Preparation for Effective Prospecting

A reader writes, "Recently, I accepted a Director of Sales position at a new company. A few of the reps on my team just 'wing it' before placing a prospecting call, while others get bogged down with endless social media exploration. What's the proper amount of pre-call research?"

The vast amounts of data available on the web makes managing pre-call research a challenge for most sales leaders. 

Make a Distinction

Different types of sales calls require different types and amounts of pre-call information:

  • Prospecting - factual, broad based
  • Existing customer- updated, relevant
  • Presentation - in depth, detailed

In this newsletter, we'll talk about the introductory or prospecting call.

Developing an Approach

Clarify for yourself how much time you find to be reasonable for this activity.

Never having been a proponent of exhaustively researching a company before making a call or sending an email, I typically recommend the following:

  • Website: Learn about what the company does / makes / produces and to whom they sell their product. Read the bios of the company leaders. Review the products and services offered.
  • Press releases: Read the most recent ones. Pay attention to those with information on new product launches, changes in leadership, or recent problems.
  • Blogs:  If one or several employees blog regularly, read a few, especially the customer- and sales- oriented ones. If not, I'd skip it.  
  • LinkedIn:  Look at the profile of the person you'll be calling as well as the leaders within the company.
  • Phone:  Call into the department most relevant to your product or service. Introduce yourself and ask a few questions of whoever you reach. See what you can find out.

Put your research guidelines in writing and include it in the department handbook or sales training manual.

Recording the Information

Once they've completed the research, I recommend reps record the information in the notes section of the CRM system. They should include a description of the company's product(s), the names of key leaders, and anything of interest they uncovered. As an example, maybe they learned they attended the same college as the CFO.

Share Your Expertise

When sales leaders tell me that they've told the reps, over and over, not to spend an inordinate amount of time on researching a company before calling or emailing, I always ask them, "Have you tried researching a potential customer together?" They almost always reply "No."

Select a company and walk them step-by-step through your research process. Then, ask them to take the lead and research another two or three companies as you observe.  They'll begin to understand the proper protocol for this activity.

Review the Information

After they've completed research, ask the rep to tell you a little bit about the organization. When they can articulately speak about the company, customers, and competitors, and why they might be interested in your product, you can pronounce them good to go.

Peer Training

On your sales staff, which reps do the best job with pre-call research? Have the struggling reps work alongside them.  Ask the proficient reps to take them through their process, modeling what they do and how they do it.

Root Cause

The fear of rejection might cause a lot of the pre-call analysis paralysis. If your efforts to coach them on proper techniques come up short, broach the subject. Share your thoughts and experiences on the difficulties of prospecting.  See what they have to say.  

Might they need some additional training on cold calling?

Final Thoughts

As with most everything in sales, there's an art to pre-call research. You want to encourage reps to add their own personal touch to the activity.

However, some salespeople just don't know when enough is enough. They keep looking, clicking and reading, afraid of missing a crucial piece of information. At some point, all reps have to let go of the mouse and either call or walk into an account and introduce themselves.

More Listening Tips

To succeed in a sales position of any type, you must be a proficient listener. This comes more easily to some reps than others. To help salespeople continue to develop this ability, sales leaders should run listening exercises during staff meetings, recommend books and articles on the subject, monitor sales calls and offer targeted coaching.

Becoming a better listener takes practice, practice, practice.

For more tips on this all important skill, I turned to Laurie Schloff, a career communication coach and author of "Smart Speaking," who works for the Speech Improvement Company in Brookline, Massachusetts. Laurie's clients include Fidelity Investments, The TJX Companies, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Laurie generously shared her advice about listening.

Talking / Listening Ratio

Laurie often gets asks how much reps should talk on a sales call? She says, "Every customer is different. Some prospects talk your head off, while others speak less. During the first meeting it should be no more than 50/50 (rep/customer), ideally 25/75. In subsequent meetings the ratio may shift, but always be aware of attending to your customers needs and reactions."

Asking Questions

"Everyone you call wears a sign that says 'Make me feel special,'" Laurie says, "And clients feel special when the salesperson focuses on their needs and challenges." To do just that, she recommends that salespeople have protocol for each situation in the form of a list of questions to include: 

  • Before I tell you about our company, I'd like to get to know you and your business better. Do you mind if I ask a few questions?
  • Tell me about a week in the life of a [prospect's position at company].
  • What's going well for you regarding [topic]?
  • It sounds like you're doing well. What would be even more helpful or effective to get the results you'd like to see?
  • What's your current level of satisfaction with [topic]?  (Five being fantastic and one not so great.)
  • How do you feel I can add to your positive results?

Persuasive Listening

It's one thing to ask questions and another to really hear customers. Laurie advises salespeople to evaluate their persuasive listening (her term) skills by asking themselves, "Am I:

  • Showing non-verbal interest? (Making eye contact / nodding.)
  • Focusing on them without distractions? (Even a cell phone on the table makes a client feel as if you aren't paying complete attention.)
  • Validating what the prospect is saying through paraphrasing information or feelings? ("I'm hearing that you're experiencing a lot of frustration regarding changes that took place during the reorganization and it's affecting the needs you have now. Am I correct?")
  • Asking check-in questions ("Am I on track?" "Do I understand you correctly?") Laurie advises using these questions sparingly. Ask them too often and it becomes annoying.
  • Observing facial expressions and body language.  (Sudden shifts in position, leaning back and forward.  Shoulders aligned.)

