Kiplings 6 honest serving men


Exceptional sales people ask questions; everyone else answers them.

If your working life involves you in any type of sales or selling activities then the effective use of questions is not only an essential skill it is also a critical success factor. Anyone who does not possess such skill is at a disadvantage to sales people from your competitors who do.

Seeing questioning as just a selling skill is a mistake as questions and questioning are invaluable tools that enable and facilitate effective communication in all walks of life. Common examples in business include; recruitment, coaching, appraisals, management and quality auditing, in fact; anywhere that there is a need to explore what another person knows or is thinking. Questions also have other valuable communication applications as I will explain a little later.

While the importance of questions, especially within the context of sales, has been explored by many, my recent experience with front line sales people, their managers and sales training professionals suggests that the real significance of questions in communication has by and large been lost. People may have read a book or attended a course where questioning is one of the topics but then it is simply added to the other tools in the box when it should be the primary communication tool when selling.

Much is said about different types of questions; the two main categories being closed and open. Simplistically, closed questions elicit a basic yes/no answer, whereas open questions require the other party to provide some detail. One common way of recognising open questions is that they all start with; who, what, where, when, why and how.

I keep six honest serving men
They taught me all I knew
There names are What, and Where and When;Kiplings 6 honest serving men
and Why and How and Who.

I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.

from The Elephant’s Child; Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling 1902.

Some commentators give the impression that closed questions are bad; they are not but they need to be used sparingly and in the right place within the overall communication. Also, there are a number of different types of closed question for example; the assumptive “would I be right to assume (or think) that …” and the alternative “would you prefer A or B?” The result is always the same you basically get a yes or no answer which is very useful in some circumstances.

So, it seems quite straight forward; closed = yes/no and open = an answer rich in useful information.
Easy tiger; not so simple.


The starting point is to treat questions and questioning as a standard part of the way you communicate. The moment you start thinking about questions and questioning as a technique or worse still a ‘trick’ you have lost the most powerful thing that good questioning can do for you; gain trust.

Questioning ‘techniques’ in sales often focus on trying to lead the prospect to a place where the seller wants them to be. In such a scenario, salespeople use questions to box the prospect into a place where they can present their proposition (demonstrate their product) and their perspective of the benefits and value they think they can deliver. It makes me cringe when I hear a questioning thread along the lines of “How beneficial would it be if you could … ?” The question is invariably structured to elicit a positive response “Well that would be really useful” and is then followed with something like “Well by using our … you can do that.

While the above simple example uses an open question such scenarios are destined to result in a closed outcome as the prospect will in most cases have been led to place they did not want to be. Might this be a common cause of people become unavailable when you call to follow up on a meeting or proposal that you sent after the meeting?

Rather than using questions to take the prospect to where the seller wants them to be, might it be more productive to help the prospect understand where they need to be and once the parties have a common and mutual understanding of where that is the seller can commence the process of presenting their solution to the agreed need?

So what makes for a really great question?

Some time back I sold my IT businesses to a US company and I stayed with them for 5 years reporting to the CEO in a range of roles all of which included me having sales and marketing responsibility for various bits of the world. From time to time I would get an unexpected call from the CEO who would start with a question “Hi Phil; what’s happening?” Now that really is a great question and in just two words it opens up the widest possible field of play. Of course, what you say when asked a question like this is whatever is uppermost in your mind which is also probably whatever is troubling you most so, with the purity and accuracy of a laser, the question got the boss to what really needed his attention.

Such direct questions work between people who know each other well, particularly when it’s the boss doing the asking but such directness is not appropriate in most cases between seller and prospect. Also, if you are speaking to a new prospect “what’s happening” is too general so you cannot predict what sort of response you might get. So, best not used early in the relationship but as it develops the approach might become relevant. In my experience customers often appreciate a relationship with a supplier where trust and mutual respect permits them to challenge each other.

