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The Psychology of Prospecting

Prospecting difficulties come in two flavors: “cannot” and “will not.” Each flavor requires a different response.

On an ongoing basis, most sales managers assess whether a pipeline contains sufficient opportunities to allow a salesperson to achieve his or her assigned quota. This analysis is usually done without regard for the mix of new accounts versus add-on business. If a pipeline is thin, sales managers tend to focus on the quantity of prospecting activity, often without helping salespeople improve the quality of their efforts. After a period of time, if a manager determines that one of the salespeople is not generating enough prospects, the knee-jerk reaction is to mandate that a higher percentage of his or her time be spent uncovering new opportunities. And in some cases—namely, cases of “will not”—this is the best way to go: Mandate more activity, and monitor subsequent prospecting behavior closely.

But ordering someone to spend more time on a given task does little good if the individual lacks the requisite skills to accomplish what is expected. And this brings us to the more common problem: “cannot.” By and large, salespeople are proud and highly motivated individuals; in fact, in many cases, the desire to excel takes precedence over financial motivation. So lackluster prospecting results are most often due to skill deficiencies. And poor results due to poor skills quickly plant and reinforce the notion that prospecting is drudgery. In other words, “cannot” turns into “will not.”

On a recent client engagement, we were hired to assist a vice president (VP) of Sales in reviewing the pipeline of all eighteen of the company’s salespeople. We scheduled a 45-minute conference call with each of the salespeople, with the VP sitting in as well. Each salesperson was asked in advance to be prepared to discuss his or her top three opportunities.

During each discussion, we asked—at different times, and in different ways—how the salesperson first learned about each opportunity. Out of fifty-four opportunities in their collective pipelines, a total of four had been proactively prospected. It turned out that in many cases, the salesperson’s entire prospecting activities were limited to calling Marketing and asking a pointed question: “Where are the leads from the last trade show?” This opened the eyes of the VP of Sales, who had no idea how little proactive prospecting was being done by his salespeople.

Sales performance is largely driven by human nature. It’s very common for salespeople to follow an outstanding quarter with a lackluster one. Why? Because they stopped prospecting as soon as their pipeline looked reasonably healthy. This is human nature: Less attractive activities get put on tomorrow’s list. How many times have you made a to-do list, and discovered at day’s end that you had done only the tasks you detested the least? So it is with prospecting. Salespeople are extremely creative at finding reasons why they are too busy to prospect.

Everyone who has tried it will agree on one thing: Prospecting can be a humbling experience. Nevertheless, it needs to be done. Closing business is good news: You get the transaction. But there’s accompanying bad news: One opportunity has been removed from your funnel, and now needs to be replaced.

In many cases, the first place prospectors turn to is the telephone.


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