funnel to build awareness, then rapport, with the goal of finding qualified opportunities.
Example: using digital content — such as blogs, infographics, eBooks, podcasts, and more — to pique the interest of a qualified individual or company.
Sales Prospecting: Then & Now
It’s safe to say that sales prospecting has changed in dramatic ways over the last decade. Let’s take a quick look at what has changed and where it stands now.
The History and Evolution of Sales Prospecting
Prospecting has been around for as long as formalized commerce.
Here’s are some callouts from the history of sales prospecting in the U.S.:
1878 — The first phone book, or telephone directory, was printed with fifty listings of individuals and businesses.
1886 — The “yellow pages” started out of Wyoming in 1883. In 1886, Reuben Donnelley created the first official directory.
1903 — The biggest recorded “prospecting list” of the turn of the century was created. It had 600,000 entries sourced from phone books, and was created by a New York based company called Multi-Mailing Co.
1957 — Life Circulation Company (later DialAmerica) became one of the first inside sales teams in the U.S. Interesting fact: this team was composed entirely of females.
1970s — Early versions of technology-based prospecting databases emerged, pioneered by Robert and Kate Kestnbaum.
1980-1999 — Technology for customer relationship management (CRM) software was steadily developed, formalizing into the first cloud-based SaaS CRM platform we know today as Salesforce.
2000s — D&B Companies, Data.com, and other web directory providers gave sales reps access to firmographics or data points they could use to prospect. Lists related to funding rounds, award-winners, and other data with descriptions became available on demand.
2009 — Network expansion across platforms birthed a new form of prospecting through affiliates. Xero, a New Zealand based software company, had one of the earliest successes with a robust affiliate program, gaining as many as 135,000 customers over the course of three years. 60% of those customers could be attributed to the company’s affiliate program.
2010-2022 — Big advances in prospecting across digital fronts, with an increase in adoption and access to AI and other sales automation tools. Two of the most noteworthy tools developed were the first CRM (Salesforce) and the largest marketing automation system (HubSpot).
Over the last decade, digitization hit in a big way, indelibly changing how fast and effectively sales reps could prospect.
Sales 2.0 → Sales 3.0
With Web 2.0, salespeople all of a sudden had big data and downloadable lists of phone numbers, addresses, and emails. The second wave of the internet accelerated digital communication, digital marketing, and social media. A new rate of communication entered the scene, unlocking tons of possibilities for reps to prospect.
Long story short: no more rolodexes, hello digital databases.
Of course, this also introduced a host of issues, including the learning curve of digital-first prospecting methods and the ongoing balance of going deep (relationships) while going wide (volume).
The scalability of digital sales tools was a big point of emphasis from about 2010-2020.
Then, rumblings about Web 3.0 began, and it became clear that another huge change was on the horizon.
Web 3.0 is introducing a new era of digital culture. Catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, many sales functions and conversations have gone online.
This shift in buyer behavior is important for anyone involved in sales to notice and respond to.
|Business to consumer (B2C) Buying Behavior
|The retail landscape and consumer behavior accelerated before and during the pandemic, with record-breaking e-commerce transactions.
|Business to business (B2B) Buying Behavior
|B2C trends impacted the revenue share of B2B companies, with evidence to support that change happening both before and during the pandemic.
In the B2B space, deal cycles were dramatically impacted by the pandemic and moved to digital environments.
Buyer behavior recorded by Statista shows that before the pandemic, 60% of B2B buyers identified new suppliers online. Now, that number is 78%.
Prospecting is about finding new opportunities. The ability to identify those has a great deal to do with buying behavior. The evidence of the trends above means that technology is more important than ever for the whole sales cycle, beginning with prospecting activities.
Leaders and reps also now have sophisticated ways to extract information and insights out of data, thanks to the infusion of artificial intelligence (AI), natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML), and more.
The next frontier may very well be something that buying behavior is showing early signs of: virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) experiences.
At first relegated to the world of entertainment or gaming, the idea of immersive buying experiences not just for B2C but also for high-ticket, B2B transactions could play a role in “what’s next.”
Sales Prospecting in 2023
They may not play a digital concierge in the metaverse, but reps do need effective ways of reaching prospects in 2023.
All About Access
If we were to call out one big theme of sales prospecting both now and into the future it’s an emphasis on gaining access to decision makers. It’s the number one issue salespeople are up against: getting someone on the phone, getting an email response, getting in the door. The ability to earn that access is an extension of prospecting skills.
It can’t be overstated and will be abundantly clear as you read this:
→ There are multiple ways to find and organize prospect information
→ The real challenge is in getting access to them
It’s something we emphasize a lot at ASLAN, and a big point of focus as we teach people not just to find the door (get the list), but to get through it (gain access).
