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Dialing for Dollars: Anatomy of Prospecting Calls

November 2003 Marketing, Selling

Making phone calls is one of the few constants with respect to selling in business markets. When businesses sell low-cost goods in high-transaction volume markets, the entire sales process will occur through phone calls. At the opposite end of the spectrum, when businesses sell high-cost goods and services in low-transaction volume markets, the phone is a necessary tool for developing rapport, scheduling meetings, and driving conclusions throughout the sales process.

A telephone conversation can accomplish many tactical sales goals. The tactical goal that presents the largest stumbling block to the sales process is the initiation of conversations with new prospects. Creating business conversations through the telephone is the subject of this article, also known as outbound telesales/telemarketing, prospecting calls, or dialing for dollars.

Talking on the telephone may sound elementary but using a phone call to drive business forward requires many specific questions to be addressed. For non-sales readers, we hope that as you read the following article you will begin to appreciate the challenges in making telephone sales calls. Readers accustomed to managing inbound calls will appreciate the challenges associated with a transition from order-taker to aggressor. Salespeople will perhaps enjoy the gentle reminders. If you have other ideas for improving telephone selling, we encourage you to respond with your suggestions.

Tactical Issues

Preparation and planning precedes performance in dialing for dollars just as it does for all other aspects of sales and marketing. (The corollary to this statement is the common 5 Ps: Poor Planning Produces Poor Results.) Broadly speaking, your preparation should cover the following four aspects of dialing for dollars: (1) creating the call list, (2) drafting the call script, (3) executing the calls, and (4) taking next steps.

Call List

In telephone prospecting, the call list is the sales person’s prospect list. Before a salesperson can call prospects, he/she must have a list of names and numbers. Call lists may be created from drop-cards, web forms, referrals, trade shows, industry associations, rented lists, library references, or corporate web site searches.

There are two controversial issues with respect to call lists. These are: (1) qualified versus unqualified contacts and (2) warm call vs. cold call.

“Qualified contact” implies that the sales and marketing process has screened the list for potential prospects and only included those that are likely to purchase. Screening criteria may include expressed interest, purchasing authority, and budget. When designing the telephone prospecting campaign, managers must weigh the cost of contacting unqualified contacts against the cost of lost revenue in missing a potential prospect. If the contacts are “unqualified”, the goal of the sales call shifts from closing a sale towards uncovering interest, need, and willingness to pay.

“Warm calls” implies that the sales and marketing process has had a prior touch-point with the contact. Warming the call with a letter, tradeshow interaction, or referral provides a route to introduce the salesperson and their company to the contact. “Cold calls” implies that no prior contact has been made between the prospect and the salesperson or company. When designing the telephone prospecting campaign, managers must weigh the cost and effectiveness of warming the contacts against that of making cold calls. (See Full Contact) When less effort has been made to warm up the call, the focus of the call shifts from driving a single sales opportunity to providing an introduction and creating awareness of your value offering.

Call Script

The call script must manage three contact points within the current business environment: (1) voice mail, (2) personal assistants, and (3) the prospect.

The following paragraphs will discuss each of these areas. Call scripts should include all potential contact points. Salespeople should use the call script as a guide, not a mechanical requirement. Every sales call is different and flexibility is required to develop meaningful customer relationships. Also, creating a perfect call script will require several drafts and real tests with customers. Expect the call script to evolve over use or as salespeople take ownership over the challenge in driving revenue.

Voice Mail

C-level executives and other business decision makers are busy people who consequently are rarely in their offices waiting for a salesperson’s call. Leaving voice mail, or its corollary of leaving a message with a personal assistant, may be the only means to reach the contact. In a cold-call campaign with unqualified prospects, salespeople should only expect contacts to return voice mail messages at the rate of one part per thousand. Despite the poor odds, leaving a voice mail message provides the contact with a sales and marketing touch-point, thus warming that contact for future efforts.

The voice mail message should identify the salesperson and company, provide the standard elevator speech, and direct interested contacts in taking next steps. In presenting the voice mail message, the salesperson should speak slowly and clearly while providing punch to key points to ensure that the recipient can understand the message. In closing the voice mail message, the salesperson should repeat his/her name, company, and phone number. The goal of leaving voice mail is to encourage and enable the executive to return the call, repeating the phone number twice to allow the executive to write it down.

