The Complete Guide To Sales Prospecting
Ask any sales rep what the most challenging aspect of their job is, and nine times out of 10, they’ll say sales prospecting.
Well, the whole point of outbound sales is to get meetings with qualified leads. Yet more often than not, the leads don’t respond, or when they do, they turn out to be less-than-ideal potential customers.
To make the most use of time and resources, sales teams need to know how to prospect more intelligently. This guide will show you how to do exactly that so you can generate meaningful results — be it more meetings with qualified leads, higher conversion rates, or increased revenue and profit.
In this in-depth guide, we’ll look at:
Ready to fill that sales pipeline? Let’s go.
What is Sales Prospecting?
Sales prospecting is the process of identifying and reaching out to potential new customers (fittingly called “prospects”). Sales reps engage in prospecting to expand their companies’ pool of potential customers and, by doing so, increase their revenue and grow their business.
Typically, sales prospecting occurs at the beginning of the sales process. In fact, the sales process only gets underway once a lead becomes a prospect. (We’ll explain the difference between leads and prospects later.)
After a prospect has been identified and contacted, they become an opportunity. Sales reps nurture these opportunities — often through a series of meetings, email exchanges, chat interactions, and calls — in order to close the deal and, ultimately, turn buyers into paying customers.
Why Is Sales Prospecting Important?
Sales prospecting is important because when high-quality prospects are targeted with effective techniques, sales teams work more efficiently, revenue increases, and companies grow. In short, better prospecting creates better opportunities.
Data shows that top sales prospectors drive opportunities that are more likely to convert into paying customers. According to RAIN Group, top performers generate nearly three times as many sales meetings as non-top performers. The top performing group also saw a win rate of nearly 50% on proposed business compared to only 37% for everyone else.
These findings shouldn’t be surprising when you recognize that the best sales prospectors provide critical value to their customers. Buyers actually want to hear from reps early in the sales process, as according to the same study:
- 71% of B2B buyers said they want to hear from sellers when looking for new ideas and to drive stronger results.
- 62% said they want to hear from sellers when they’re actively looking for a solution to solve a problem.
So, if potential customers want to hear from you, why do so many emails go unanswered and phone calls go unreturned?
Clearly, the answer is not to give up on prospecting. Rather, sales teams need to learn how to better separate high-quality leads from low-quality time-wasters and deliver messaging designed to stand out.
You’ll notice in the paragraph above, we used the term “leads.” As we’ll explain in the sections below, leads are not the same as prospects, and lead generation activities are not (and should not be) equivalent to sales prospecting activities.
Sales Lead vs. Sales Prospect: What’s the difference?
In casual conversation, businesspeople and even sales professionals may use the terms “lead” and “prospect” interchangeably. And in one sense, this is accurate. A prospect is a lead — but a special, particularly valuable kind of lead.
A lead is anyone who has expressed some interest in your company’s products or services, or has engaged with your brand in some way. For example, someone who visited your website is a lead. Anyone who subscribed to your blog or downloaded content is a lead.
Prospects are leads who have been qualified as worthwhile targets for further sales efforts. Qualifying a lead means determining that the lead is a good fit for your company’s solution and it is worth pursuing their business. As such, the most successful sales prospectors are effective qualifiers, capable of determining which leads to prioritize.
Sales Prospecting vs. Lead Generation
Now that you understand the difference between prospects and leads, you are probably beginning to understand how sales prospecting and lead generation differ.
Lead generation aims to encourage people to engage with your brand. For example, you can draw people to your brand by publishing helpful content, hosting a webinar, or placing advertisements.
Typically, marketing teams handle lead generation. Marketers can use tools, such as automated forms and custom chatbots, to gather leads faster by capturing email addresses in exchange for offers like downloadable content. They then score their leads according to their own lead qualification criteria to determine which are worth passing on to the sales team.