Much of the tech and tactics delineated throughout this article will underscore the methods of finding and connecting to the right prospects. All of these should be understood to support the big picture goal of creating receptivity. That receptivity is the key to getting someone open to have a meaningful conversation about sales.
Here are two of the indicators experts are talking a lot about, presumed to have an impact on the next season of sales prospecting:
Databases have gotten smarter and filtering capabilities more robust. As these datasets grow, they are virtually all-encompassing, yielding immediate insights into more than just basic firmographics: sales reps can see technographics, web properties/digital holdings, news alerts, and more.
This changes not only the nature of what a rep can do during prospecting but what prospects come to expect as far as personalized, relevant messaging.
While the data we have is profound and useful, sourcing options are becoming limited. The reality of losing third-party cookies is going to impact how any organization in the world sources data.
Businesses have to get creative about how they are going to incentivize data exchange, or find ways to create unique, first-party data.
Human first social media will be important to bypass the “creepiness” of a super personalized cold outreach (hot tip: don’t mention their firstborn’s child’s name… or recent soccer game win).
Social media has diminished the barriers between prospect and rep, creating a gateway for forging professional/personal relationships and nurturing prospects from all around the world.
Reps need to learn how to wield this power wisely, playing the right cards at the right moment to make people feel cared for, not violated.
LinkedIn and Twitter are the two most popular social networking platforms for businesses and contain vast capabilities for gleaning contact information and details.
In a recent article, VP Principal Analyst at Forrester, Ross Graber, highlighted a “hotly debated” prediction his firm has made:
“The number of demand teams reporting into sales will jump to 20%.”
He clarifies that this is not a recommendation. But it is a powerful prediction.
The hints of a recession, ongoing market volatility, and other current events may mean that sales prospecting and demand and lead generation rise to a high priority in organizations in the coming year.
Sales Prospecting Stats
Here are some facts and stats to set the stage for strategic and tactical considerations:
Top sellers spend an average of six hours every week researching prospects.
On average, it takes eight cold calls or outreaches to reach a prospect.
Top sales performers make 82% more cold calls but send 26% fewer unsolicited emails.
Since 2020, digital interactions with sales reps have increased 41%, with online chats increasing 21%.
The best sales prospectors set 2.7x more meetings, achieve their sales goals, and have higher win rates.
Source: RAIN Sales Training by the RAIN Group
Approaches to Sales Prospecting
Prospecting is the first stage of virtually any sales cycle. It is often coupled with qualifying, because leads really shouldn’t move further along the process unless a case can be made that there is some chance they’ll convert.
There are some nuances to sales prospecting depending on whether it happens in business to consumer (B2C) or business to business (B2B) sales.
Prospecting is most commonly formalized and focused on in a B2B environment, where there are lengthier sales cycles and bigger deals. We’ll cover both but focus on prospecting where it tends to count most.
B2C and Prospecting
B2C goes directly to the consumer. The effectiveness of B2C prospecting is often determined by speed and scale, two things achieved by technology. Much of the list-building and outreach that makes up B2C prospecting can be automated so that sales reps can deal with the richest shortlist possible.
As with most prospecting, there needs to be a coordination of efforts between how marketing gets the brand out into the world, then what sales does to build on that momentum.
Here are the steps marketing and sales take together to support B2C sales prospecting:
- Establishing personas (ideal client profiles) and qualifications
- Using predictable behaviors to find the right channels and deploy the right messaging
- Creating lead scoring frameworks to move people from a marketing qualified lead (MQL) to a sales qualified lead (SQL)
Then, the sales team can be out proactively prospecting:
- Direct messaging or emailing, using strategic questions to suss out valuable prospects
- Creating and using frameworks for first-touch sales conversations to determine the viability of a lead
- Deploying the right follow up to nurture the lead
Many of those tasks are exactly the same in a B2B context, but reps here may have to dive deeper.
B2B Sales Prospecting
B2B sales prospecting is taking one business’s solutions to the door of another business. This could be anything from a simple SaaS subscription to a giant eight figure transaction. B2B sales prospecting is complex for a lot of reasons:
- There are often numerous stakeholders who have to be uncovered and accessed — prospecting in B2B means finding the right entry point. You may not initially connect with the big dog, but you can find an open door to get through.
- Businesses are up and running with existing suppliers. In B2B, you may be replacing something/someone else, which means making the case for your product is different. Not harder or easier. Just different. So the opening of that conversation in prospecting is totally unique from B2C, and you may have a job convincing them to hear you out and buy into your company’s superiority.
- Teams are busy. There are departments all running along, often in silos. It can take some real time and nurturing to get in front of someone at all. You have to be persistent and not afraid to keep showing up.