Laurie suggests conducting a self-evaluation after each call, rating yourself on your question asking and persuasive listening skills.

Final Recommendation

"For anyone who talks a lot for a living," Laurie says, "picture the letters WAIT on their forehead. This stands for Why Am I Talking?" She feels (and I concur) that high-performing salespeople have a fundamental belief that being a very effective listener is key to succeeding in the profession.

Master Listening Skills

As sales leaders, we coach reps to ask strong, impactful questions of customers and prospects. While that's a critically important skill, we often forget to devote equal time to developing the other side of the equation - listening to the answer. 

We've all managed the rep who asks a question, then pays little attention to the customer's response. They're usually thinking about what they will say right after the customer finishes speaking. Once the customer pauses for a moment or takes a breath, this rep starts talking again immediately. 

Top producing reps listen very effectively. They never interrupt, encouraging the customer to say more by asking follow-up questions. These salespeople know that what the customer says after they pause contains some of the most important information of the sales call.   

Most people consider themselves good listeners. Few of us actually are. For the summer reading list, I am recommending books on the art of listening.

Just Listen

by Mark Goulston, M.D. 
AMACOM (2015)

A Clinical Intervention psychiatrist and UCLA professor of psychiatry, Dr. Goulston wrote this concise but highly informative book on the art of hearing other people. Over 100,000 copies have sold. Using examples from all walks of life, he provides ideas, techniques, sample questions and tools to make improvements in this all important area.


The Lost Art of Listening

by Michael P. Nichols PhD
The Guilford Press (2009)

Considered by many to be an essential read, this book receives consistently strong customer reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.com. Dr. Nichols, a Professor of Psychology at the College of William and Mary, helps us understand why we do some of the things we do (like interrupting people) and offers practical techniques to help us improve.  He tells us we have to learn to let others speak.


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

by Douglas Stone Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen
Penguin Books (2010)

From the Harvard Negotiation Project, the group that authored Getting to Yes, this book has been on the New York Times Business Bestseller list. It serves as a practical, easy to follow guide for approaching tough discussions - instead of avoiding them - as many of us tend to do. I used this book with a client I coached and still practice some of the tactics we learned.


Listening as a Martial Art: Master Your Listening Skills for Success

by Cash Nickerson JD MBA
Cash Nickerson Media (2015)

Great leaders have strong listening skills, often speaking less frequently than anyone in the room. Nickerson puts forth that we'd all benefit from talking less and listening more. A JD, an MBA and an avid martial artist, Mr. Nickerson (President and Principal of PDS, Inc. a $400 million dollar engineering and IT staffing firm) shares what he's learned in business and in life. You don't have to be a martial arts expert to appreciate what he has to say about listening. 


Sales is a challenging and competitive profession. Successful salespeople look for ways to set themselves apart from all the others. Encourage reps to distinguish themselves by being that rare, sincere listener.  Listening demonstrates poise, gains trust and most importantly enables your salesperson to do their best to meet customer's needs.

The Lengthy Demo

A client writes "When a prospect expresses interest in my company's product, we encourage them to sign up for our hour-long demo. Many balk at this, saying they don't have that kind of time. They ask if we have a shorter one. We don't. It's a frustrating situation for management and the salespeople.

"We spent a lot of money and resources developing this demo. With potential customers well informed about our product when they contact us, I assumed they would be ready for this level of detail. What are we doing wrong?"
 
Long demos, multi-page white papers, and emails with six different attachments. Buyers I know complain about this frequently. It's a problem.

A Big Disconnect

We all know the buying cycle has changed. Customers spend time educating themselves about a product or service, then contact the vendor. They have moved through part of the sales cycle before speaking with a salesperson. Except that part of the way differs from all of the way.  Companies misunderstand this and inundate prospects with information.  

Differentiate Between Interested and Interested

When customers express some amount of interest in a product, reps often optimistically misinterpret it. One person's "some interest" differs from another's - regardless of how much time they've spent researching the product online. Salespeople need to determine the customer's actual level of interest in and knowledge about the product before proceeding. Questions should include:

  • How did you find out about us?
  • Tell me about your needs in this area.
  • How do you handle this issue currently?
  • How is that working out?
  • Have you looked at our website / blog / LinkedIn page?
  • What was of particular interest to you?

Inquiries like this help the salesperson distinguish between prospects who:

  • remain uncertain as to whether or not they absolutely need the product
  • know they need / want the product but are shopping around
  • have almost made their mind up about which product they would choose (yours)

Appropriate Next Step

Companies must create and make available to reps: webinars, presentations, product demos and marketing information of varying lengths and types appropriate to the customer's level of interest.  

As reps get better at asking questions and listening to the answers, they'll start to more clearly understand each situation and which one works best in that particular situation.

Keep it Brief

Instead of offering all prospects an hour long demo, create a 10 - 15 minute presentation. Almost everyone has that kind of time. Customers communicating enthusiasm for the product will likely either agree to see the presentation right then and there - or schedule a time to take a look.  

Reps offering a short demo make no hard and fast assumptions about a prospect's interest level, respect their schedule, and provide appropriate "next level" information.  This paves the way for another sales interaction.