On the other hand, sales prospecting is a much more manual, one-on-one process. Sales teams are usually responsible for prospecting, sometimes working with leads that came from marketing and other times with leads they gathered on their own. (For example, sales reps may discover leads through their LinkedIn connections.)
Inbound vs. Outbound Prospecting
To put it simply, inbound prospecting is when prospects come to you; outbound prospecting is when you go hunting for them. Let’s break down these two types of sales prospecting:
Most lead-generation activities drive inbound leads. These people have discovered your brand on their own, perhaps drawn in by a helpful blog article, an intriguing social media post, or an enticing online ad.
Because inbound leads have already engaged with your brand, you can expect them to be somewhat receptive to hearing from you. There’s a bigger chance they will be upfront about what they’re looking for, and it may be easier to address their pain points and needs.
Inbound prospecting involves contacting these leads (once they have been qualified as prospects, of course). Outreach methods include:
- Warm emailing: Send a personal email to an inbound prospect who has already engaged with your brand. They may not expect your email, but when they receive it, they will know who you represent.
- Social selling: Message an inbound prospect who has interacted with your brand on a social media network — for example, someone who commented positively on one of your social media posts. In the B2B world, the social media network of choice is LinkedIn — although other networks, such as Twitter and Instagram, may also be used for social selling.
Outbound prospecting includes all the “old-school” techniques people think of when they think of sales. An outbound sales prospect may face challenges your company could solve but they may not be considering buying or even aware of your company’s existence.
Before you say no one in this day and age wants an unsolicited sales message, note that, according to RAIN, seven out of 10 buyers have accepted phone calls from providers they have not previously worked with and more than three-quarters have responded favorably to an email.
Outbound prospecting methods include:
- Cold calling: Connect with a potential prospect via phone. Many people still answer their phones these days — but don’t wear out your prospects’ patience. To keep them from hanging up, get right to the point and be ready to provide value from “hello.”
- Cold emailing: Email a potential prospect who has yet to engage with your brand. A well-written subject line and a snappy, relevant message will help catch your prospects’ attention. A personalized video can also help your message stand out from the hundreds of text-based emails your prospects receive daily.
- Social media outreach: Message a prospect whose social media posts indicate they might be a good fit for your products or services. A good opener might be, “I read on your latest LinkedIn post that you’re struggling with…”
Pro tip: Drift Prospector can automate both your inbound and outbound prospecting by notifying you the second a prospect lands on your site so that you can start a real-time conversation. If you’re not around to chat, Prospector can easily enroll them in an Outreach sequence, start a new email, or connect with them on LinkedIn. Drift Prospector also provides deep insights into the topics your prospects are interested in learning about, the emails they’ve opened, and the content they’ve consumed.
Who Owns Sales Prospecting?
Almost every sales-driven company must do some sales prospecting. But the people responsible for sales prospecting can vary widely depending on the business’ size and resources.
At some smaller organizations, such as early-stage start-ups, a single person may handle all sales duties from prospecting to closing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, large enterprises may employ entire teams dedicated solely to prospecting.
Typical roles involved with sales prospecting include:
- Sales development representatives (SDRs): A SDR is typically a member of an inside sales team focused on qualifying and reaching out to inbound leads — in other words, sales prospecting.
- Business development representatives (BDRs): A BDR’s role is similar to an SDR’s, except BDRs are typically focused on outbound leads. For many prospects, a BDR will be their first point of contact with a company.
- Account executives (AEs): AEs usually pick up the ball from SDRs and BDRs once a prospect is ready to buy. AEs nurture the prospect through the final stages of the buying process, building off the groundwork laid by SDRs and BDRs, and, if all goes well, closing the deal.
How to Prospect
Step 1. Develop an Ideal Customer Profile
The first step of prospecting is painting a picture of what your ideal prospect looks like. This step ensures each prospect is the right fit for your product. To figure this out, ask yourself:
- Are there any patterns among current customers, e.g. company size, geographic location, industry?
- What problem does the potential customer have that our product fixes?