The Personal Assistant

When calling decision makers and C-level executives, expect their personal assistants (PA) to intercept the calls. Whether their title is receptionist, secretary, office manager, or personal assistant, the PA has been and will remain a part of making sales calls. The spectrum for handling the PA has two extremes.

(1) The sales script ignores the PA existence or suggests that the salesperson explain as little as possible to the personal assistant while stressing the importance and urgency of the phone call. At this extreme, the only point of speaking with the PA is to make it past him/her and reach the decision maker. I call this the bulldoze method wherein the PA is treated as a defensive obstruction or gatekeeper. This sales tactic is focused on closing the sale regardless of all obstructions. Thus, salespeople are encouraged to bulldoze over the PA to reach the true decision maker or to call prospects at odd times such as early morning, lunch, or late afternoon when the PA is less likely to be present.

(2) The sales script acknowledges the PA as an important character within the play by encouraging the salesperson to treat the PA as a member of the customer decision making committee. At this extreme, the salesperson treats the PA as a source of information and potential influencer. Usually, this approach to managing the PA is accompanied by a sales strategy in which the salesperson is required to contact and manage all potential threats to the closing the sale. The PA, though not formally a part of the decision making committee, can use his/her influence to impede or encourage the sale. Thus, the salesperson treats the PA as a professional of importance equal to that of the executive whom he/she serves. Potential pieces of information to gather from the PA include the time when it is best to speak with the executive or the names of other decision makers within the business that might be affected by the solution that offered.

Strategies for managing the personal assistant will lie between these two extremes. Factors that influence the position between bulldozing the PA and selling to the PA are (1) the customer’s attitude towards their personal assistant, (2) the selling company’s brand image and policy, and (3) the salesperson’s personality.

Prospect

When, by the providence of Zeus or through a kiss from Goddess Fortuna, dialing for dollars reaches the prospect, the salesperson must seize the opportunity. These conversations allow you to create value for the customer and capture value for your company. In other words, to get results.

In prospecting calls, the call script should assume that all past efforts to warm the call have failed and all qualifying criteria need to be verified. As a salesperson, after professionally introducing yourself and the company you represent, you should then outline the past touch-points or attempted touch-points that might have brought the prospect in contact with your company. This approach lays the foundation for the prospect to perceive your company as a professional organization making an honest attempt in reaching him/her.

Once introductions have been made, the prospect requires education to win them over to the value offering. Education can be kept at either the elevator speech level where the value is communicated in two sentences or less, or the education may be provided in greater depth through a two minute description. This education must communicate the key value points. Creating this message can be done from the ground up using features and benefits to lead to customer value. This portion of the call allows salespeople to convey their depth of knowledge, the problems their company has solved, and the salesperson’s confidence in their company’s ability. Providing the value is relevant to the challenges faced by the contact, the prospect will listen.

The sales call should highlight Key Value Points (KVP) from the perspective of customers. These usually include dollar savings, time savings, quality improvement, or revenue improvement. (See IAR Systems) One way to clarify a company’s key value points is to ask current customers for the key reasons that they purchased.

If the introduction and value offering education process address a perceived need, the first selling hurdle of finding a live potential prospect will have been overcome. Now, the salesperson has the contact on the hook and must either reel them in or cut the line.

Once a contact has expressed interest, the salesperson must qualify the prospect and extend the relationship. Simply asking questions such as “Do you purchase from our product category?” “How do you solve this problem currently?” followed by “Who else is involved in these decisions?” creates a pathway for extending the relationships and moving the sale forward. If the prospect is not qualified to purchase because they either lack need or ability to pay, cut the line. Few things are worse than wasting time on prospects that will never purchase.

When prospect has been qualified and expressed interest, the salesperson must reel them in and develop the opportunity. Developing an opportunity requires building rapport, identifying the single sales opportunity, and clarifying the value offering. Although a company may be able to meet several of the prospect’s needs, customers are more likely to purchase when a single specific opportunity to serve has been identified. This specific customer challenge becomes the single sales objective. In clarifying the value offering, the salesperson must create a picture within the prospects mind of the value provided and connect the dots between the prospects current state and the potential state to which the value offering will transform them.

An area of concern in creating call scripts is handling objections. Minimally, objections can be handled by simply asking why the prospect is uninterested followed by probing questions or clarifying statements. If common objections occur, methods to overcome these objections should be included in the script. There are differing viewpoints with respect to how many objections a salesperson should handle before saying goodbye to the prospect. In making the determination, managers must balance the value of creating positive relationships and calling that prospect again in the future with the value of driving that specific sales opportunity forward at that moment.