Final Thoughts - The Hour Long Demo

If a customer conveys a genuine interest in the product, backs this up with facts or figures from their online search, has a recommendation from a colleague or assures the rep your product is far and away their number one choice, you could potentially interest them in an hour-long demo. But if they balk at this time commitment, you could irritate or scare them off. Where do you go from there?

Few prospects watch an hour-long demo spontaneously or by themselves. Most want to schedule it at a time that works for them and ask several other employees to participate in the process (a good sign). It should be reserved only for those prospects at the appropriate place in the sales cycle and worth everyone's time investment - yours and theirs.

Investing in the Sales Team

A reader writes, "When I approach my direct supervisor with ideas for improving my group's sales performance, he listens for less than 30 seconds, and then rejects the idea with a wave of his hand. He makes comments like, "That's not a good idea," or "I don't think that will work." We then move on to what he wants to discuss. How can I break this routine we seem to be in?"

At one point or another, most of us have reported to a boss who rejected most / all new ideas. It's demoralizing.

Change Tactics

Approach him in a different way. Put together a two to three page document outlining your idea, establishing your goals, and backing it up with supporting points from an independent source (wherever possible).

The Document

Take your time with this project. Break it into manageable pieces. Begin by writing a paragraph or two describing your idea.  

Establish Goals

Suppose you want the five reps you manage (one "A" performer, three "B" performers and one on written warning) to convert more product demos to proposals. If you offered presentation training, you estimate the "A" and "B" reps would increase their numbers of proposals and sales as follows.

"A" Rep

  Monthly Sales Activity Increase Percent Increase New Monthly Sales Activity
Demos 15 -   15
Proposals 5 3 60% 8
Sales 3 1 33% 4


"B" Rep

  Monthly Sales Activity Increase Percent Increase New Monthly Sales Activity
Demos 10 -   10
Proposals 3 2 66% 5
Sales 2 1 50% 3

Looking at the average selling price for each member of the sales group, there is the potential to increase sales across the group $334,800 annually.

  Additional Annual Sales Volume Average Sale Additional Annual Revenue
"A" Rep 12 $8,500 $102,000
"B" Rep 12 $6,600 $79,200
"B" Rep 12 $6,500 $78,000
"B" Rep 12 $6,300 $75,600
TOTAL 48   $334,800

Deduct the cost of training to determine the gross revenue gain. Provide conservative and estimates. People take the proposal more seriously when you do.

Independent Source

Spend an hour or two at a public or business library or online. Work with the reference librarian to search for an article or study to augment your recommendation.  

If one of my clients has difficulties with turnover I might find a reputable study about sales reps who receive ongoing training and development enjoying longer tenures with their employer. 

Approaching the Boss

Present the completed the report to your boss at the end of a one-on-one meeting. Very calmly say something like, "I have an idea and put some thoughts together. I'd value your opinion on it. Maybe we can talk about it in a week or so, when you're ready?"

Refrain from emailing or texting to follow-up. Let them come to you. They will.

Assuming the Worst

I've advised many sales leaders to take this route to introduce or re-start the conversation about a previously rejected idea. Most assure me, "He'll just say 'No' to this, too. Why put in all the effort?"

After trusting me and giving it a try, all have expressed surprise when their boss follows-up with them, typically in less than a week!

Why it Works

When you take the time to put your thoughts in writing and back up your points with facts and figures, a supervisor knows you're serious.  

By giving them time to consider your idea, you've told them you can handle a discussion on the topic. This changes things.

Compromise

The sales reps may need targeted training on making presentations and your boss may feel they don't spend enough time making prospecting calls. Negotiate. If the reps improve the number of minutes spent on the phone by 20%, would your boss revisit the idea of presentation training?

Final Thoughts

Whether you want to replace an antiquated CRM system or create an inside sales group, take the time to put your thoughts in writing. Sales leaders trying this find that, win or lose, it changed their relationship with their bosses.  

Though their ideas weren't always given a green light, they reported an increase in mutual respect. Going forward, they engaged in more positive discussions of potential ideas.  You have everything to gain by approaching the problem this way.

Share Team Expertise to Boost Product Sales

My company offers five different products. Three account for 75% of sales revenue. To achieve their goals, the reps all sell different combinations of the products.  Most sell almost none of at least one - but the one they bypass differs from rep to rep. How do I go about achieving greater consistency in product sales throughout the staff?

Perplexed managers wonder why some reps rarely discuss certain products with decision makers. Suggestions for dealing with this issue include:

Do the Research

Take a look at the numbers. Determine exactly which rep sells how much of each product. Get ready for a few surprises. Identify the top one or two and the bottom one or two salespeople for all products.

Think about potential reasons for the differences. Does your Florida rep sell fewer of an item more suitable for colder climates? Do some products fit better with certain industries?  

Start With One Product

Look for the most underserved product. That might include one with:

  • a higher than average profit margin
  • fewer competitors
  • a growing market segment

Start there.

Select the Reps

At the next staff meeting, ask the two reps selling the most of this product to give their presentation to the group. Record it for future use.  

Have these reps talk about:

  • how they introduce the topic
  • typical questions that get asked
  • the most common objections

Most peer-led presentations generate a lot of interest and questions from the other salespeople.

Often, an average rep on the sales staff sells the most of a product neglected by the better producers. I've seen this time and time again. I don't know why it happens, but take advantage of it. Give the mid-level producer who's a superstar with this product a chance to shine. Ask them to give one of the presentations.

