5 Simple Steps for Prospecting Your Way to Selling Success

For the past 25 years, we’ve been studying what I (and most sellers) believe is the most difficult aspect of selling: prospecting or “cold calling” as some may remember.

Whether you’re an account manager or biz development rep, hunter or farmer, your income and value are based on the revenue you create. Whether hunting for new accounts or hunting within existing accounts, we all need to prospect. 

I’m here to help. My audacious goal is to make prospecting easy, to remove the mystery, and to make it less stressful on you and your potential customer.  

What follows is a step-by-step approach to getting more meetings.


Step One: Get Their Attention

So, you’re about to write an email, or maybe you’re one of the remaining few who still use the phone for prospecting. Or maybe you’re about to craft a message to connect with a prospect on LinkedIn. Perhaps, if you are very advanced, you use a company like Vidyard to create custom video messages for your prospect.


Where do you begin? Do you lead with…


  • Your best product or solution?
  • Your most compelling benefit?
  • A case study with some impressive ROI?
  • Something super creative, like the “you don’t know why I’m reaching out, so you will have to respond to find out” strategy? 
  • Or maybe you go with a mutual interests approach, i.e., “I also went to Wesley in 1995”? 


Scratch it. They don’t work 98% of the time. This is why we hate prospecting — it’s like a 9th-grade boy in high school trying to get a date — just a whole lot of rejection. 

You want to get someone’s attention? Here’s what ALWAYS works.  

Picture the person you are about to engage. See them sitting at their desk or cubicle. Got the picture? Now, picture the whiteboard in their office.


What’s on it? 


If you want to get someone’s attention, don’t talk about you, your solution, or attempt to invent a new creative approach. Just lead with what’s on their whiteboard. Focus on what they are working on, one of their initiatives, or what they care about. If you can get super specific, that’s best. 


Here’s the truth: if I show you a picture of you, you will look at it. Every time. If I show you a picture of me, you will ignore it, especially if I’m a stranger. 

Why does that happen? A little neuroscience…


Marketing experts argue that we get anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 messages a day. Regardless of the number, it’s a lot. We are more and more overwhelmed with information than any other generation in history. Therefore, the brain employs a filtering system called the Reticular Activation System (RAS) to act as a gate between your subconscious and conscious mind to determine what messages get through. To make sure your messages land, you’ve got to make sure they get through the RAS. 


In short: if you want to grab the prospect’s attention, you need a key to that gate. 

Here’s the good news: there are only two criteria the RAS uses to determine if a message gets noticed. The first instance is that the message contains something you know you need. For example, you’re more likely to notice cars on the way to work the day after you decide to buy a new car. The second instance is something you don’t understand or is out of the ordinary, like a baby talking about investments or an ostrich in sunglasses with a yellow coat selling car insurance.


If you pay attention to the ads that grab your attention, you’ll see they always fall into these two categories. You either have a perceived need, or your brain was trying to make sense out of something that just doesn’t fit.    


Bottom line, capturing someone’s attention is about alignment, not selling. 

To get noticed, don’t try to change beliefs or sell. Instead, you should align your message to what they are already thinking. 


If you sell IT services and your prospect’s whiteboard has an action item to “reach out to IT services,” it’s easy. With an email that says, “Hey, are you looking for IT services?” you’ll get their attention. But, for the other 98% who don’t have that on their whiteboard, the email will remain unopened and deleted.

Therefore, to convert the disinterested, lead with a problem that’s on their whiteboard that, if it exists, will require IT services. The more specific the description, the higher probability your message will be noticed. 

For example, instead of saying, “Companies that are expanding often struggle with…” consider leading instead with, “As you plan to open up seven new locations in the Midwest…”

The second message can’t be ignored because of the details. RAS demands it.  


Here’s another approach. The other day, I got an email that began with the title of an article I wrote. The seller showed me my “picture,” and I looked at it. 

Does “looking” guarantee a response? No, and we’ll discuss getting a response in Step Two, but it does promise getting noticed.  


You may be thinking, “What if you don’t know what’s on the prospect’s whiteboard?”

If you lack intel from an insider, make your prospecting message relevant to the role. You can focus on what people in similar roles have on their whiteboard and what their top three challenges are. 

My advice is to hit up Google and learn everything you can about the person, their role, or even their company in general. These details can help you hone in on the details that make your prop successful at getting through the RAS. 

But what if you know nothing about the person or the role you are attempting to reach?  Stop prospecting entirely. Go to school on the decision makers you serve. Hit the books and get some good background work in. In this case, you need to slow down in order to speed up. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with less than a 2% success rate with your prospecting. 


There’s one more benefit to leading your prospecting efforts with what’s on the decision maker’s whiteboard. 

And this benefit ensures not only that the curiosity of your prospect will be piqued, but that you will convey something important about you personally. Not only does this grab their attention, but this approach demonstrates you are that rare person, and furthermore, that rare salesperson, who is more interested in the others than themselves. These are the type of people strangers will meet with and give away an hour of their valuable time. 