- They need real solutions. This is an outcome of lean teams and lean time: reps need to stand out through the use of tools like Loom or Vidyard, which humanize the prospecting process. They also need to converse meaningfully with increasingly intelligent and educated buyers. Those buyers can get answers to a lot of questions online. Reps need to go above and beyond and offer something unique and non-Googleable.
Sales Prospecting Technology and Tools
B2B processes benefit greatly from prospecting control software (like a CRM) and prospecting intelligence tools (usually related to data management and reports).
Here are some tech tools that get regular use in sales prospecting:
- Sales enablement content creation software, which produces decks, videos, podcast episodes, swipe files, and more
- Data and prospecting tools, which may specialize in a certain area to source hard-to-find email addresses or links
- Industry databases, which you often get on a subscription basis and may harvest prospects from a target field
- Social selling tools, such as the SSI from LinkedIn, inherent in many social platforms and can rank a rep’s own behaviors against industry standards
- Voice intelligence (voice AI) powered chatbots or autodialers
- Lead management tools, usually in a CRM or an on-platform tool like LinkedIn Sales Navigator
- Lead scoring tools, usually capable of coordinating the data flow between a content management system (CMS), other digital properties, ad platforms, and a CRM
- Scheduling tools, such as calendars and scheduling devices that can be optimized to provide ideal times relative to time zone, open availability, meeting reminders, and more
- Video conferencing or video tools, including Zoom which is typically the go-to for quick video conferences and discovery calls
- Meeting and product demos, which have been enhanced to include real time previews, engaging graphic presentations, motion graphics, CTAs, and more
- Sales performance tools, which help a leader attach quantifiable scoring to a rep’s performance to support coaching and performance goals
The Power of Data-Driven Sales Prospecting
Everything from your good ole’ CRM to cutting-edge AI chatbots generate data. This data can be useless, or it can be very skilfully used to support data-driven sales prospecting efforts.
Here’s what that phrase means in the real world.
Emails with personalized subject lines can increase open rates by 26%
Now, we warned against this (don’t be too personal — it’s oh so awkward). But the truth is, your ability to delve into the psychographics and demographics of an ideal client persona is mission critical for prospecting.
Let’s take a second to talk about the reticular activating system (RAS). Yes, we’re dipping into neurology. The RAS is a reason your pitch is ignored. It’s the part of the brain that sifts through what’s important and what’s not. For high-value prospects, barraged by endless messages a day, it’s all too easy to tune out, and their brain will effectively do it for them. You need a way to arrest their attention, which means shifting focus to what they care about and what is a high priority to them.
To gain access and conduct successful prospecting, reps need to think about what’s on a prospect’s whiteboard. Not globally, but in a granular way.
Hyper-personalizing content unlocks the power of Other-Centered™ selling. People are most interested in themselves. If you can find and connect with a prospect on a personal level, their willingness to hear you out goes through the roof.
Data can give you the ability to personalize DMs, personalize email subject lines, personalize that first three minute cold call. Keep track of what you say and how you say it, refining what works each time.
The goal is to get a prospect off an email into a conversation. Learn more about that on Ep. 34 of Sales with ASLAN.
Retargeting is not prospecting, but it’s a great supporting tactic.
What retargeting does is get back in front of someone who once expressed some interest in a product or service.
Search terms, CRM data, on-site/on platform behavior, and numerous other behavioral metrics mean that retargeting can be achieved. For automated re-engagement, you really can’t beat it.
Sequences and Lead Nurturing
Sophisticated prospecting needs two things:
- A well-defined audience segment and ideal customer persona
- A purpose-built sequence of messages
The former should be set at a high level and part of your big picture sales strategy. The latter should be beautifully produced, excellently worded, and laser-targeted to address the pain points and value drivers of that audience segment.
You must capture data around the audience in order to make this work, then you must tweak the pre-written messaging to ensure your sequences don’t sound stiff or robotic. Keep it laser focused but make it human.
Here’s a freebie (AKA, the ASLAN secret sauce for prospecting emails):
A killer three-part lead nurture email sequence to a prospect may include —
Email 1: Offer a disruptive truth. Something that will rock their world or surprise them a little. Put it in the subject line to hook them in. Keep it short.
Email 2: Offer an expert insight. Something that makes them go, “hm, I’ve never thought of it that way” or provides unique data they can’t find anywhere else. Make it clear you know what you’re talking about. You’re an expert.
Email 3: Offer a proprietary benefit. After the first two, you’ve established a little credibility and given some insight for free. Now hit them with the description of what you do.
Those three emails would be great to pre-build into your CRM, then customized to different segments of your audience.
Automations and Workflows
Triggered emails have a 70.5% higher open rate and 152% higher click-through rate than routine email newsletters
Automations and workflows are when you really start to up your prospecting game. This is a sophisticated way to craft technology to suit your prospecting needs and goals.