Involve the Experts

At another staff meeting, ask the product manager to give a presentation and answer questions. But first listen to their presentation one time, just the two of you. Take note of information that's too complicated or technical. Request that they keep their presentation sales-friendly.  

Maintain Momentum

Several weeks later, ask the same two reps to give their product presentations again. The other salespeople will get even more out of hearing the material the second time around.

At subsequent meetings ask another one or two reps to present to the group. Select two more for the next staff meeting. Continuously reinforce the process.

Incent, Incent, Incent

After a month or so of this immersion, work with the product manager to create a quiz. Warn the reps in advance. Hand it out at a staff meeting.  Offer a prize for the highest score. You'll learn which reps are really paying attention.   

Create a sales contest. Make it easy to win. You want reps moving more of this product.  Offer a group and an individual prize. Ask the two reps showing the most improvement during this process to serve as team captains.

Product Quotas

Many companies attempt to solve this problem by assigning each product a separate quota. Generally, reps ignore the quota, hitting their goals by selling the combination of products they feel comfortable with.  If they achieve or exceed their overall sales goal, most managers look the other way.

I believe in separate quotas for products. But put those quotas in place after several months of dedicated training and practice. Integrating a product into a salesperson's "bag" takes time and consistent reinforcement.    

Don't Overdo

Sales leaders with this dilemma sometimes go on a rampage. They deluge the sales staff with PDF fact sheets, competitive information, and presentations from marketing or product management.  

Actions like these overwhelm the salespeople.  Often, they end up right where they started: selling the products they were most comfortable with from the beginning.  Give the reps the time to learn the product and incorporate it into their sales presentations.

Email vs Voicemail - It's Not Either / Or

A reader writes, "Some sales reps on my team refuse to leave voicemails for customers or prospects - communicating via email or other forms of communication. When I speak to them about this the replies include: 'Voicemail is dead, outmoded, for losers, no one checks it anymore,' etc.  I'm the owner of my business and make many buying decisions.  Reps from other companies call on me. While I rely on more forms of communication than I ever thought possible, I do still listen to my messages and speak to people on the phone.  What's your take on this? Are the reps right?"

No, they aren't.  Rotary phones are dead, not voicemail.  It remains a viable business tool.  What's changed is the additional technology available. No longer dominant, voicemail needs to be utilized differently.

Know Your Audience

Successful business people (not just salespeople) learn how others prefer being communicated with.  Some customers will favor email or text, others the phone.  Most probably use a combination.  Avoid stereotyped generation-based thinking about age or experience.  Determining the communication preference of any customer or professional associate takes time.  Sales reps need to build the relationship.

Top-performing salespeople keep detailed notes about their customer's communication choices regarding method / days of the week / times of day.   They know their customer's schedules.

The Big Change

Years ago, professionals accessed voicemail several times a day.  A lot of the most critical information they needed was there. Executives tell me they still listen to their office land line voicemail.  The difference - they access those voicemails once or twice a week only.  Given the large volume, they skip through messages fairly quickly, deleting all but those they deem most important.  

Use Both Technologies

I advise sales reps to leave both an email and a voicemail, especially when it comes to prospects or unfamiliar customers.  Send an introductory email.  Tell them you've left them a voicemail as well.  In the voicemail, let them know you've sent an email. Overkill?  No.  You don't know them well enough yet to understand the most efficient way to communicate. 

Power of Voicemail

Sales reps understand that most people (especially prospects) won't return their call.  They know they have to initiate contact several times before finally having a conversation. Hearing you on voicemail allows prospects and others to recognize the sound of your voice and listen to what you have to say about your product or service.  

Power of Email

Prospects review emails a lot during off hours or during a lull in their schedule. Receiving email (and attached links) from a company of potential interest, allows them to do a little research on your organization at their convenience.  
Using either technology, when you finally do reach whoever you're trying to call, you're not as much of a stranger.  That helps all conversations get off to a better start. Though technology like Skype allows customers to both see and hear you, voicemail remains an effective methodology through which to introduce yourself.

Respecting Other's Preferences

One of my long-time customers communicates with me almost exclusively by email.  After all these years, hearing his voice still comes as a surprise to me.  Very familiar now with his style, I've mastered the effective and concisely written emails that he needs.  These wouldn't necessarily work for my other clients.

Every now and again, I have to discuss something with him.  Email won't do.  I email him, asking when it would be convenient for us to speak.  He always gets back to me promptly with a time.  Because I respect the way he wants to receive information, he picks up the phone when he knows I need to talk to him directly.  We built up this trust over a period of time.  That's what it takes.

This is Not Just Another LinkedIn Idea for Salespeople

A reader asks, "Over the last year, I've invested time and money into LinkedIn for my sales staff.  I've hired a professional photographer for head shots, as well as a consultant to help with company and staff profiles.  Any good tips on how to use LinkedIn to increase sales?"

LinkedIn offers many ways for salespeople to increase the size of their prospect list or gather helpful information about a potential new customer.  Let me share one that I think goes underutilized.

New Job

LinkedIn notifies subscribers about their contacts' work anniversaries, birthdays, endorsements, awards and professional accomplishments -- all great information to read up on before getting in touch with someone.   
In my experience the notifications about my contacts accepting positions with new employers has proven to be the most valuable.  I'll tell you why.

