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What is sales prospecting?

Last updated: November 2021

Whether you’re a seasoned sales rep or a brand-new sales development representative, prospecting is core to becoming a star salesperson. This guide sheds light on the basics of sales prospecting along with techniques, tools, and tactics to help you succeed.

Use this free guide to learn the basics of sales prospecting techniques, tools, and tactics.

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In this guide you’ll find answers to all of your questions about sales prospecting, including:

 

What is sales prospecting and why is it important?

 

Sales prospecting is the act of researching and pursuing potential customers for your business.

Sales prospecting is a vital part of your sales strategy because it helps to develop and fill your sales pipeline, which brings you one step closer to closing deals and securing new customers. Sales prospecting is also an important component of your brand identity. As the first point of contact with new businesses and people, how you communicate when prospecting can help build trust and establish your company as a partner and thought leader in your industry.

 

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Who are sales prospectors?

 

Typically, those working to prospect for new customers hold SDR and BDR roles–these acronyms stand for Sales Development Representative (SDR) and Business Development Representative (BDR). Not every company has or needs both of these roles and, in some cases, the titles can be used interchangeably. If a company is distinguishing between the two, then SDRs typically focus on inbound prospecting while BDRs spend their days doing outbound prospecting.

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However you choose to structure your team, it’s valuable to have a role that’s solely focused on customer prospecting efforts. Because the research and tactics involved in prospecting in sales can be time-consuming, having individuals dedicated to doing this work will make your overall sales team more efficient. While prospectors focus on building and refining the sales pipeline, account executives can spend their time closing deals with qualified leads that have moved further down the funnel.

There is also a distinction between inside sales and outside sales representatives. Inside sellers are generally classified as the group of salespeople who sell remotely through digital channels (like calling, emailing, social selling, etc.), while outside sellers travel to meet prospects in person. Inside sales is popular with B2B sales teams.

What’s the difference between a sales lead, prospect and opportunity?

 

The key difference between a sales lead and a sales prospect is qualification.

The definition of a sales lead is a company or individual that has demonstrated interest in your product or service but has yet to be qualified or examined to see if they match your ideal customer profile (ICP) and could be a potential buyer/client. Indicators of interest in your product or service could include actions such as following your company on social media, subscribing to a newsletter or blog, visiting your website or FAQ pages, etc.

sales prospect, on the other hand, has been evaluated against your ICP and identified as a company or person fitting these criteria and could benefit from your services.

Sales opportunities are one step further along in the qualification process. Sales opportunities are the companies and/or people that are qualified and match your ICP, and are considered likely to purchase your product or service.

The key to success is finding leads and moving them down the sales funnel to convert them to customers in the most efficient way possible. Streamlining your sales cycle is one way to do just that. But before we do that, we need to understand exactly what a sales cycle should look like.

 

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What are the stages in a sales cycle?

 

There are seven stages in a sales cycle, we’ve touched on the first three–1) sales prospecting, 2) lead generation, and 3) prospect qualification–but what’s next? Here are each of the seven stages in the sales cycle and what they entail.

sales cycle colorful graphic with sales prospecting, lead generation, qualification, sales presentation, objection handling, closing the deal and reference generation text
 

Stage 1: Sales Prospecting

Prospecting in sales is the act of researching and pursuing potential customers. We’ve included a step-by-step guide with sales prospecting best practices within this article to help you up your game and crush your quota each and every month.

 

Stage 2: Lead Generation

Lead generation utilizes a combination of marketing and sales practices, all with the end goal of introducing and familiarizing potential prospects with your product or service to generate authentic interest. There are many ways to introduce prospects to your company and generate leads, including writing a blog post (or posts) on relevant topics related to your offerings, social media posts, ads, research reports, and any other effort to get your company in front of new people/companies.

 

Stage 3: Prospect Qualification

Qualification isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. We explained lead qualification at a high level earlier in this guide, but to break this down a bit further, there are actually a few different steps in the lead qualification process, each with its own implications about where a lead should fall in your sales cycle.

Marketing Qualified Lead: A marketing qualified lead, or MQL, is a lead at the very first stages of engaging with your company. Maybe they downloaded an ebook or signed up for your product newsletter, either way, they aren’t quite ready to talk to the sales team.