Execution

In executing calls, a salesperson must determine the time of day to make the calls, manage the psychology of rejection, and project personality.

Every industry has a different rhythm. C-level executives at manufacturing companies usually arrive early to the office and may be more reachable between 7:00 – 9:00 am. Meanwhile, decision makers at many technology companies will arrive late in the morning and stay late in the evening. In such cases, calling in between mid-morning and late afternoon may be most effective. Keeping a record of the availability of decision makers within the specific market will provide guidance to determining the best time of day to reach them.

Rejection is a part of sales. Not every prospect will purchase and good prospects are not always available for a sales call. Psychologically, a salesperson cannot perform well if their sales calls are consistently rejected day after day, month after month. For the salesperson in managing rejection, my research uncovers two tactics. One, accept that the prospect’s rejection of the sales call or the value offering has nothing to do with you. If they are rude, that is their problem not yours. You’re the professional and you maintain politeness. Two, take a break every now and then, do something fun to remind you that you are appreciated and valued. Talk to a supportive coworker or accomplish another type of task. (Find the love)

It is said that the words are only 7% of communication, the other 93% is body language and tone of voice. In sales calls body language is removed, placing more stress on the use of voice and words to communicate. The sales voice cannot be monotonic, as that will put the prospect to sleep. At the same time, the sales voice cannot be bubbly in professional situations. (Bubbly can work well for low-cost repeat order goods, but poorly for high-value new customer sales, especially at the C-level.) Although no one looks forward to the exercise, recording the sales pitch and listening to the recording provides a means for constant self-improvement.

Next Steps

There are two next steps to every prospecting call, the next step in the managing the prospecting call campaign and the next step in the sales process towards driving closure.

Maintaining Records

After every phone call, the salesperson must record the outcome. Either in a paper log book or in a software CRM package, the outcome of the sales call must be logged. Moreover, the log of the phone calls must enable the salesperson to quickly refer back to the call at any point in the future. In those few instances in which a prospect returns a sales call, the salesperson needs to be able to recall what other steps he/she took or risk the appearance of disinterest.

Salespeople need to record the names and addresses of new contacts created in the prospecting activity. Contacts on the call list will often state that they are interested in the offering, but that the salesperson needs to speak to someone else within their organization. In these cases, and if the campaign calls for warming the call with an introduction package, the salesperson should record the new contact’s name, send them the introduction package, and schedule a follow-thru call to occur within the same week of the receipt of this package.

Finally, for evaluating the effectiveness of a campaign, higher level measurements should be made. Quantitative metrics include the number of bad contact records, the number of decision makers not reached, the number of decision makers reached, the number of decision makers that expressed interest, and the number of prospects that were qualified during the campaign. Qualitative metrics can include perceptions of which value points gained the most interest or which objections were most commonly raised.

The value of these metrics is in the subsequent campaign analysis. Sales and marketing efforts require constant improvement. A performance driven integrated sales and marketing program will be able to utilize these metrics in optimizing the use of promotional activities and salespeople’s time. (See Integrated Sales and Marketing)

Sales Opportunity

In developing specific sales opportunities, there are two major categories of next steps: further attempts at getting through and activities that drive identified single sales opportunities towards closure.

If the prospecting call failed to reach the prospect, the salesperson should plan to call them again. Research indicates that if a prospect cannot be reached in 4 attempts, further efforts are unlikely to provide success at a rate that would justify the cost of the effort. In other words, after you left them a couple of voice mails and spoke with their assistant, move on. The economic rule of decreasing marginal rate of returns applies to repeating sales calls as it does within other parts of business. If they wanted to speak to you they would. Rather than chasing cold fish, move to new waters.

However, when the prospect has a demand for the offering and the sales call has been professionally executed, the sales opportunity will have been moved forward and the prospecting activity will have been successful. Congratulations. It is time to rejoice in the success of the telephone prospecting and jump into the next step of the sales process: follow-up calls, meetings, contracts, and revenue and commissions.

Success is the product of luck and execution. While luck is an external factor, execution is under our control.



About the author

Tim J. Smith, PhD is the Managing Principal of Wiglaf Pricing, and an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University of Marketing and Economics. His most recent book is Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures.

Tim J. Smith, PhD
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