Today, the customer story is simple. Loyalty ranges from non-existent to temporary. Mining the Internet is second nature, and people rely on smartphone apps to cut through the clutter. With an endless array of channels available, engaging your public can be an exercise in futility.
Salespeople have always asked, “Whom can I talk to today?” The search for prospective customers is just as elusive as ever. So, how do we get around this persistent problem with prospecting?
A different approach: A pipeline view
To get beyond the barriers that keep us from engaging customers, what’s needed is “a pipeline mentality.”
The process is one of customer creation—filling the pipeline with potential business while taking care of the new business that flows from the pipe. Instead of spending valuable time and using limited resources on constantly looking for new business, a more prudent approach is to create this pipeline.
Building the pipeline
Here are the elements of implementing a pipeline strategy:
1. View prospects as customers in-the-making. Although it contradicts traditional sales strategies, looking at prospects as a potential sale 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’s easy to spot the salesperson with 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 rejecting the salesperson or backing away from making a decision.
To think of prospects as customers-in-the-making is more effective, 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 an ongoing commitment. It’s actually counterintuitive to put making a sale ahead of creating a customer. The goal of prospecting should be to identify those who fit a company’s customer profile and who, when properly cultivated, hold a potential for becoming buyers.
The most difficult task for most businesses is making prospect identification an ongoing task. The life force of sales is a pipeline that’s filled with prospects that have discovered the value of doing business with you, who recognize that there’s value in partnering with you, and who have discovered all this before becoming customers.
Most prospect identification efforts produce minimal results because they lack constant attention. They’re viewed as temporary ‘activity’ rather than as the lifeblood of the organization, the source of new business for the years ahead.
3. Segment prospects to focus on individual needs. Even after decades of discussion, few companies recognize the value of segmenting their databases and toss everyone in a couple of buckets, failing to drill down for personal preferences, lifestyle nuances, sales and demographic data.
Although we live in the “age of the individual customer,” the implications are largely ignored by most businesses. Boilerplate proposals are deadly, and emails are often nothing more than not-so-thinly-disguised ads. All of this creates a negative impression.
4. Implement prospect cultivation tactics. There’s only one way to cultivate prospects successfully, and it’s not how most salespeople want to go about it. Customers set their own buying schedules, and they’re not about to abandon their priorities to fit a salesperson’s needs. They don’t want to be bothered with multiple emails or repeated telephone calls.
They’re not moved by attempts to arrange a meeting or by someone saying, ”I’m reaching out to you to gather information.” But when the prospect is ready to buy, those who come to mind have the opportunity to make the sale. Staying in front of prospects regularly with helpful information builds the platform of success.
5. Be the 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 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 a company is for them to discover the depths of your expertise and the extent of your knowledge. This is the value-added that makes a significant difference.
6. Help customers 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 today to build a lasting bond. Almost any vendor can do that.
A results-based approach
Because results are what count, wasting time chasing possible sales, following up on less-than-serious prospects, and preparing dead-end proposals doesn’t make sense.
Spending time trying to find customers —those who fit your profile of buyers—is a futile waste of time and resources. What’s required is a strategy that fills the customer pipeline with prospects that can be nurtured so that there is a steady flow of new business from those who know and understand your company’s capabilities. What’s needed is a pipeline mentality.