Access

They pick up the phone.  I don't know how many times I've called and asked for a recently hired employee, and been told the following:

  • "Their voicemail isn't connected yet; let me try to find them for you."
  • "I'm not sure what their extension is, oh wait, I just saw them walk by, hang on a minute please."
  • "They are in today but I don't know where they are.  Let me take and old fashioned hand-written message for you and I'll make sure they get it."

When someone starts a new job, fellow co-workers who might normally screen their calls put the calls through.  They don't know their new co-worker all that well, and will want to steer clear of a potential mistake by doing so.  

Listening

When the recently hired contact does accept the call, they often pay attention to what you have to say.  They might not recognize your name at first.  Few of us know all of our connections on LinkedIn.  They lack familiarity with all of the top accounts and customers.  You might be one and they have little interest in offending you.  New employees at any level try to avoid gaffes early in their tenure. 

New Opportunities

In their last position, they lobbied to purchase certain products or services only to be turned down.  You never know what your contact might have negotiated before starting the new job. Perhaps they insisted on a certain product or service as a contingency of employment. A door previously closed to a salesperson could be wide open now.

Overwhelmed vs. Busy

Recently hired employees feel inundated by all the new people, products, customers, and software programs.  They probably aren't even 100% sure how to operate the coffee maker.   We've all been through it and it's stressful. Though they'll go to great pains not to show it -- they might not actually be all that busy just yet.

They aren't yet copied on all relevant emails, don't know about every meeting they should attend, or have a set schedule yet for one-on-ones with all direct reports. Gaps occur in their calendar. While they acclimate to the new job, they have a few minutes to talk.

Big Numbers

Not too long ago, I received a message from LinkedIn letting me know that 12% of my connections had recently started new jobs.  Twelve percent?  Astounding.  On that list was someone I had wanted to reach out to for quite some time.  We worked together once before.  The job they held for several years afterward wasn't in my field.  In their new position, they could potentially use my services again.  

If only to congratulate them and catch up, connect with those in your LinkedIn network who've accepted new positions.  At the very least, they'll be glad to hear a friendly voice.  Who knows what might come from the conversation?
 

5 Simple Steps to Timely Followups

Following up in a timely fashion is key to the sales process.  For some helpful tips, I turned to Mitzi Weinman, president of TimeFinder.  Mitzi writes:

I remember working with a client, the president of a manufacturing company.  I was coaching him on his personal productivity and on decluttering his office.  At the time, he was looking for a new accounting firm.

As we cleared the clutter, he threw away a proposal from a firm that wanted his business. I asked why. He responded that he had met with one of the firm's representatives, but had never received the additional information that he had requested. He wondered, "If they treat me that way as a prospect, how will they treat me as a client?"

His point was on target.  A phone call or email can make the difference in getting a sale or not.  Following up has to be part of the sale process. For example, one of my clients who worked for a marketing firm would meet with prospective clients regularly.  He explained that when he would return to the office, he did not have time to do the follow-on work from his meetings.  I asked him how often he had to get information back to a prospect after he met with them.  His answer was, "Always."    

Because following up with prospects was predictable, he had to plan for it.

What are successful strategies for following up?

  1. Anticipate the need to follow up and block out time before the meeting to work on the follow up.
  2. Try to estimate how long the follow ups will take to prepare and deliver, based on the type of work required, sophistication of the client, etc.
  3. As soon as you indicate to someone that you will get back to them, mark the date you committed to in your calendar, planner, etc.  Know what you have already planned on your calendar so you can be realistic in setting expectations.
  4. If you have a team, let other members of your team know about your meeting(s) and set expectations on what they may also need to work on.  Find out about their impending deadlines.
  5. Don't put yourself in a position where you are apologizing for not following through.  This negatively impacts your client or prospects perception of your ability to get things done on their behalf.

Following up gives you credibility. You demonstrate that you care and that you deliver.  When you say that you will get back to someone, do so - even if it is to say that you don't have the information yet, but that you are working on it. Clients, prospects and associates don't want to hear that you're busy as an excuse for missing deadlines.

Anticipate, plan ahead, block out time and do what you say you will do.  When you do what you say you're going to do, as promised, it positions you and your company to stand out from the others.

Mitzi Weinman, founder of TimeFinder, helps people develop good habits and techniques to reduce stress which can result from procrastinating, feeling disorganized and overwhelmed, and rushing to get things done, at work and/or at home.  Mitzi's clients include: New Balance, Reebok, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston Symphony Orchestra, WGBH, Lojack, Grant Thornton, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Weston and Sampson Engineers, Pearson Education and Marriott University.  Mitzi is the author of "It's About Time -- Transforming Chaos into Calm, A to Z," soon to be available.

Improving Bad Emails

A reader writes, "One of my better sales reps often sends out emails loaded with misspelled words, grammatical errors and too many attachments. Whenever I see one he's sent out I'm embarrassed. Short of short of editing every email, how can I fix this problem?"

Sloppy emails reflect badly on your company. Salespeople need to view using any means of communication that identifies your organization (from electronic to old fashioned letterhead) as a privilege not a right. They must send out business appropriate correspondence always.

Carelessness vs. Lack of Skills

You know this employee. Presumably you've seen other written work of his. Has too much texting or tweeting caused him to become careless or does he have weak writing skills in general?

