If your sales budget is based on a calendar year, you’re probably working hard right now to close as much business as possible over the next three months. But how many deals do you have ready to close in January, February and March? Especially during this very difficult year, many of your prospective customers are delaying purchases. So you need to lay the groundwork for the year ahead.
If you sell big-ticket products or services, sales cycles often stretch out over many months. So, while we are rushing to hit our numbers for this year, we need a sound sales prospecting pipeline strategy for the year ahead.
Though faced with the reality of dramatic economic change, the reconfiguration of the business landscape and the impact of globalization, U.S. companies continue to go down the wrong path. Former U.S. Treasury Department official Michael T. Jacobs labels it “business myopia.”
Short-term thinking is so accepted that it has become institutionalized. Reminiscent of the hunter of an earlier day, one popular business saying expresses the short-term view: “Every day, week, month and year, we have to do it all over again.” It’s as if every day is going back to the starting line.
For example, life insurance agents who have been in the business for many years get up in the morning and ask themselves the same question they’ve repeated every morning since they entered the business: “Who am I going to talk to today?” While each day may be new, should it really be thought of as a new beginning?
Instead of this short-term view, we need to develop a long-term approach. If the goal is to ensure growth and perpetuation, a long-term approach achieves the best results. This is achieved with what can be called a “Sales Prospecting Pipeline Strategy.”
The purpose of a pipeline strategy is to constantly fill the pipeline with potential business, while taking care of the new business that flows from the pipeline. The more effort going into customer creation, the bigger the payoff in increased business. Instead of committing time and resources to looking for new business, a more prudent approach is to create a process that produces business.
Here are the seven elements involved in building a sales prospecting pipeline strategy:
1. View prospects as ‘customers-in-the-making’
Although it contradicts traditional sales strategies, prospects should not be looked upon as potential sales. This distorts the selling process. Although most salespeople are quick to say that they are solution-oriented and want to help customers, their behavior betrays their words.
It isn’t difficult to identify the salesperson who has only one objective in mind: to make the sale. Everything is aimed at achieving that one goal. Prospects quickly sense the true mission and go on the defensive, either by rejecting the salesperson or backing away from making a decision.
Prospects must be looked upon as customers-in-the-making, whether they buy today or a year from now. The goal is to bring them into your orbit in such a way that they will not go elsewhere. This is what allows selling to focus intensely on the customer.
2. Make prospect identification a continuing commitment
It’s easy to become confused and place making a sale ahead of creating a customer. The goal of prospecting should be identifying those who fit a company’s customer profile and who, when properly cultivated, hold the potential for becoming buyers.
The most difficult task is making prospect identification a continuing task. The life force of sales is a pipeline that’s filled with prospective customers who have learned the value of doing business with you and who recognize that partnering with you is in their best interest. They need to discover all of that before becoming customers.
Most prospect identification efforts produce minimal results because they lack continuing commitment and constant attention. They are considered nothing more than a temporary “activity,” instead of being seen as the source of new business for the years ahead.
3. Implement tactics for cultivating prospects
It’s the prospect cultivation process that allows a company to penetrate the prospect’s thinking. Customers set their own buying schedules, and they’re not about to have their priorities changed to fit the needs of a salesperson. They don’t want 10 telephone calls (or 10 voice mail messages). They’re not moved by attempts to arrange a meeting or by some salesperson saying, “I’d like to get together with you to gather information.” There’s no time.
But when the prospect is ready to buy, those who come to mind get the opportunity to write the order. Staying in front of these prospects regularly is the beginning of success.
4. Segment prospects to focus on individual needs
We’re in the age of the individual customer where expectations are increasing daily. The customer expects everything to be individually customized. “Boiler plate” proposals are deadly, and “general” letters are unacceptable.
The Fleet Financial Group’s Terrance Murray spoke about this issue in the company’s 1996 annual report: “We are currently developing a state-of-the-art customer database, which will allow us to better understand each of our retail and corporate customers. This will enable us to match financial solutions with their specific needs and to offer more choices in how, when and where they do business with us.” This is long-term planning for acquiring customers, not just an exercise to grab the next account or corporate loan.
5. Be a resource for prospects
The most effective way to convince a customer to buy from you is to make yourself invaluable. What you sell may help a customer become more successful, but what you know solves customer problems.
There are those who are reluctant to share their knowledge, fearing that prospects will take what they want and never bother to become buyers. While there’s always the chance that this can happen, it’s worth it in order to demonstrate a company’s competence and expertise.
The best way for prospects to become aligned with your company is to allow them to discover the depths of your experience and the extent of your knowledge. This is the value-added that makes a significant difference.
6. Find ways to help customers to be more successful
If partnering has any value as a concept, it’s to be found in helping prospects and customers meet business challenges. Just selling them the right product or service isn’t nearly enough to build a lasting bond. Almost any “vendor” can do that. Going beyond the expected is today’s challenge.
A supplier of bakery mixes and fillings discovered that its customers were asking for help in developing marketing strategies and tactics for retailing their products. At that point, management realized that high-quality, innovative products were not enough. Customers were looking to them for ways to sell more products. Meeting this need was the first step in selling more mixes and fillings.
7. Demonstrate leadership
While playing it cautious is often prudent, it’s leadership that captures the attention of prospects. For example, Circuit City has literally pulled the plug on competitors because of its marketplace assertiveness. On a smaller scale, a Chinese restaurant opened in a near-saturated Chinese food market and captured customers with its innovate approach of an open kitchen. Customers watched the food being prepared while they relaxed in a more traditional American dining atmosphere. Customers sensed something new, different and comfortable.
You must establish a leadership image that appeals to today’s prospects and customers. This image comes from a results-based approach because results are what count. Wasting time chasing unlikely sales, following up on less-than-serious prospects and preparing dead-end proposals doesn’t make sense. Short-term tactics are unable to identify and penetrate the serious customers.
What’s required is a strategy that fills your customer pipeline with prospects that can be nurtured. This ensures a steady flow of new business from those who know and understand your company’s capabilities.
Having a well-defined sales prospecting pipeline strategy ensures that we always have multiple strong prospects working, regardless of how long each account finally takes to close.