Sales Qualified Lead: Sales qualified leads are a bit further along in demonstrating their interest in your company, and have completed actions that indicate they have the potential to become a customer. A sales qualified lead may have asked to speak with a sales representative or reached out to inquire about a specific product or service.

 

Stage 4: Sales Presentation

Once a prospect is qualified and identified as an opportunity–meaning they match your ICP and there’s a good chance they could purchase your product or service–it’s time to set up a Sales Presentation, or meeting to pitch your product and discuss how it can help them achieve their goals.

After SDRs and BDRs identify a prospect as an opportunity, they pass these opportunities off to Account Executives, who are generally in charge of running product demos and pitches. If you’re selling B2B software or have a more technical product, presales professionals like sales engineers or solutions engineers will often join in the pitch process to demonstrate how your product or service can address a buyer’s pain points and further explain the technical aspects of the product.

 

Stage 5: Objection Handling

Every salesperson knows no deal is simple; potential buyers won’t just listen to a pitch or demo and sign on the spot. There will always be questions, hesitations and objections that sellers must overcome to close a deal. Objection Handling is the next stage in the sales cycle in which Account Executives, and others involved in the sale, answer questions, alleviate concerns and ultimately help the prospective buyer overcome their hesitations and move to the next stage in the sales cycle.

 

Stage 6: Closing the Deal

The pitch is done, the objections are handled–now it’s time to close the deal. Closing the deal normally entails answering any final questions and figuring out the right way to get verbal confirmation from your prospective buyer that they’re ready to make a purchase. Depending on the person/company, you may want to either take a direct approach and simply ask if they’re ready to sign or take a softer approach and try not to push it if you think your prospective buyer would prefer not to be asked directly.

 

Stage 7: Reference Generation

Creating a relationship with a buyer and then cutting them out of communication to fend for themselves is the easiest way to get terrible reviews and lose customers as quickly as you’ve earned them. That’s why, contrary to what you might think, closing the deal is not the last stage in the sales cycle. One of the most important, and often overlooked stages is Reference Generation.

To ensure your new customers start happy and stay happy, be sure to keep many lines of communication open. For B2B or larger deals, it’s essential to pass your new customer on to a dedicated implementation consultant and/or customer success manager who can help onboard and answer any questions your new customer may have.

If all goes well through the first six stages in the sales cycle, it’s a great idea to ask your new customer for references and referrals. Assuming you’ve solved a problem or alleviated a pain point for your new customer, they might be willing to refer your services to similar companies. They may even agree to be the subject of a customer story and share their experience in a format that you can use as a proof point in future sales conversations or pitches.

Methods for Sales Prospecting

 

So, how do you prospect and generate sales leads? Sales prospecting can be achieved through two main avenues: outbound and inbound prospecting. Outbound prospecting is when a sales rep pursues customers through strategies such as email marketing, cold calling, SMS, networking, social media, and video.

graphic with sales email send button
 

Inbound marketing is when the customer comes to you. Inbound prospecting can be achieved by having a call to action on your website where interested parties can submit their contact information. This is often supported by generating relevant sales marketing content and building brand recognition as a solution for the problem you’re trying to solve.

inbound sales prospecting methodology graphic

Both inbound and outbound prospecting in sales are most effective when backed by detailed prospect research. There are situations, or trigger events, that make prospects more likely to purchase your product or service at a given time.

Trigger events that can alert a sales team to a prospect primed to make a purchase include certain buy signalsnew funding roundschanges in management, discontinued service with a competitor or a pending IPO.

Looking to further optimize your inbound and outbound prospecting efforts? Try account-based sales (ABS), which focuses on quality over quantity.

When using an account-based sales strategy, sales teams prioritize their prospecting efforts by finding specific accounts that would benefit from their product, then devising customized, high-touch and personal prospecting approaches for those target accounts. This approach is even more critical as companies adjust budgets and shift decision-makers.

 

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Sales Prospecting Techniques To Try

   

Technique 1: Establish your ideal customer profile

To determine where to focus your prospecting efforts, you must first know what characteristics your current customers share. Identifying shared characteristics will help you better understand what your “perfect” customer looks like and enable you to create your ideal customer profile (ICP).

Think of your ICP as the type of company that would benefit the most from your product or solution. Your ICP should be defined using firmographics, such as technographic data, funding or IPO status, company size, revenue, industry and location.

