Sales prospecting is arguably the most critical part of a sales professional’s workflow. No matter how skilled the salesperson or how strong the product, there won’t be a deal to win if they can’t connect with the right people at the right time with the right message.
Sales prospecting is a foundational element for a revenue team — it’s the practice of identifying and connecting with potential customers to initiate the sales cycle. However, even the most effective prospecting strategy takes precious time that could be spent showing prospects how your product or service solves their most urgent problems.
In this guide, we’ll explore ways you can improve your sales prospecting to spend less time finding new prospects and more time closing them. We’ll briefly examine the landscape of sales prospecting today, before delving into how you can ensure your prospecting efforts align with your ideal customer profile (ICP), and other tips to help you spend less time prospecting and more time selling.
What is Sales Prospecting? Then and Now
The image of the door-to-door salesman plying his trade across suburban America may be hopelessly out of date, but at its heart, sales prospecting hasn’t changed as much as you might think over the past 70 years.
At its core, sales prospecting is about finding and engaging potential customers in need of your product or service, and initiating the start of the sales process. While it’s true that door-to-door salesmen had few other options to distribute their wares, it’s also true that they were prospecting in a highly effective way.
Although sales prospecting technology has come a long way in the intervening decades, the underlying principles remain largely the same. Even the highly granular targeting options offered by digital solutions, such as paid social media advertising, seek to create similar conditions as the door-to-door salesman selling vacuum cleaners: Getting your product in front of the right person, at the right time, with the right message.
The Process of Sales Prospecting, Step-by-Step
What does effective sales prospecting look like, and how should you go about it? Although there are many different prospecting workflows, here are some core concepts that remain relevant no matter which approach you choose:
Four Steps to Sales Prospecting
1. Create your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP)
The first step in truly effective prospecting lies in understanding your prospects’ needs. One of the best ways to do this is by examining your buyer personas and ICP. Identifying the characteristics of your ideal buyer should be the starting point toward a deeper understanding of the problems facing your prospects.
Buyer personas and ICPs aren’t just (or shouldn’t be) templated documents that live somewhere in the marketing department. They’re a detailed representation of the very best understanding you have about your ideal customer; their roles and responsibilities, the challenges they face in their day-to-day work, and most importantly, what they want.
Nobody buys business software for its own sake. People buy business software because they want something from it — to solve a problem, save time, or make money. It’s vital that sales reps truly understand their ICP’s goals, because even the hottest leads will quickly fizzle out if a prospect senses they’re “being sold” or if the rep lacks a strong understanding of their problems.
While no two ICPs or buyer personas will be exactly alike, many share common characteristics. However you choose to define your ICP, it’s important to ensure that all key stakeholders agree on the criteria. These might include:
- Highest Net Promoter Score (NPS)
- Highest Annual Contract Value (ACV) or Total Contract Value (TCV)
- Highest growth potential
- Highest retention rate
- Highest customer health score
That said, a solid understanding of your prospects’ needs alone does not necessarily mean you’re in for an easier ride. Many reps today agree that selling as a profession has become significantly more consultative, driven in large part by the fact that many buyers are engaging salespeople much later in an already elongated sales process. Data from Korn Ferry suggests that eight in 10 buyers are not only taking longer to commit to investing in new technologies, but waiting until their needs have been fully identified and articulated before engaging sales professionals.
2. Contextualize prospecting with a complete account view
Once you’ve gained a better understanding of your prospects by building out your ICP and buyer personas, it’s important to contextualize that understanding with additional data. This can include:
- Firmographic data: Data such as corporate org charts, parent and subsidiary company structures, and total headcount can help you identify the right prospects and ensure that they truly align with your ICP and buyer personas.
- Technographic data: A company’s tech stack can be powerfully revealing, as it can indicate existing relationships with competing vendors, as well as opportunities for greater efficiencies such as integrations.
- Financial data: Regardless of whether your prospect company is public or private, financial data such as recently raised investment capital or strong quarterly performance can be indicative of strong purchasing intent and further ensures alignment with your ICP.