- Have we closed similar deals in the past?
- What were their main objections?
- How long were their buying cycles?
Here, the aim is to build an ideal customer profile (ICP) — a crystal-clear outline of what your top-tier customers would look like.
Step 2. Research Potential Prospects
Once you have developed your ideal customer profile, you can begin researching potential prospects to determine whether or not they match that profile. What does their company look like? Factors like revenue, customer pool, and team size are all worth investigating.
A major focus of your research should be to identify the buying committee — the people who will be involved in making the final purchasing decision. It’s rarely a single individual. In fact, enterprise companies have an average of 17 people involved in the decision-making process. That means it’s important you understand each individual’s needs and goals so you can tailor your selling to them.
Although this step is crucial, when it comes to your selling day, every minute counts. Be careful not to let your research time detract from your calling hours.
(Some successful reps set strict time limits on their research using an egg timer but you can also use the timer app on your phone. Allocate about three minutes to research each prospect.)
Step 3. Qualify Your Prospects
Probably the most essential step in prospecting is figuring out if a lead is qualified. To do this, all you need to do is answer a few key questions.
- Does the lead match up with your ICP?
- Are they in an industry that has a need for the solution your company sells?
- Are they a geographical match for your solution?
- Are they using a product from one of your competitors? If so, who is it? This will help you understand if they need your product.
- Have they already reached out and expressed interest in your solution?
- What would make them a bad fit for your solution?
Remember, the effort you put in here will make it easier to close deals further down the line. After all, there’s nothing worse than trying to close a deal with a prospect who was never a good fit for your product in the first place.
Step 4. Reach Out to Qualified Prospects
After determining which leads are worth your company’s time and effort, it’s time to make a connection. You can reach out to prospects by phone, email, social media, chat, or a combination of methods.
Remember: Most prospects will only spare a few seconds for your outreach before moving on. So, to make the most of that brief window of opportunity, it’s important that you fine-tune your message so that it’s concise, personalized, and unique. That way, you can make a good first impression and entice prospects to engage with you.
Pro Tip: If you’re having trouble getting started, check out these tried-and-true sales openers and cold email templates which you can draw inspiration from…or steal for yourself.
However you connect with prospects, your goal will likely be to schedule a meeting with them. The easier it is for your prospect to book a meeting, the more likely they will be to follow through.
A scheduling software like Drift Meetings allows prospects to instantly book meetings with you even when you’re not around. In addition, Drift Meetings will deliver everything you need to personalize your interaction with the prospect, including:
- Meeting prep: Before a meeting, Drift Meetings will email you all the information you need, like the prospect’s chat logs, pages they visited, and prior meeting history.
- Follow-up: If a prospect pulls out of a meeting or cancels a demo, Drift Meetings will remind you to follow up with them to keep the relationship alive.
- Post-meeting: If you don’t follow up with a prospect within 24 hours after a meeting, Drift Meetings will remind you what you should be doing next.
(Nice to know: With Google Calendar and Office 365 integrations, Drift Meetings can know exactly when you’re available and automatically put booked meetings on your schedule.)
Sales Prospecting Tips
Now that you’re clued into the basics of how to prospect for sales, it’s time to talk techniques. Here are eight sales prospecting tips to help boost your prospecting team’s efficiency and results.
1. Use Conversational Sales
For as long as sellers have existed, they have known how crucial it is to strike while the iron is hot. Unfortunately, you really have no insight into a prospect’s mindset when they pick up their phone or click through their inbox. They could be searching for a solution to their problems or thinking about something else entirely.
But there is one time you can be sure a prospect is at least somewhat interested in buying: when they are perusing your website. It’s the virtual equivalent of visiting a showroom. You wouldn’t go unless you were open to buying something.
Conversational Sales is a way to engage with prospects at this critical moment of intent.