If you understand and implement the principles offered in Step One, you will get the prospect’s attention. As the suit guy says, “I guarantee it.” Like unexpectedly jumping out from behind a door, there are some predictable things you can do to control eyeballs when facing obstacles to prospecting. The next step is a bit more challenging:

How do you move from being seen to creating a desire to give up precious time to meet with a stranger? 


Step Two: Answer the Question, “Why Meet?”

Why meet? Answering this question is one of the prospecting challenges you will undoubtedly face. As you will see, the answer to this question is simple to understand but difficult to execute. The best answer requires two components:  


  1. You know something they don’t.
  2. You offer something they can’t get. 


Let’s tackle them in order. 


1. You Know Something They Don’t

Decision makers, the real decision makers, don’t meet with sales reps. They delegate the tasks of sifting through vendors to someone else. So how do you tackle one of the most common obstacles to prospecting? Don’t be the typical sales rep who only offers information the decision maker can find with Google. Tell them something they don’t know about the best way to solve their problems. 


Think of it this way: If you were speaking at a conference to a room full of decision makers, what tidbit of wisdom, best practice, or principle could you share that would be so surprising and important, everyone would write it down? For this to occur, it would have nothing to do with your solution, but 100% related to helpful information previously unknown about the best way to solve their problem. 


This pearl of wisdom is the most compelling information you can share in an email, introduction, LinkedIn message, or voicemail, or if you do happen to be speaking at a conference. It elevates your value and moves you from a seller-of-stuff to someone who might be worth meeting with. 


If you’re thinking, “Where do I get this information?” then you’re on the right track. But as I said in step one, it’s time for some needed education. The information you seek is available. It most likely lives in your organization and, definitely, in the collective wisdom of your current customers. The only thing required to elevate your status from sales rep to consultant is the desire and tenacity to obtain it. 


2. You offer something they can’t get internally or externally

The next step in overcoming prospecting challenges is to focus on only what you can offer.

Here’s how:

List every benefit of the product, service, or solution you are offering. If the benefit is offered by the competition or the prospect can get the same benefit from an internal resource, scratch it. Whatever you are left with, lead with that.  

Remember to avoid the features and focus on the unique benefit you offer. The goal here is to create an interest in knowing more. Once you engage, you will have time to answer questions related to how the benefit is delivered. Here, your goal is to separate yourself from all the other sellers who are sending lengthy, boring emails filled with laundry lists of stuff that no one cares about, least of all the decision maker.    

 One more thing: you need to accomplish this in 100 words or less. Your message must be tight. The decision maker’s attention span is short, very short. If your brilliantly crafted message takes longer than 20 seconds to say or read, it’s just noise.  


Let’s recap. 

By focusing on the prospect’s problem, demonstrating you have unique expertise needed to solve their problem, and offering a benefit no one else can, you’ve overcome these obstacles to prospecting by developing the best possible answer to their question, “Why meet?” 

Now that you already know how to capture the prospect’s attention and the best answer to the question: “Why meet?” Next, we need to move this total stranger from “this looks interesting” to giving up their most precious resource: time. 

The best way to navigate this barrier is to remove it. Reduce the risk and ask for a brief phone meeting — a very brief meeting.  


Step Three: Ask for a 3-Minute Meeting

If you’re not in a committed relationship, imagine the following scenario: you’re single and hanging with a few friends at a bar. Out of the corner of your eye, you catch a glimpse of a person you would like to meet, a “prospect.”  

Without much thought, you walk over, introduce yourself, and within seconds, ask if they are interested in going out to dinner. What’s your success rate?  

Probably very similar to the average success rates when prospecting via the phone: dismal. If your success rate is low, the problem may not be how you positioned the meeting, but your recommended next step. 

Don’t ask a stranger to invest a big chunk of time. Just ask them for about three minutes to determine if it makes sense to “date.” This not only reduces the resistance to engage, but it also allows them to see you as human, with the expertise to solve their problem, and not a commission breathing sales rep. 


Putting This Prospecting Method to the Test

We’ve tested this approach with sellers making what I believe is the most difficult prospecting call: calling cold prospects about life insurance. The sellers who proposed a three-minute phone meeting were eight times more successful than those who asked for an appointment. Additionally, the sellers who followed our recommendation increased their face-to-face meetings by 20%. 


Filling Your Pipeline Means Taking a Chance

Give it a shot. Ask for a few minutes to determine if they have a problem you can solve. When the three minutes are up, you can now uniquely communicate how a more in-depth discovery meeting can potentially lead to helping them solve a problem.  And they will be shocked you aren’t pushing for more time. Often this approach results in a role reversal, where the prospect is wanting more of your time to discuss their needs, a nice bonus.

Either way, I promise you your rejection rate will dramatically drop, and your appointments with qualified prospects will increase. 

While the first three steps focused on navigating the obvious barriers to getting more meetings with decision makers, this next step is about addressing perhaps the most ominous challenge – one that’s never verbally communicated but is always present.


Step Four: Remove the Tension

In almost every interaction between seller and prospect, a certain tension exists. You, the seller, want a meeting and the chance to hopefully earn a commission or bonus, and in some cases, to keep your job. The prospect wants to protect their time and wallet, while avoiding the almost inevitable confrontation that occurs when trying to sidestep an unwanted sales call.