Once you’ve defined your ICP, you can use it to find new prospects and cross-reference existing prospect lists to quickly qualify them. Companies that fit your ICP are most likely to buy and continue to use your product, making them extremely important for business growth. 

Ready to create your ICP? Our guide to creating your ideal customer profile walks through the process from start to finish.

 
Crunchbase platform GIF walkthrough of creating an ideal customer profile
 

Technique 2: Automate account discovery and qualification

The sales software industry is booming, with new solutions emerging rapidly. The catch is, many of these solutions still require time-consuming and inefficient manual research to find and qualify leads. To help you uncover new opportunities faster, Crunchbase created a recommendation engine that automates the research process and surfaces accounts that match your ICP. 

Recommended companies image with save and push to Salesforce button

If you are a Crunchbase Pro or Enterprise customer, you can access your customized recommendations page to find your next opportunity. The best part is, the recommendation engine is powered by machine learning so it gets smarter every time you use it. And, all of your recommendations include context about why each company is being surfaced specifically for you, giving you the power to decide quickly whether to take action on a suggested company or not.

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Technique 3: Create a prospecting ranking system

Developing a prospect ranking system can help you accurately qualify prospects and ensure you’re not wasting time on prospects that are not likely to convert. 

The easiest way to create a prospect ranking system is to assign a point value to each action a prospect could take, such as visiting a certain webpage, the click of a certain button, or opening an email. When a prospect reaches a certain point threshold based on the value of their actions, you can quickly deduce they’re interested and move them to the next stage in the sales funnel. This will help you make informed qualification decisions based on the true likelihood a deal will close. 

It’s also important to understand the difference between low-ranked prospects and unqualified prospects. Low-ranking prospects are prospects that, based on your historical data, are not likely to largely impact your sales funnel. Unqualified prospects, however, are those you know won’t do business with you. Unqualified prospects may not align with the geography or location you’re selling in, not have budget, or operate in an industry that has no need for your service. From a business development perspective, this information can still be useful in developing new products or services or improving existing ones, but when it comes to identifying sales opportunities, these records aren’t useful.

 

Technique 4: Take an account-based approach to outbound selling

It’s important to remember that your prospects are likely already being bombarded with sales emails. While older prospecting techniques like making cold calls and sending email blasts are still the go-to strategies for many salespeople, the yield is often low, and you run the risk of your messages being sent immediately to the trash. Leveraging an account-based selling approach and engaging prospects with personalized outreach on the right channels will often prove much more successful.

Crunchbase’s advanced search enables an account-based approach by allowing you to start your search at the company level. And, when you’ve found accounts that match your ICP, you can identify and connect with the right contact, all within Crunchbase.

Here’s a quick demo that walks through how Crunchbase can help you easily find and connect with contacts at accounts that match your ICP:

 

Technique 5: Integrate outbound and inbound prospecting channels

Today, prospects are more often than not doing their own research before making a purchasing decision. That’s why it’s crucial to conduct outbound marketing activities on the channels where that research is taking place, such as social media or blogs. 

While it is important to see outbound and inbound prospecting as separate strategies, it’s not uncommon for prospects to reach out on the very same channels you are using to get their attention.

 

Technique 6: Master inbound prospecting best practices

Let’s say a salesperson cold calls a warm prospect and leaves a voicemail. That prospect may hear the voicemail, visit your website and subscribe to your blog. How you classify that prospect acquisition (inbound or outbound) is an internal decision.

However your company decides you are going to classify this prospect acquisition, and others like it, it’s crucial to have effective inbound strategies established to help generate interest. Inbound sales best practices involve creating opportunities for prospects to contact you in as many places as possible and developing a strategy that includes immediately following up on any interest a prospect demonstrates.

Reaching out with a phone call, email, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn message within minutes of someone discovering you on Google and viewing your website, or filling out a form, captures prospects while they’re actively looking for information. According to research by Harvard Business Review, firms that follow up within an hour of receiving an inquiry are “nearly seven times more likely to qualify a lead.”

 

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Tools of the Trade

 

Prospecting can be daunting for any sales team. The following sales prospecting tools and technology can help any organization maximize efficiency and boost overall lead generation.