Conversational Sales will automatically notify you whenever a target account visits your site. From there, using live chat, sales reps can interact with potential buyers in real time, qualify them, answer their questions, and schedule follow-up sales meetings. But this doesn’t mean your SDRs need to be standing by 24/7. When your sales reps aren’t available, chatbots can engage website visitors in human-like conversations based on data gathered throughout their interactions with you and your website.
In addition, Conversational Sales supercharges your outbound prospecting by centralizing buying signals so your sales reps know exactly which accounts to focus on. With real-time visibility into buyer intent, reps have everything they need to customize their messages so cold calls and emails don’t seem so chilly.
Pro Tip: You can learn how to beef up your pipeline and make every selling second count using The Conversational Sales Formula.
To see how Conversational Sales works, let’s take a look at the case of global SaaS company Workiva. In 2020, Workiva was struggling with long sales cycles, converting top-of-the-funnel buyers, and gaining visibility into high-intent buyers. Tasked with generating 40% of pipeline, the inside sales team turned to Drift to overcome these challenges. With live chat and a window into buyer insights, Workiva was able to drive $13 million in incremental pipeline and a return on investment exceeding 1900%.
The results speak for themselves: a 2X increase in sales cycle speed, $13 million in incremental pipeline, and an ROI exceeding 1,900%.
Workiva’s director of inside sales called out Drift Prospector specifically. Drift Prospector automatically centralizes insights on behavior across the buying committee, prioritizes reps’ target accounts, and gives them direct access to follow-up – all from a single interface.
Drift Prospector has gotten us so many more opportunities with bigger buying groups and we’ve shortened our sales cycle.”
— Melissa Raber, Senior Director of Inside Sales at Workiva
2. Pick Up the Phone
According to a Baylor University study, experienced sales reps spend about 7.5 hours cold calling to land a single qualified meeting. Let’s break that down: It takes, on average, 209 calls to land one meeting.
But, love it or hate it, cold calling still has a place in prospecting. It’s how you go about it that will determine if you book a meeting (or get hung up on).
President at Insight Business Consultants Liz Wendling says a successful cold call can be broken down into five elements:
- Research the prospect and company. This helps ensure that a prospect needs what you’re selling. Wendling says spending a few minutes on research will yield big results.
- Start the call by asking the prospect, “Have I caught you at a bad time?” If they’re willing to stay on the line, ask them about their challenges and goals. Wendling says if you don’t, you may sound like you’re just calling to hit your quota or earn a paycheck.
- Listen to your prospects’ answers. If they’ve got something to share with you, let them. Don’t talk over them with a sales pitch. Wendling says you have two ears and one mouth — use them accordingly.
- Don’t tell your prospect you’ll be in their area. That’s cringe-worthy and so 80s. Wendling says it’s better to be honest and ask the prospect if they’re interested in meeting with you (in-person or, better yet, remotely).
- Honor your words. Keep every promise you make in your cold call, whether it’s following up via email or calling back at another time. Wendling says if you don’t, it’s a deal-breaker!
3. Find the Right Email Addresses
Did you know that roughly a fifth of all business emails in the US are marked as spam or fail to reach the inbox they were aiming for?
Before you aim for an inbox, you will need the right email addresses for your prospects. After all, emailing the wrong person is a sure way not to be taken seriously.
Thankfully, there are simple ways to find them.
Tools like Hunter.io and LinkedIn Sales Navigator can track down your prospect’s email address based on their company’s domain name. You can also find email addresses by scouring your prospects’ profiles on social media sites like LinkedIn or Twitter. Plus, many company websites list email addresses for key employees — so sometimes getting the right email is as simple as visiting their website.
4. Personalize Your Emails
Once you’ve got the right email address, you can finally start drafting that email. And the single best way to make your email stand out? Personalize it.