Regardless of your motive, thanks to the title on your business card, that tension exists.

This makes prospecting, over the phone or in person, stressful for both you and your prospect. It’s almost as if you have been forced into an uncomfortable tug-of-war, where your only option is to either tug/force the person from their position of disinterest or throw in the towel and walk away saying, “I’m just not gonna play that game.” These options are not only awkward for both parties, but they don’t bring about the desired result.

The more you pull, the more resistance you create. But if you don’t play, you can’t win.

This is the primary reason that success is only achieved with an infinitesimally small percentage of people, prospects who are actively looking for the product or solution that you offer and don’t know who to call. The problem is, most sellers can’t hit their numbers only through referrals or by slogging through countless hours of rejection trying to connect with the rare prospect awaiting your call or email.

So, as sellers, where does this leave us?


Luckily, there’s a solution: Drop the Rope®.

Resist the urge to enter a tug-of-war with your prospect. Instead, try something counterintuitive, something that will separate you from the typical sales rep. Remove the tension by “dropping the rope.”

Communicate that your solution may not be a fit, that you’re not sure yet if there is a need to meet.  This demonstrates that you won’t attempt to force the prospect to stay on the phone. If you allow them to leave, they are more likely to stay.


Say things like:

“My goal is to briefly discuss ______ (answer the question “Why meet?” from  Step 2), then you can decide if it makes sense to continue this conversation.”

“You sound jammed, I’m not sure if there is even a need for….” (see Step 2).

“I’ve heard ____ is a great company. I’m not sure if it even makes sense to consider another supplier. If you have a few minutes, I would just like to learn more about how….”


The key here is mindset. Remember that you know very little about the person you are calling. All assumptions are arrogant. So, state the obvious. You don’t know what they need, you don’t know all the options they are faced with or what path may be in their best interest. And by putting all the options on the table, positive and negative, you are much more likely to influence those decision makers that need to be influenced in order for you to win the sale.

Bottom line, there are two hurdles to getting a meeting:

  1. The prospect’s resistance to being “sold to”
  2. Finding people who have a genuine need for what you have to offer.


If you Drop the Rope®, the first, greatest, and most emotionally-taxing barrier disappears.

Now we move into Step 5, the final ingredient to a successful prospecting strategy. It’s the step that offers the most encouragement for those of you who live and die by a healthy pipeline.


Step Five – Persistence

I love Cinderella stories – when someone overcomes impossible odds to do something great. It doesn’t matter if it’s an athlete, teacher, rockstar, mom, politician, or accountant, the story always moves me.  This weekend I heard a new one.

As Josh Allen, the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, was about to take his first snap in the NFL playoffs, the commentator shared his background story. He was an average high school quarterback who wasn’t recruited by a single college. The scouts sent a clear message: you aren’t good enough to play at the next level.

He didn’t quit. Allen enrolled in a junior college.

After completing two seasons at Reedley College, he was snubbed again. Not one single college invited him to play at the next level.  

He didn’t quit. He sent one thousand letters, got one response: Wyoming. Allen was finally able to realize his dream and led the Cowboys to a Mountain West Conference title and two bowl games. He was then drafted first round by the Buffalo Bills. Talk about a big commission check.


If you’re tired of the sports analogies, here’s one about a comedian. I recently heard Jeff Foxworthy say,

“In my first year, I did 406 shows. I made $8,003.”

He didn’t quit. He went on to produce several television series, record six albums – 2 multi-platinum, and author 35 books.

What do these stories have to do with prospecting? It has everything to do with what we want to achieve in life and in successful prospecting. Regardless of ability, nothing will happen without persistence.  


Keep Going

Steps one, two, three and four were about what to do. The last step is simple: keep doing it. Don’t give up. Keep “writing letters.”

According to my experience, as well as a ton of research, it takes 6 to 8 attempts to engage a prospect.

This means you can craft the perfect Other-Centered® message, but if you only send that message a few times, you will fail to engage many prospects.

Prospecting is about quality and quantity.


Here’s what I love about sales. Success in sales is just a choice. Unlike most professions, if you want to make six figures (or whatever your goal might be), do the work and you will see the results and reap the rewards. Granted, with more talent and skill the results will be greater and happen quicker, but in sales, the person who is willing to do the work will get the prize.

One of my favorite quotes is from a highly successful songwriter. When asked about his key to success, he simply said,

“The people who had more talent quit.”

Don’t quit. In sales, success is your choice. Create a plan, follow the plan, hit your number. Repeat.


Ready for More?

If your team is struggling to make the transition to virtual selling, be sure to check out our new program.

We would be happy to understand your challenges and see if we can help.  We started as an inside sales training company in 1996 and the challenges we faced then are in many ways the same as those we all face today.


As Co-founder and CEO, Tom’s primary role is to create content that helps people live, sell, and serve more effectively. Find him on LinkedIn

1 Comment

  1. TH on September 25, 2020 at 3:27 pm

    Drop the rope is intriguing. I will use it today.

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