This list includes tools to help you through every stage of the sales prospecting process, including:

 

Sales Intelligence Tools

 

Crunchbase

Crunchbase streamlines business prospecting and gives users the ability to perform in-depth research on their sales prospects, ensuring quality leads and offering insights on the best time for outreach based on key trigger events. If you’re a Crunchbase Pro or Enterprise customer, you can even sync your new accounts straight from Crunchbase to Salesforce, along with the basic company information you’ll need to personalize your outreach.

Crunchbase’s advanced search also includes intuitive filters that update in real-time to show the latest matches. Saving frequently used searches enables automatic alerts when there are new matching search results, enabling customers to skip manual research and easily identify new opportunities.

 

Try using the following Crunchbase lists to trigger and personalize outreach:

Crunchbase Pro product screenshot
 

Sales Enablement/Optimization Tools

 

Gong

Gong.io provides a sales conversation intelligence platform created to improve calls and demos for sales teams. Its cloud-based sales platform utilizes artificial intelligence automatically to record, transcribe and analyze every sales conversation and call, and analyze conversations from digital audio sources and web-conferencing platforms.

Dialpad

Dialpad is a cloud-based business phone system that turns conversations into opportunities and helps teams make smart calls.

 

Customer Relationship Management Software

 

HubSpot

HubSpot develops cloud-based, inbound marketing software that allows businesses to transform the way they market online. HubSpot’s sales application enables sales and service teams to have effective conversations with leads and prospects.

Salesforce

Salesforce is a global cloud computing company that provides business software on a subscription basis. Its CRM solution is widely considered the No. 1 CRM platform in the world. And, with Crunchbase’s Salesforce integration, you can sync the accounts you discover in Crunchbase directly to Salesforce.

GIF with connect to CRM functionality
 

Administrative/Deal Management Software

 

PandaDoc

PandaDoc is a tool that helps you eliminate the tedious paperwork and administrative tasks that often take too long and keep you from engaging prospects and closing deals.

Cirrus Insight

Cirrus Insight allows you to track your prospect’s collateral usage and engagement to better understand which pieces of your collateral are most influential in closing deals.

Ambition

Ambition is an agile sales management platform that allows sales leaders to coach more and elevate performance as a team, with insights into team performance.

 

Sales Networking Tools

 

Emissary

Emissary offers a platform that pairs sales professionals with former executives at companies they are targeting. By better understanding their audience, sales professionals can more effectively tailor their pitch.

Sales Communities

How to Prospect for Sales: A Step-by-Step Guide

 

Now that you know everything there is to know about sales prospecting, it’s time to put your knowledge to the test. After all, the best way to learn is by doing.

But don’t worry, we’ll be here every step of the way. This step-by-step guide will help you apply your new skills and walk you through the entire sales prospecting process: from research to closing the deal.

Let’s get started.

 

Step 1: Research

When it comes to research, it’s your time to shine SDRs and BDRs. Finding leads is no small feat – and it’s one of the most important, not to mention time-consuming, steps in the sales process.

Remember, when it comes to finding new leads, think quality over quantity. Begin your search on Crunchbase to find companies that match your ICP, then add them to your CRM so you and your team can stay organized.

   

Step 2: Lead Qualification

Once you have a pool of leads, it’s time to separate the dead ends from higher-priority, qualified sales prospects. Essentially, you are categorizing which leads are worth devoting your time to.

Here’s a quick list of questions to ask yourself before pursuing a lead:

1. Is your product within your lead’s price range?

2. Does your lead have a need for your product?

3. Is your lead unhappy with his or her current product or service?

4. Is your lead able to switch to your product at the current time or in the near future?

5. Have you been speaking to a decision-maker at your lead’s company?

6. Has your lead shown an interest in learning more about your product?

7. Has there been an established timeline in your sales pipeline?

Once you’ve identified the qualified prospects you want to move forward with, it’s time to build a sales pipeline.

 

Step 3: Build a sales pipeline

A sales pipeline is a visual representation of your sales process, from finding a lead to closing a deal. Each category of your sales pipeline can vary in time depending on your type of industry and specific prospect. However, most sales pipelines include these four stages: prospecting/qualificationmeetingproposal, and closing.

sales pipeline by stage graph showing the number of deals and their stage
 

Sales Prospecting/Qualification

This is the research stage of your sales pipeline. It’s the time frame when you are searching for leads. Within this initial stage, you are also categorizing your leads into dead ends or prospects using qualifying questions.