Carelessness

Select one or two of his particularly egregious emails and read them together. Hear his thoughts on them. If he makes excuses, remind him these two don't represent the only badly written emails of his that you've come across.

Ask him a question like, "If a salesperson was asking you to spend $63,000 of your company's money, what would you think if you received an email like this from them?"

Get a dialogue going. Discuss the importance of accurate business correspondence. Underscore the need to be much more careful when writing and sending emails - and that you'll be monitoring the situation.

Lack of Skills

If his shoddy emails represent generally poor writing skills, say something like, "I've been noticing a problem with any written work that's required of you." See what he says. Be patient. The conversation might be awkward.

When the rep in question performs well otherwise, it might be time to invest in some training. Sign him up for a course in business writing or ask him to read a book such as:

  • "Email A Write it Well Guide" by Janis Fisher Chan
  • "Strategic Business Letters and Email" by Sheryl Lindsell Roberts
  • "The Encyclopedia of Business Letters, Faxes, and Emails" by Robert W. Bly and Regina Anne Kelly

Discuss his progress periodically and keep an eye on any correspondence with customers.  

Templates

Savvy sales organizations create templates to fit all different kinds of letter writing occasions like introductory and follow-up emails. Talk to those at your company with strong writing skills. Put some of their better correspondence into files for all to use.

Insist, at least for a period of time, that new sales reps as well as those reps with problematic writing issues stick verbatim to the templates as written.

Attachments

Eager to get prospects excited about their product or service, sales representatives sometimes attach multiple files neither asked for by the customer nor necessary to move the sale forward. Ironically, this overzealousness may annoy or push the prospect away.

For introductory emails especially, if reps attach a file at all, it should be very general, with no mention of pricing. It's too premature in the sales process for that discussion.

Going forward, any attachments should be requested by the customer or mutually agreed to by the rep and the customer.

Email and other electronic means of communication have increased the speed and efficiency of correspondence between sales reps and their customers to a degree not thought possible, even 20 years ago. With this advantage comes a responsibility for sales managers and salespeople alike to safeguard against mistakes, abuse and over use of technology.

Saying "Goodbye" to Unresponsive Prospects

A reader writes, "One of my better salespeople continues to contact prospects long after they've stopped returning her calls and emails. The whole exercise demotivates her and impacts her sales. I think she should move on at a certain point. What should I encourage her to do?"

Give her kudos for persistence. Discuss the futility of continuously calling a prospect who may no longer be interested. Offer her options for closing the lead out in a professional manner.

Types of Prospects

Salespeople identify likely buyers through leads, sites like LinkedIn, research, networking, and other means. Next, they begin the process of introducing themselves by phone or email. At this point the prospect does one of three things: 

  • Tells the rep they are not interested
  • Doesn't respond to voice or emails
  • Expresses preliminary interest

No Interest

When prospects express a lack of interest, reps either stop contacting them or agree to call in a few months time when things may have changed. It depends on the discussion between the two parties.

When a prospect fails to return any calls or emails from the salesperson, the rep must decide how often and how long they want to keep trying. Some reps, especially those selling a big ticket item with a long sales cycle may continue to contact a prospect for years.

Some Interest

Interested prospects might agree to an initial meeting, a webinar, or a product demonstration. Enthusiasm for some peaks after the product demo; for others it continues straight through to asking for a proposal.

No matter which phase they reach in the sales cycle, some prospects drop off the radar at some point without explanation. Phone calls and emails suddenly go unreturned. This type of prospect and this situation typically cause the most confusion and anxiety for a sales rep.

Reality Check

When weeks or months have passed with the prospect making no effort to communicate with the salesperson at all, encourage them to stop trying - at least for a period of time. Advise them to use an email or voice mail like the one below to acknowledge the situation:

"After having made several attempts to contact you, I am going to assume that purchasing XYZ Software is not on the top of your priority list right now. In the event that you would like to look at the software again for an upcoming project, please contact us. I enjoyed getting to know you and your team. Thank you for your interest and we hope to hear from you soon."

A positive, upbeat, sincere message like this gives the sales rep equal business stature to the prospect and leaves the door open for potential future discussions.

Rep Resistance

"No way," shrieks the rep, "They were really interested. Let me keep them on the forecast. They'll come around."

Help the rep see that this sale is no longer viable. It's stalled, off the rails, going nowhere. Use whatever words work for the situation. Let them know that being disappointed is OK, but continuing to expend their energy on a dead end is not. They need to refocus and concentrate on other leads with potential.

Surprise Call

After hearing the goodbye message some, though not all, customers pick up the phone or send an email. Many outright apologize and offer an explanation for the lapse in communication.
This doesn't always mean the prospects remain interested. Some choose to stay with their current solution, while others may have signed with a competitor. Some might have gotten sidetracked with other projects and ask the rep to call in a few months time. Others still may be navigating a complex maze of internal politics or approvals moving the project forward.

Even when a potential client doesn't bother to contact them at all, the rep gets a sense of closure. They feel better about themselves, the company, and selling in general.

Final Thoughts

No rep or manager enjoys the thought of leaving a "goodbye for now" message. It signifies the potential end of a once promising sale. Strong sales reps have emotional maturity. Letting go represents a part of the sales process. Help them to spend their valuable time elsewhere: identifying new leads, nurturing their pipeline, and finalizing closeable business.