There are ways to ask questions similar to “what’s happening” in the early stages of a sales prospecting cycle; but how might it help the conversation if you provided a context? This could be something like “I see from the trade press that recruitment is a real issue in your industry; how is that impacting on your business?” or “I saw on your website/annual report/newsletter that …, what impact is that having on your plan to open the new office?” Other sources of contextual material could be legislation or the economic environment.

Another contextual dimension involves giving due consideration to the background and interests of the person you are speaking to. The questions you would ask an FD, the chief engineer or the marketing director will be quite different. For example; the FD will be interested in RoI, the engineer will be more interested in specification and performance and the marketing director may want to know about the likely impact on say brand image; but each could also have their own perspective on the same topic, depending on how it impacts them.

When you have met the prospect or customer on a number of occasions you will have more knowledge about what is actually happening in the business so the context questions can move to “What is the current situation with your …?” or “Since we finished the project how have the … improved?” better still “I was thinking about [something in their business]; how useful would be to you to reduce that/speed it up, etc.?” The term is overused but this is an example of how a supplier can become a ‘trusted advisor’ to a customer; the scope is limited to relevant business matters but none the less the opportunity is there and that puts the seller in a strong position compared to new suppliers who try to muscle in.

Many sales people feel uncomfortable with the idea of advising the customer on their business or challenging them on something they have said they want to do. How can a sales person be an expert on a customers’ business? You are not an expert on their business; you are an expert on yours and how it can help businesses like your customer’s to achieve its goals. Recognising this distinction and working on this basis will help to shape your questions.

Similarly, when asking challenging questions the sales person is not challenging what the customer wants to achieve but how they are thinking of going about achieving it.

19 tips on using questions effectively

  • The first rule of asking questions; ask, shut up, listen, assimilate and only then respond – to what you have actually heard not with what you have pre-prepared.
  • Having asked, listen and wait for the answer. If the other person is taking their time responding don’t break the silence be patient and wait for the answer. If they pause while thinking or formulating their answer, don’t interrupt, be patient and wait for the complete answer. Silences can seem interminable with a few seconds feeling like an eternity – practise being patient and it will serve you well. Having listened and assured yourself that they have finished but you feel there could me more information to come ask a supplementary question such as “What else would be useful for you to have?
  • Remember questioning is not a technique or trick; it is a powerful communication tool.
  • Closed questions are just as useful as open ones when used correctly, e.g. to confirm understanding.
  • Questions can be used to progress any type of conversation and they are an antidote to the traditional selling technique of bombarding the prospect with features hoping they will submit. Questions enable the supplier to establish what the prospect needs not what the supplier wants to sell.
  • Ask questions to elicit answers that will matter to the prospect as well as to you. By doing this you are creating an interactive and progressive conversation not a one-way diatribe.
  • Use questions to explore all the possibilities not limit them.
  • Not all questions are born equal; while there may be a few killer questions that really make the other person think, most are quite basic with the simple purpose of progressing the conversation towards the preferred outcome.
  • While the primary purpose of questions is to; elicit information, check understanding, gain agreement, etc., there is an oft ignored benefit to the person asking; a well-crafted question speaks volumes about the person asking it. In a question such as “How valuable would it be to you if … happened?”, the subject matter alerts the person being asked to the fact that you understand their business issues and what might matter to them; asking the question tells them something about you.
  • Good questions make people think – ever found yourself half way through answering a question only to start to question what you are saying? People often have prepared positions on common subjects and a provocative or challenging question is a useful way to get the other person to question what they really think
  • Questions can be an effective way to steer a conversation; not to a false location but to where it really should be. Questions are also good for ‘shaping’ a need by refining the possibilities and therefore creating greater focus eventually leading to mutual agreement.
  • Don’t try to prod, prompt or interrogate; the purpose of questions is to create a conversation that flows naturally towards a logical conclusion.
  • Questions are a useful way of testing what someone has said “Would I be right that you want …?” This is a good use of a closed question and if the answer is “No” it will typically lead the person to expand and thus provide what is effectively an open answer to a closed question.
  • If you’re asked to repeat a question, consider asking it differently – might they be unclear about it rather than they didn’t hear it?
  • If people resist answering, consider re-asking later in the conversation rather than immediately after the first attempt. The approach should be one of patient, polite, persistence but always be aware of signs that the other person really may not want to answer on a particular point.
  • If you sense, or know from something already said by others, that an answer is incomplete ask a subsidiary question such as “What else would you like to see as part of the solution?
  • Asking similar questions of different people in the same organization will deepen your knowledge as you are not limited to the opinions of one person.
  • You may find yourself in the position that you know something but you need it confirmed by the decision maker who you are now meeting. So, a valid use of questions is to ask the decision maker about what you already know where the purpose is to ensure the information in the answer is ‘officially’ on the table.
  • Questioning should be planned and structured but not prescriptive:
    • If you are new to sales by all means write out some questions before a meeting but as soon as possible drop this habit as pre-prepared questions sound like a script.
    • A script interferes with the free flow of conversation as each question, after the opener, should be triggered by the previous response and you cannot know what this will be before the meeting has commenced.
    • Rather than questions your preparation should be to list down the topics you want to cover, the logical running order and above all the outcome you are aiming for. Just like planning a journey; you know the start point and the planned destination but not the beneficial diversions that may be encountered en-route?
    • Take notes, politely, then if something comes up outside the sequence or list of topics you were expecting you can choose to deal with it at the time or leave it until the end.