- Contact data: One of the most important pieces of the prospecting puzzle, accurate contact data is mission-critical for busy salespeople who need to connect with decision-makers; more accurate contact data means less time wasted searching for the right person.
3. Leverage intent data to customize your outreach
It’s simply no longer enough for sales professionals to contact the right prospects at the right time.
In today’s business environment, longer sales cycles and more discerning buyers are becoming the norm. That’s why intent data — signals that indicate a strong likelihood of specific behaviors or actions companies may take in the near future — is becoming an indispensable tool for professionals seeking to improve their sales prospecting process.
Intent data is a type of business intelligence data typically gathered from third-party sites and networks that indicates strong purchasing intent. This includes interactions with:
- Product reviews on sites such as G2
- Infographics, blogs, and other content
- Product comparisons and teardowns
- Message boards, forums, and other online communities
- Case studies
- Industry news
Intent data gives sales teams the vital competitive edge they need to succeed in an increasingly demanding environment by enabling sales professionals to connect with prospects at critical moments in the purchasing journey.
Combining a deep understanding of your ideal customer with the purchasing indicators revealed by intent data gives you a much more three-dimensional view of a prospect’s situation. It allows you to better understand a prospect’s challenges, what they really want, and how much influence they have over the process itself, as well as how they’re evaluating solutions in your space.
Beyond connecting with motivated prospects at the right time, there are several other ways sales leaders can use intent data to improve the effectiveness of their sales teams.
The first is segmenting audience lists by interest. Sales prospecting is more nuanced than pass/fail logic, and just because a prospect may not be ready to purchase at that particular moment doesn’t mean they’re not a valuable lead. Intent data can help sales operations professionals segment their lists more granularly according to the strength of their intent data, which can be highly beneficial when building and implementing nurture programs.
Intent data also enables much greater personalization of sales and marketing messaging. By capturing information about specific topics your prospects are researching, sales and marketing teams can align their messaging to more accurately reflect prospects’ problems, research behaviors, seniority, and phase of the purchasing journey.
Predictive intent data can also help salespeople improve their lead scoring. Not all leads are created equal, and intent data can help sales professionals prioritize prospects that are more likely to result in bigger deals or longer contracts.
4. Demonstrate that you understand today’s changing market
Even a strong grasp of your ideal customers’ problems and high-quality intent data does not necessarily guarantee success.
Beside lengthier sales cycles, one of the greatest challenges facing sales professionals in virtually every industry is the trend toward including more stakeholders in purchasing decisions, particularly for new technologies. Many buyers are scrutinizing technology investments much more closely, for a longer time, with more decision-makers, all of which makes sales prospecting significantly more difficult than it was in the past.
These trends are likely to persist for the foreseeable future, given broader anxieties about macroeconomic conditions and shifting attitudes toward the technology sector in general. Data from Salesforce suggests that 69 percent of sales professionals believe selling is significantly harder today than it was in the past, driven by a combination of lengthier sales cycles, more informed buyers, and greater scrutiny of purchasing decisions.
That said, it’s not all bad news. In general, technology investments remain a mission-critical priority for many forward-thinking organizations, which is encouraging for companies with products that offer genuine, lasting value in competitive markets.
While it’s true that today’s buyer is more selective than they may have been in the past, many buyers actively want to engage in insightful, consultative conversations with salespeople. They want to forge lasting, meaningful relationships with trusted partners, not just buy from disinterested vendors. This creates crucial opportunities for sales professionals to use their understanding of their prospects’ challenges and the insights revealed by intent data to demonstrate they can solve prospects’ problems and help their companies grow.
Smarter Sales Prospecting, Today
The realities of selling today mean sales professionals must embrace new ways of finding, engaging, and closing prospective customers.
ZoomInfo has been helping businesses grow for more than 15 years. Sign up for a completely free trial to find out how we can help your sales team hit their number and thrive.