Miko Coffey

I'm a web problem-solver who helps people make the most of digital tools, techniques and practices. I've been working with websites for the last 17 years and I absolutely love it.

Know What Your Sales Reps Say on the Phone

A reader writes, "One day I called my company's Sales department and pretended to be a prospect.  (I'm the company president.)  The rep taking my call sounded so disinterested. I was astonished. She did little to engage me, asking only a few perfunctory questions. I requested some information and gave her my friend's email address. My friend told me she never received anything. I get madder and madder the more I think about this. What do I do?"

Inspect what you expect. Never is that more applicable than being aware of how sales reps conduct themselves on the phone with potential new customers.

All Reps

Before doing anything, get a feel for how the entire sales staff handles inbound customer inquiries. Do they all seem bored? Are some better than others at relating to the caller and moving the conversation forward? Do they send the requested information?

As for the rep in question, ask a friend or colleague to call them at least two more times. Try to determine whether they were having an off day or always treat potential new customers this way.

Procedures

Many organizations invest significant resources in generating inbound leads, so your sales staff should deal with incoming calls professionally and effectively. To support that effort, the Sales department should put a procedure in place for speaking with, sending information to, and following up with potential customers.
This should include a mandatory:

  • List of qualifying questions such as "How did you hear about our company?" or "What prompted your interest in that particular product?"
  • Methodology for logging the call and their action (for example, sending information or a sample)
  • Time-frame in which to follow-up with the caller

Do you have the ability to listen to the calls your reps take /  make? Does anyone in your organization audit the sales staff's efforts in this area? When? How often? This is a regular practice in retail, where "secret shoppers" assess how they are treated.

Solving the Problem

If a formal procedure existed previously and has fallen by the wayside, make sure it becomes common practice again. Review it with all the reps. Spend extra time with any recently hired salespeople.

When no process exists, meet with the reps and discuss the situation. Without naming names, tell them about your experience when you called in. Open up a dialogue about best practices for dealing with potential customers calling in to the company. Come up with a list of useful questions to ask. Determine a procedure for sending information and following-up. Track progress.

A Great Idea

My friend and colleague Chris Mullins, The Phone Sales Doctor, suggests letting sales staff members place mystery calls to one another. She says, "Let them experience first hand how other reps handle calls. This will get them involved in the process and keep sales top of mind."

Chris adds, "Record your reps phone calls on an ongoing basis. Make no secret of what you're doing. Tell your team you're recording calls to help them improve their book of business as well as to confirm customer needs and wants. Always be sure to check the laws for recording calls in your state."

The Offending Rep

After investigating this situation further, you may find that your reps generally handle incoming prospect calls well and follow company sales procedures. The problem occurs with this particular sales rep.

Speak to her candidly about what you and others have experienced. She'll likely hotly deny any charges, so come armed with the facts. Provide dates and times. Mention sales information that was never received. Tell her that she must follow the stated sales procedures going forward.

Mishandling the incoming calls of potential paying customers costs your company money. Most reps would be only too happy to receive such calls, viewing them as potential closable sales. After a period of time, if this salesperson won't rise to the occasion, consider whether or not she should be part of your organization going forward.

 

Asking Better Questions

"Do you have a budget in mind for this or have you not gotten that far yet?"

"Will this product meet you needs or would a different product be a better fit?"

"Is your company thinking of purchasing this product right away or later in the year?"

Sound familiar? I have spent many, many hours monitoring sales representatives' calls and one thing that I have consistently noticed is that most have a tendency to ask two questions at once. Trying to get information from a prospect in this manner leads to several problems.

How the Customer Will React

By asking the customer two questions at once, you are really offering them a choice. They will select one of the two options. Guess which one they usually pick? Typically, they select the response that either gets the sales representative off the phone or makes them look like a poor prospect. Why? It's human nature. It's the easy way out. People resist being sold to.

The Appearance It Creates 

Giving prospects one or two responses to choose from can make the salesperson look as if they are a poor listener or trying to hurry the sale. Sometimes it can make them come across as insecure, eager to please, afraid of rejection, manipulative or inexperienced. Once the prospect thinks any of this, they are unlikely to treat the salesperson seriously and enter into a meaningful conversation with them.

Ask Open Ended Questions Instead

The best way to avoid this situation is for the sales representative to learn how to phrase questions in an open-ended fashion. Zig Ziglar refers to those types of questions as "open door" questions. In his book Ziglar on Selling he says, "Open door questions allow the persons being questioned to go wherever they like with their responses."

Open-ended questions give the salesperson the chance to hear a prospect's answer in its entirety. It allows them to better bond with the prospective client and learn what they need to know to move the sale along. 

The questions above could be re-phrased this way:

Before: "Do you have a budget in mind for this or have you not gotten that far yet?" 

After: "Could you tell me about your budgeting process for a purchase of this nature?" 

or

"What are your thoughts on the budget for this purchase?"

Before: "Will this product meet your needs or would a different product be a better fit?" 

After: "From what you have seen so far, what are your impressions of our product?" 

or

"Based on what you know at this point, how might you see your organization using this product?"

Before: "Is your company thinking of purchasing this product right away or later in the year?"

After: "What are your thoughts on a time frame for this purchase?" 

or

"Where does the purchase of a product like this rank on your priority list right now?"