Meeting

Now that you’ve found a prospect that fits your ICP, you have to prepare and deliver your sales pitch in person or over Zoom. This is the meeting stage of your sales process, and it’s important to tailor your sales pitch to suit each of your prospects.

Proposal

This is when sales reps send their official offer to the prospect. This proposal lists all of the terms–pricing, length of service and specific features–of your product or service.

Closing

Of course, no sale cycle is complete until you close a deal. The closing stage is when your prospect agrees to your proposal, signs on the dotted line and officially becomes a customer.

Sales Funnel vs. Sales Pipeline

Another thing to remember is that a sales pipeline and a sales funnel are two different things. A sales pipeline includes the steps in the sales process (i.e. what you and your sales team do to close a deal), whereas the sales funnel outlines the customer journey or the process by which a lead becomes a customer.

sales funnel and sales pipeline Crunchbase graphic
 

Step 4: Nurture your sales pipeline

With all the stages of a sales pipeline, it’s easy for sales reps to get halted or sidetracked. Set consistent deadlines throughout your sales process. Upon contacting your lead, set a date for your first meeting. You should also set deadlines for your lead in regard to deciding on your proposal. Consistently setting timelines will help build a sense of urgency and speed up the process.

Make sure you communicate with a decision-maker during your prospecting phase. Speaking to a middle man or an employee who doesn’t have any real purchasing power will prolong your overall sales process. It’s especially important that you set up your pitch meeting with a key decision-maker – rather than having to pitch your product multiple times to multiple employees.

 

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Keeping communication open will also keep your sales pipeline moving. Follow up with your prospect after your sales pitch. Be prompt with answering your prospect’s questions and be flexible in creating your proposal.

It’s also crucial to keep communication open during your proposal stage, which will gear your prospect towards closing. Be there for your prospect: If you feel it’s necessary to set up additional in-person meetings or phone calls, don’t hesitate to reach out.

 

Step 5: Audit your sales pipeline

It is easy for a sales pipeline to become congested with dead-end leads that can confuse a sales team and reduce efficiency. For this reason, it is important to conduct regular sales pipeline audits. The goals of a pipeline audit are twofold:

1. Remove unqualified leads: Eliminating unqualified leads from your sales pipeline will help to ensure that your sales team does not waste time pitching a pipeline full of companies that ultimately will not close.

2. Identify and reinforce positive prospecting trends: Scheduling regular pipeline audits allows sales managers to identify trends that can help propel an increase in sales.

For example, a regular pipeline review can unearth trends about characteristics that make a prospect more likely to close such as the level of financing, size of a company, and average budget size.

To perform an effective sales pipeline audit, establish a lead scoring or ranking system. This is a calculation that applies a certain score for prospects based on factors such as their budget, readiness to purchase, and an overall need for your product or service.

Specific factors and how they are weighted will vary from company to company, so be sure to identify which factors are most important to your individual sales cycle in order to pick what works best for you. Once you’ve completed your audit, you can use the information to set realistic sales quotas based on the updated sales pipeline.

 
Sales pipeline template
 

Step 5: Set Sales Quotas

Setting sales quotas, or goals within a specific time frame, is a balance of optimism and realism. You want to create a goal that your sales team has to work toward but is still attainable. Setting unreasonable and outlandish quotas will only lead to failure and a discouraged sales team.

As the leader of your sales team, you should set a variety of quotas. Create individual sales quotas for each member of your sales team in addition to a quota for your entire team. Sales quotas can vary in length of time, so having a broader annual quota made up of weekly, monthly, and quarterly quotas will help achieve a more organized process for your sales team.

Some sales leaders prefer a top-down approach to creating a sales quota. Using this approach, you start with your monthly sales team goal and divide that number by the number of people on your sales team, distributing quota evenly among team members.

Other sales leaders prefer a bottom-up approach to setting sales goals. This approach utilizes historical performance data and ramp status to determine individual quotas for each team member. From there, the quotas are combined to create the overall team goal.

Whatever you choose, the most important thing to remember when setting sales quotas is to be flexible and open to change.

 

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