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Rethinking Prospecting

by David Brock on September 21st, 2013

Prospecting is critical to our success as sales people.  We need to find new customers, we search for people who want to buy our products and services.

We constantly conduct prospecting campaigns–email programs about what we do, endless phone calls:

“May I speak to the person in charge of copier purchases?”

“I’m in your area next week, can I spend a few minutes talking about your employee benefit programs?”

“Who is responsible for your financial management systems?”

Email program after email program.  Hundreds of phone calls.  If we’ve lucky, a few percent respond, “OK, send me some information,”  “I have a few minutes next Tuesday, but don’t give me a sales pitch.”

And for those few that respond, we desperately try to qualify them so that we have an opportunity.

It gets tougher all the time. More competition, people too busy to meet with us, people just don’t want to talk to a sales person.  We contact everyone we can.  We cast a wider net.  We buy lists. We send out more emails, make more calls.

We try to find more people who want to buy our products and services.  It’s hard to find people interested in our products and services.  It’s difficult to find people who want to hear what we do and who we are.

What if we changed the way we prospect?

What if instead of searching for people who want to buy our products and services, we decided to search for people with problems?  Not just any problem, but the problems we solve?

Our whole approach to prospecting would have to change.  Rather than talking about what we do, we would be forced to discover what the prospect does.  We would have to talk to them about their business.

We might do some research before we called, looking for people who have the problems we solve.  We eliminate people who don’t seem to have the problems we solve.  We’d focus our time on the people who appear to have those problems.

They may not know they have a problem, so we have to learn about their business, their dreams, their goals. We would have to learn about how they are performing against those goals, whether there are gaps, whether they are happy with what they are achieving or want to do more.  We may have to help them discover the problem and decide to do something about it.

Or we’d look to helping them discover new opportunities, we’d approach them with Insight.   We’d help them discover the opportunities, we’d help them get decide, “We need to do something about this.”

They may not know how to define their problem.  They may not know how to organize their team to determine alternative solutions to their problem.  But we can help them through that.

People love talking about themselves and their businesses.  They want to share their accomplishments, ambitions, and goals.  They want to share what’s standing in the way of them achieving their goals.  They want ideas to help them improve.  They want to learn how to grow.

Prospecting for customers with problems is a lot easer than prospecting for customers who want to buy our products and services.

The really cool thing is that once we find a customer with problems we can solve, and who have a sense of urgency about solving those problems; 100% of them are interested in our products and services.

So who are your prospecting targets?

Are you looking for customers who want to buy your products and services, or are you looking for people who have the problems you solve?

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  1. Hey Dave, do you know Jacques Werth? He wrote High Probability Selling ( He’s had a lot of success with the “want” angle and there’s a lot I like about HPS. He’s also seems like a really nice guy.

    Having said that, I completely agree with your customer-oriented, “find the problems you can solve” approach. I’m not sure why we don’t hear more about this. With LinkedIn and other social channels, search engines and alerts services, and the concept of trigger events, I don’t think it involves brain science (or rocket surgery 😉 to find prospects who have challenges you can solve. A marketing consultant I work with, Jeff Meyers, calls this thinking “outside-in” versus “inside-out.”

    I think the magic is in how you approach these prospects. We do a lot of work with clients on this and our prospecting and selling with insights programs are built around this principle. We use the word “Issues” though, and define issues as either challenges that you can solve (minimize or eliminate) or opportunity that you can help capitalize on or achieve. That way, it involves both moving away from and moving toward.

    Simple concept, but it works. I guess it’s a big shift in thinking for many. Hope it catches on… great post.

    • Mike, thanks for the great comment.

      Jacques Werth is great, he’s one of the thought leaders I pay a lot of attention to.

      I worried about the phrasing of the post — are we looking for problems, opportunities, issues……. They are all differing views of the same thing, I think as long as we know what we are referring to, then we can focus on the basic principles. Regards, Dave

      • Sure Dave. And I know that you know that I wasn’t being critical, just blobbing thoughts out there. At least you didn’t say “pain.” 😉

        I like Anthony Iannarino’s view that whether it’s a problem or an opportunity, it creates “dissatisfaction,” which is what’s really required for them to take action and change something.

  2. John Sterrett permalink

    All I do is look for people with problems to solve, because while I have a superior product, in many cases an inferior product will do just fine. I will not make that sale. There has to be a level of pain for them to pay more for the premium fix.

    But one thing that is crucial to finding new customers is, once I find a good prospect and engage, I ask about their suppliers and their competition.

    “Are there suppliers that are causing you pain, who could benefit from my fix?”

    “Who are your competitors, and in which ways do you excel against them?” (Even if I know they don’t.)

    Business is a small world, and many times my current customer came from an associated or competing business. They are a great source of leads.

  3. Excellent post Dave. There’s another side to learning about your customers’ businesses and discovering their problems – responding to marketing generated leads.

    A common, misguided approach to marketing qualified leads is based on the assumption the customer has already determined they need or want your goods/services. The sales rep skips in depth discovery and tends to get too aggressive, going into pitch mode, turning off the buyer and blowing an excellent opportunity.

    The surest route to success, understand your buyer and make it all about them, their needs, problems and wants.

    • Wow, Gary, isn’t that the truth on MQL (marketing qualified leads). Assume not, young Padawans. The truth is found in the dialogue you lead with your prospects.

      I also agree wholeheartedly with, “The surest route to success, understand your buyer and make it all about them, their needs, problems and wants.”

      What I do find to be different and important in our current buying environment, is the route to get there. Reps today need the situational judgment to determine whether to lead the discovery phase and dialogue with questions, or with insight.

      Questions are often the best start when the buyer has a need, has some current thinking about it, and you want to explore and understand (better than anyone else), so you can add value from their perspective.

      Leading with insights may be best when you are trying to help someone recognize a need that they may not be fully aware of yet, or haven’t fully developed yet.

      Of course, after seeding or shaping an idea, you still return to questions to fully explore and develop the interest you’ve created. It’s the starting point that varies (and the amount of homework and prep the rep needs to do, to come in with some value to capture attention).

      • Thank you Mike. You’re absolutely right about insights. We’re getting into the touchy-feely side of selling here. Discerning when you have enough information from a new buyer and good enough rapport to throw some ideas on the table is the artistic side of selling. Reading your buyer is what I scribbled about this morning.

        Maintaining focus on your buyer, researching, listening and understanding, leads to which fork in the road to take. The way we offer insights is as important as the ideas themselves. You want the buyer to own the idea. Phrasing as questions, like What do you think about this or What if… helps accomplish that.

        So I’m back on questions. Someone once asked me if I answer all questions with a question and I said, “I don’t know, do I?” My philosophy is, make it the customers idea. Give them a ball they can dribble down court and slam dunk.

        Thanks for a great discussion!

        • Gary and Mike, this is such a great discussion, I can’t add anything to it other than thanking you for the great thoughts!

          • Certainly is fun, Dave, that’s for sure.

            Gary, always back to questions, eventually, right? Sales conversation or dialogue is where the real magic happens. At some levels, usually complex B2B at the exec level, insights are what opens the door for that to happen. But the conversation bounces back and forth between insight and question-based dialogues. We call that the Sales Conversation Pendulum. But if we ever move away from questions entirely in this crazy profession, I’ll find something else to do. Learn to fish, maybe.

  4. David one of your best.. Thanks

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