The effective use of questions helps both parties to think progressively moving them together to a common understanding. Getting people to think, not about their situation but about the possibilities, opens their minds which can lead to them accepting new and creative solutions. The role of the sales person should in part be about helping the prospect to visualise how, with the help of the supplier, to bridge the gap between where they are now, and where they need/want their business to be.

The power and danger of words

All forms of communication require the use of words and while the well thought through use of individual or sequences of words can create a powerful impact, words can also be dangerous. A book was published in 1938 called The Tyranny of Words that looked at the dangerous side. There have been many books and other publications that look at the positive side.

Examples of well-known people who understood the power of words are Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. Hitler is often quoted as also being a great user of words but is mainly associated with the use of words to support evil intent.

There is so much that could be said about words that my focus here is on words used in the context of business communication and in particular selling.

A research perspective

A limited piece of research undertaken in the 1960s concluded that prospects evaluating what a sales person is saying will assign 55% to the observed body language, 38% to the tone of the voice and only 7% to the words used. I have always had an issue with this as it simply does not tally with the way I behave when I am the prospect. I wonder, for example, how people cope when talking on the telephone; do they draw a conclusion from just 45% (they cannot see the body language) or is the 55% re-allocated to the other two areas and if so in what proportions?

If these figures are correct it could be argued that you don’t need to bother with the words at all. Just moving around miming should work!

But seriously and giving the original research the benefit of the doubt, it was after all limited in scope and reach, it could be said that communication techniques have adapted to suit the modern world and include many formats other than the sales person standing or sitting in front of the prospect spouting. I do not recommend that the sales person ‘spouts’ at all rather that questions are used to develop, guide and steer communication. So, this brings us full circle to the role of power and danger words in the context of sales engagement.

Words in business communications

Questions provide a powerful communication tool used in all areas of business activity and of course questions are a collection of words as are the answers. In addition to the individual words and the sequence in which they are presented, other factors such as volume, pace and tone form a key part of the total message and when face-to-face body language also plays a key part in the overall impact of the message being conveyed.

So, I agree with the research that body language (when face-to-face), tone and the words used combine to create the message but without the words the remaining silence isn’t going to get you very far.

Most people are comfortable asking open questions in their personal lives, in fact they come quite naturally to most of us; which parent hasn’t been driven mad by an unstoppable stream of “why” or “why not” questions?

But different folk have different views;key questions
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

from The Elephant’s Child; Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling 1902.

However, when it comes to the work environment many people are uncomfortable asking open questions as they feel they are perhaps cheeky, rude, abrupt or impertinent. When you look deeper into this, it isn’t the fact of asking a question as such rather the primary words used in open questions; who, why, etc., that seem impertinent. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of overcoming this concern allowing yourself to use the power of open questions and the words that define them.

