How to get the fish on the line

By John Graham / Sales Column

“I am looking to further my prospecting techniques,” the salesperson wrote in his email. “It seems I need to increase my ratios by the end of the quarter.”

This story isn’t new – years ago, salespeople were expected to get in front of prospects. Today, those doors are sealed shut. Voicemail and email messages are ignored. If all that isn’t enough, few customers are willing to stick their neck out and make referrals. All of which makes prospecting frustrating and, unfortunately, bordering on useless. No wonder salespeople plead for leads and, hoping to get lucky, keep their fingers crossed.

If you’re looking for an easy, quick way to find prospects, forget it. No matter what anyone may say, it doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, which is why there are 17,300,000 hits in less than a second when you Google “prospecting in sales.”

Here’s the problem: How is a salesperson to go about finding prospects who are not only interested in buying, but who are also willing to do business with someone they don’t know, let alone trust?

Getting negligible results from searching for prospects takes a lot of effort – wasted effort. Salespeople are often told, “It takes 10 calls to get one appointment.” They are also told that out of 10 appointments, they can expect to make one sale. That means it will take 100 actual appointments to make 10 sales. Whether you do a little better or worse, the message is clear: finding prospects who are interested and ready to buy is so inefficient it doesn’t work.

The prospecting possibility

It should come as no surprise why there’s so much resistance to getting out and finding new customers. Even if we know who and where the prospects are, the obstacles to access thwart our efforts.

It’s time to step back and take a careful look at how selling and prospecting differ. When you think about it, they require two different types of skills: prospecting is all about getting the fish on the line and selling is getting it in the boat.

In other words, successful prospecting depends on getting customers to find you – specifically, those who to want to do business with you. If you’re thinking this takes work, you’re right.

But if you’re investing time and energy and not getting the results you want, that’s a lot of work, too. Besides, if prospects don’t know you and trust you, it’s easy for them to ignore you or say no.

So, why keep on doing what doesn’t work? Why not take a different approach, one that’s consistent with how prospects think and what they expect from today’s sales professionals?

The task is helping prospects find you, getting them to recognize that it’s in their best interest to seek you out and learn more so they can make informed decisions. This is how savvy restaurants, businesses, insurance advisors and real estate agents attract the customers they want. They use carefully crafted messaging, ratings and recommendations, testimonials and blog posts on social media, advertising, promotional campaigns, and, of course, word-of-mouth to attract prospects.

Instead of trying to get through a prospect’s door, the job of a salesperson is to shape the way prospects think about them. No matter what you’re selling, it’s all about pulling prospects into your orbit so they’re “sold” even before meeting you.

Four principles that pull prospects

Here are the four basic principles that attract prospects and bring prospects closer to you:

1. Never stop building your prospect and customer cultivation database and keep it up to date. Why is this so important? It’s your pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so never neglect it.

2. Develop a prospect mindset. Here’s why: less than 24 percent of prospects open sales emails, according to TOPCO Associates. So, if you want to engage them, it’s essential to let them know you understand their challenges. They don’t care about what you sell; frankly, they tune it out. Always stay focused on what prospects want or need.

3. Share your competence. To do this, salespeople must answer one critical question that’s on every prospect’s mind: “Why should I believe you?” Selling is all about sharing what you know. To become customers, prospects must believe that your knowledge and experience will benefit them.

4. Cultivate prospects constantly. No salesperson is wise enough to know when a prospect is ready to buy. If you’re not top-of-mind, the chances are a competitor will get the sale. Prospects need reminding why they should do business with you. By staying in touch regularly with helpful information (not sales pitches) by email and social media, blogs and presentations, you’re there when they have questions and are ready to buy. Staying in contact sends the message that you care. When they’re ready, the chances are they will pay you back by becoming customers.

Those in sales spend considerable time talking about getting the fish in the boat and closing the sale. But something important needs to happen before that can occur and that’s getting the fish on the hook.

John Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales strategy consultant and business writer. Contact him at or