Point being: if all your sales team is doing is resending marketing emails, or worse yet, typing out random stream-of-consciousness messages to prospects, you’re really missing out.
Think about how to create custom, yet automated content (maybe following the three-email sequence model above) that alleviates the people-hours of prospecting, but still gives you all the info you need to pursue the right people.
New Sales Prospecting Tactics
The drumbeat of this guide is that: this is a modern world, where old hat ways won’t work to gain access. This doesn’t mean a wholesale abandonment of the true blue golf outing, networking event, or phone calls. It does mean that reps have some new sales prospecting tactics to pull into their repertoire.
Here are two of the most popular ones we’ve watched take off in the last couple of years.
People distrust salespeople. But they trust people they know. Referrals have taken off as a fast, easy way to build trust and get more prospects in your pipeline.
Referrals vouch for you.
The way you get this tactic to work for you is by expanding your network, and the online world is full of ways to do that:
- Join professional online groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.
- Follow hashtags on social media platforms and start to engage on that content.
- Get a new certification (there are tons of these popping up for sales) through a big name certifier or organization — you’ll be in a colleague cohort.
- Build relationships with non-competitive business partners and watch that reciprocity work for you. Pulling this tried-and-true approach into this decade translates into guesting on podcasts, writing guest posts for people, doing social media takeovers, and more.
- Be a part of a research project. Digital surveys get sent to groups of people in various industries all the time. You’ll be around similar professionals in other businesses and get your name out there.
- Become an influential thought leader. Not necessarily an influencer, but influential. Speak up about the news, what’s happening in the world, and pursue visibility as someone who has good things to say.
- Create a process. You don’t want to have referrals start rolling in and not have an established method for remuneration or even a simple thank you follow up.
Speaking of social, there’s no denying the power of Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, etc….
Here’s what HubSpot surveys have shown about the effectiveness of prospecting through social media:
56% of sales professionals will use social media to find new prospects
Of these, here’s the breakdown of the platforms they find effective:
Facebook — 67%
LinkedIn — 63% (but note, the survey also showed that 74% report LinkedIn as the most valuable prospect researching platform)
Instagram — 62%
YouTube — 51%
TikTok — 48%
Reddit — 39%
Social media can be full of opportunities for the sales rep who learns to navigate the terrain well. Be authentic. Don’t pop into DMs unannounced or uninvited. Warm those prospects up. Have something valuable to say.
Sales Prospecting Reminders
Here are a couple of reminders about how to apply the many sales prospecting principles we’ve delineated above.
Stop Interrupting, Build Interest, Be Visible
A chief tenant of sales prospecting in the olden days (maybe not so olden) was that you had to shock or interrupt someone to get attention. Yes, you can and must capture attention. But cold emails and cringey DMs are not a welcome interruption.
Think about how to build the energy and awareness, just like you would in-person, by establishing some rapport using digital means. This may mean a lot of the ideas listed above, like joining industry groups on LinkedIn and contributing so that you become a visible conversation-starter. It may mean sponsoring a trade show or charity event.
Find out who your prospects are through all of the great data you can get your hands on, then discover where they hang out, and meet them there, bringing the right conversation at the right time.
You need to leap into the current of the industry and digital lives of the individuals you’re going after, not expect them to stop all they’re doing and pay attention to your pitch.
The tables have turned, and reps who thrive will flex to this new norm.
Not Just Quantity Time: Spend Quality Time
If you Google, “how much time should a sales team spend prospecting?” you’re going to find recommendations that vary from 20%-75% of their working hours. There are too many variables to say for sure how much time your reps should spend prospecting.
What is sure is that quantity (call blitzes, etc.) isn’t going to cut it. These days, prospects want nice, meaningful exchanges.
This doesn’t mean sales reps can’t go hard to drive business, but it does mean they have to be intentional about who they’re touching, where, how often, etc. There has to be a strategy behind it.
The danger of easy access to so much data is reps will mass email or mass DM and then forget it. Instead of that, prospecting should get more focused and more targeted, enriched and informed by data. It’s not an excuse to leave it to technology. Reps need to press in and prospect with precision.
Learn Sales Prospecting From the Pros
Prospecting has evolved. But the underlying philosophies of what works in sales haven’t.
At the end of the day, the human condition is unaltered:
People have needs and desires.
Sales reps who can quickly learn what prospects care about, activate the RAS, and initiate a conversation on that basis, will excel at earning access to decision makers.
Of course, there’s much more to it than that. Which is why organizations like ours exist. For several decades now, we have managed the evolution in method while staying true to our foundational principles. And it works.
If you’re ready for prospecting training, or full-scale sales training, that will work for your business, contact us today.