Asking a customer two questions at once impedes the communication process because the prospect is not left to their own devices in answering the question. So the salesperson doesn't get a thoughtful response. This can lead to a conversation that goes nowhere or causes difficulties later on in the sales process. 

Though asking two questions at once might work at certain points in the sale, it's better to learn how to ask one question at a time, especially during the information gathering stages of the sales process. The best questions will encourage the customer to provide more, not less, relevant information.

Though my clients come from many different industries, the challenges they face are similar. In "Sales Management Tips," I regularly answer questions that have been posed to me by my clients. I hope the answers will help you to solve some of the sales dilemmas you face in your own sales organizations. If you would like to ask a question, please contact me. The identity and affiliation of those submitting questions will be kept confidential.

Building Sales Skills with No Budget

A client asks, "My sales staff would benefit from some sales training, but I absolutely do not have the money in my budget this year. Can you suggest some ideas for building sales skills without having to spend much money?"

Sales training should be an ongoing activity, no matter what your budget is. Developing a sales force that wants to constantly learn and improve will result in many benefits to your company. Here are some inexpensive ideas that you can implement right away.

Books

I have long been of the opinion that sales professionals should regularly read books about different aspects of sales. Together with your sales staff, select and read a book on sales each quarter; alternating between your sales staff selecting the book and you selecting one will allow everyone to cover topics they deem important. The books do not need to be long or complex. Books that are available on tape or CD have the added advantage that salespeople can listen to them while on the road. If there is an area in which you feel your staff could use some additional training, start with a book that focuses on that topic. Stephan Schiffman has written an excellent series of targeted books on various aspects of the sales cycle. Set up a time each week to discuss part of the selected book, allowing each member of your sales staff to lead at least one of the discussions.

Magazines

Subscribe to one of the better known sales magazines, such as Sales and Marketing Management (www.salesandmarketing.com) or Selling Power (www.sellingpower.com). Circulate each issue through the sales force (order multiple subscriptions if necessary), marking the articles that you would like the sales staff to pay particular attention to. Ask one or two sales representatives to comment on the articles at a staff meeting and talk about how the information they read caused them to make changes in their sales methodology. Encourage discussion.

Newsletters

Select an email newsletter or two about sales that best matches your own sales / business philosophy, and sign the sales force up to receive it. Some are free and others will charge. While books and magazines provide in-depth looks at various topics, newsletters provide tips, techniques, and reminders on an ongoing basis. Art Sobczak's TelE-Sales Hot Tips of the Week (www.businessbyphone.com) is one that I would recommend, and both of the magazines cited above offer newsletters.

Whether you choose books, a magazine, an email newsletter, or some combination, you are setting a tone for your sales staff. Some of the reading assignments will introduce new ideas to the salespeople; others may remind them of effective techniques they used to incorporate into their sales calls but have stopped using for one reason or another. They may disagree with some of what they read. That's fine. No matter what, you are promoting regular sales education and it will pay off for your company. Finally, when you put together your budget for next year, it wouldn't be a bad idea to set aside some money for a more formal training program.

Sales Training or Sales Coaching?

A client asks, “I would like to schedule some sales training for my sales staff. Which is better – group training or individual coaching?"

Both choices are beneficial, but your group's results will vary depending on the experience and needs of your sales team.

Sales training frequently involves the teaching of a sales methodology, emphasizing a common terminology, a defined sales process and templated sales tools. Role-play to reinforce lessons is usually included. For a large sales organization the materials can be customized to a company’s needs; for a small sales organization customization is not always practical. Sales training can be the best choice for your sales organization when:

  • All of the sales representatives have tenure of at least one year
  • Booster training (1 – 2 times annually) has been budgeted for the sales staff
  • Underperforming sales representatives have been terminated
  • The entire sales staff is at or above quota

The last two points, while counterintuitive, are backed up by several studies. In "Is Sales Training a Waste?" (Gallup Management Journal, May 2002), Benson Smith and Tony Rutigliano write, “From our observations, we’ve concluded that the individuals who benefit most from training are those who already excel at their job. As performance levels rise, so do the benefits we see from training. And as performance levels go down, the positive impact of training diminishes.”

In sales coaching, a coach works one-on-one with each sales representative to identify areas within the sales cycle that are career-limiting weaknesses, and develops and executes individualized plans to address them. A coach can be the best choice for your sales organization when:

  • The sales staff is of varied talent and tenure
  • All of the sales representatives could use help in one particular area
  • Individual sales representatives could use help in different areas
  • Management would like a sales representative of questionable talent observed and evaluated by a neutral third party
  • The superstar on the staff is hitting a plateau

In their article Smith and Rutigliano write, “The best salespeople gained the most from training... but most training programs are not designed around the needs of the best performers. Best performers need individual coaching that is built around their talents and strengths.”

Evaluating when to train and when to coach involves candidly assessing the composition and performance of your sales staff. The right investment should pay for itself quickly in increased revenue, and build greater employee loyalty for your company.


Though my clients come from many different industries, the challenges they face are similar. In "Sales Management Tips," I regularly answer questions that have been posed to me by my clients. I hope the answers will help you to solve some of the sales dilemmas you face in your own sales organizations. If you would like to ask a question, please contact me. The identity and affiliation of those submitting questions will be kept confidential.