Personalizing emails doesn’t require hours of research either. You can boost your chances of getting a response from a prospect simply by:
- Mentioning a recent announcement or news article that featured their company
- Linking to something on their website and asking them a question about it
- Finding a problem with something on their website or social media channels — anything that shows your prospect you want to help them
- Mentioning something you like or admire about their company, such as a recent product release or a successful event they hosted
For example, you can use this cold email template to build a stronger connection by referencing a prospect’s social media post:
Subject line: [Article You Are Referencing]
I read what you [wrote/commented/shared] on LinkedIn — very interesting. What struck me most was the [choose part related to your company’s value proposition]. I agree with that idea wholeheartedly.
[Company name] and [value prop] is something that I think relates well to some of the ideas you mentioned.
Are you open to taking a few minutes to talk through some of the ideas I have for using [company name] for [account name]?
(You can find more customizable, free-to-use cold email templates here.)
5. Find Prospects on LinkedIn
LinkedIn is a prospecting playground, and that’s thanks to two specific features: LinkedIn Sales Navigator and LinkedIn Groups.
LinkedIn Sales Navigator is an easy way to search for prospects based on your ICP. This helps you identify key decision-makers and gather information to qualify your prospects. The tool also makes lead recommendations based on your prospecting activities.
Besides Sales Navigator, you can also try your luck with LinkedIn Groups. Professionals use LinkedIn Groups to build connections with others in the same industry. These groups are useful for playing the long game — building trust within groups where your potential customers share insights and ask for guidance.
6. Ask Satisfied Customers for Referrals
It’s astonishing how many sales teams struggle with prospecting and yet overlook their most valuable resource: existing customers.
There’s simply no replacement for advertising your service through word-of-mouth. Over three-quarters of buyers prefer to work with vendors that have been recommended by someone they know.
So, don’t be afraid to ask your customers for referrals. If your customers are happy with your products or services, chances are they’ll be glad to direct their industry contacts to you. And this can easily help turn your cold prospects into warm ones.
7. Subscribe to Your Prospects’ Content
You’re probably asking potential customers to subscribe to your blog and newsletters constantly. But how often have you considered subscribing to your prospects’ content?
By subscribing to your prospects’ content, you can get a direct line into their thinking, pain points, and even personal interests. All this information can be a goldmine for personalizing emails, videos, phone calls, and chat messages. Plus, few things are more flattering than knowing you have an audience.
If you’re worried about your own inbox becoming overloaded with content, consider creating a new email address or subfolder for subscriptions. Then, set aside time to regularly skim through recent posts so you can zero in on details that will help you personalize your messages.
8. Reach Out with Personalized Videos or GIFs
Everyone’s using email to reach prospects — and frankly, all that text can get tiresome. The last thing you want your prospect to think is, “Oh great, another reading assignment.”
So, why not try a format that will give your prospect a break while also making you stand out and puting a face to your name? With tools like Drift Video, you can easily create personalized videos and animated GIFs that grab your prospects’ attention.
Don’t worry about making your productions Hollywood-quality. The goal is to show your authentic side and show prospects you have a genuine interest in helping them — so go ahead and roll the cameras.
Now, It’s Your Turn
Prospecting may be the part of the sales process that most reps struggle with, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. With the right techniques (and some outside-the-box solutions), you can make sales prospecting a rewarding and, dare we say, fun part of your job.
The hardest part is knowing what prospecting style is suited for your company. But the only way to figure this out is to start testing the waters — so start personalizing those emails, take a more precise approach to qualifying your prospects, and experiment with solutions like Conversational Sales. (You can even get a demo of Drift right now to learn how we can help supercharge your prospecting.)
Keep changing up your prospecting process until you find a system that works. That way, you’ll be booking more meetings with prospects that actually need your product, and of course, you’ll be rewarded with more paying customers for your business!
Looking for a way to instantly make your prospecting smarter? Well, you’re in luck.
Drift Prospector gives sales reps all the information they need to prioritize their accounts and convert prospects into customers. With AI-powered insights, real-time notifications, and a centralized view of your accounts, Drift Prospector ensures no opportunity slips through the cracks — and that sales rep can make the most of every conversation. Check it out today.