We all had a lot of hopes for 2011. After all, 2010 was better than the annus horribilis of 2009. So business should be on an upswing, right? If you've got a full pipeline and all the new business you can handle, good for you. But if you're like a lot of us, you have spent the first two quarters of this year wondering when the pace of new business activity is going to pick up.
There's no better time than the summer -- when execs at the agency down the street are heading to the Hamptons for a few weeks -- to polish up on those prospecting skills. I can hear you groan as you read this; you'd rather get a root canal. But I'm going to help make it easier with some practical tips that could help you unearth some new clients (and the kind that don't have a request-for-proposal out to 40 agencies to pitch their account).
1. Stop Making Lists. Every agency I've ever worked with is excellent at making prospecting lists. I've seen so many good prospecting lists that if I could have built a business around them, I'd be rich. The problem is , after all the work of making that list -- defining criteria, researching the prospects, having a few meetings -- nothing ever happens with it. No calls made, no emails sent. Six months later, you realize you've got to start prospecting. So you make another list. And the cycle continues. Break that cycle! Grab the latest list and choose five -- yes, only five -- companies to call on. Don't make another list until you do.
2. It's Not Stalking, It's Research. Use Social Media. Tools Like LinkedIn and Twitter have changed the face of prospecting forever. LinkedIn is probably the best way to find out a lot about the person who you want to contact. By digging a bit deeper, it's easy to quickly identify other qualified targets at the same company and understand corporate hierarchies. And, of course, always take advantage of a strong connection, if there is one, to ask for a personal introduction. On Twitter, follow your prospects and get to know what's important to them by what they tweet. More important, let them get to know you by replying to (in an intelligent, compelling way, of course) and retweeting their posts. Then there are newcomers like Hashable, which debuted at this year's SXSW festival. It's a way to collect digital business cards of the people you meet and it takes the best of LinkedIn and Twitter to let you immediately add those new contacts to your social network.
3. Remember That Prospects Are People Just Like You. Dredge up one of the prospecting documents or scripts you may have written in the past and take a look. Who is this person? The scripts sound nothing like you. And if they come off stilted to you, that 's how they're going to sound to a prospect. Prospects are human beings and they'll respond much better if they think they're being approached by another human being. I give myself this exercise: Before making a cold call, I think about that person as if they were my friend or brother or neighbor or aunt. My tone is still respectful and my message relevant, but this exercise has an uncanny way of making me feel relaxed and confident. And that transmits to the prospect.
4. Be a Little Pushy. This tip is important, especially if it is in your nature to be too polite. Learn to listen between the lines. Some people will get you off the phone as soon as they possibly can and there's not much you can do about that . Hang up, regroup and go to the next one on your list. But others may need a little drawing out. Be prepared with a question or two for them and see how they answer it. Sometimes that unlocks the door and the conversation goes from "We're all set with our current resources" to "We're all set with our current resources, but there is this one thing ..." Wedge your foot in that door and pry it open.
5. Rehearse. Yes, rehearse. No matter how many times you've done it before, you're not above it. Jill Konrath, in her excellent book "Snap Selling," advises that once you have a phone script, call your cellphone, leave yourself a message and then listen to it. You'll start to hear where your humanity shines through and where it doesn't. I know it's painful even to contemplate listening to your own voicemail over and over. But I'm here to tell you that not only does it get easier after the first time, but it is probably the fastest and most effective way to hone your voice-mail skills.
6. The Follow Friday Rule. It's tempting to ramp down toward the weekend, especially after a busy week, but I've had more luck reaching the people I want to talk to on Friday afternoon than I've had any other time of the week. There are less meetings clogging up calendars and, with the weekend on the horizon, not only are you more likely to get someone in their office, you'll probably get them in a good mood too.
Prospecting can be daunting, especially if you don't do it on a daily basis. It takes practice. But the good news is that the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more success you have. Be yourself and believe in your message. Oh, and make the call.