It is common that people will use various devices to ‘soften’ the impact of the power words without appreciating that this can also dull their impact. While talking to an experienced sales manager recently he told me about a sales person who was uncomfortable about asking open questions so always started with something like do you mind – “Do you mind if I ask; what is your budget for the project?” Do you mind imparts an impression of nervousness, doubt, uncertainty that combines to weaken the overall impact of the key part of the question about the budget. It is also the case that there are two questions here; do you mind – CLOSED and then what is the budget – OPEN. This confuses the other person and gives them the opportunity to obfuscate when answering.

So, while there are power and danger words it is also about how those words are used.

Power words

A key group of power words are those used to create open questions; who, what, where, when, why and how.

Other power words are those that portray; certainty, commitment, agreement, etc. Words that help the other person to trust you and believe in your sincerity; you say what you will do and you do what you said you would. This is especially important when engaging with new potential customers as having not worked with you before they will need to feel they can rely upon you not to let them down.

A few specific examples of other power words and phrases are:

  • I don’t know. It is definite, there is no attempt to pretend and it cannot be misconstrued. This is even better when coupled with; but I can find out, or I know someone who does (exemplified by the AA), or we will put in the time to find out for you.
  • Thank you. Coupled with something like; that is really helpful and it will enable me to … The other person feels good that you have appreciated what they have done and it is a part of the process of “token exchange” whereby relationships are built from a whole lot of small tokens; things done for each other.
  • Yes. When you can do something, or you agree with them, say so. You can strengthen the yes by confirming what you are agreeing to; yes, we will deliver before the weekend. This is referred to as “yes, and”.
  • Because. If you are agreeing to do something that might be unusual or may typically be seen as undesirable to do, you build confidence in your answer by deepening it; We can provide cover on Saturday mornings because the technical team are always in the office undertaking weekly maintenance.

I think by now you have got the point. Spend some time thinking about the words you use and how you use them and ensure you are making best use of the opportunity you have when speaking to prospects, customers, suppliers, your boss or a direct report. Ensure you leave them with the impression you wanted them to have.

Double edged words and phrases

  • Who is the decision maker? It is perfectly reasonable that a potential supplier should want to know the answer but asking this is fraught with danger. What if the person you are speaking to has effectively purported to be in authority but is not actually the DM? This will embarrass them and is unlikely to lead to a good outcome for the person asking. So, instead, ask; who else will be involved in the decision or using another approach ask about the decision making process thus taking the focus away from the person you are speaking to.
  • Benefit or value. Both very important and we all need to know what benefit and value we will enjoy as a result of an action such as making a purchase. However, these words are so overused these days their true value and impact is often lost.
    The main problem here is when the person sitting in the seller’s seat says; this is the benefit or value to be gained they mainly use a generic position rather than a specific one. For example; the benefit is this will save you money. This is based on the assumption, or hope, that saving money is all that matters to everyone on every occasion and this is absolutely not the case. Benefits and value are relative to the individual and by assuming you know what will benefit them risks damaging your credibility.Agreement as to what is beneficial or of value must be established collaboratively between the parties and this is achieved through the use of well-structured questions built around power words.
  • Imagine. Helping someone to visualise what it might look like if they go along with what you are proposing is a good thing but the word imagine is over used in sales and is associated with tricks and techniques rather than good solid communication.

Danger words and phrases

  • I think so. So, you are not certain or perhaps you don’t know but don’t want to say so. Always be affirmative leaving the other person in no doubt as to what you mean and what you will do.
  • Maybe or possibly. Even if you expand on why it might not be so, you have created doubt and uncertainty that will damage the impact on your main message.
  • Yes but. Again you have introduced doubt.
  • The implied but. This is primarily a matter of tone of voice or a pause that is too long or is in the wrong place. In a face-to-face situation, watching the other person’s facial reaction will help you spot if you have inserted an implied but and you need to tackle this straight away otherwise doubt will linger in their minds.
  • No problem, OK, cool, or other automatic responses. This is fine when someone serving in a restaurant agrees to bring you extra bread but it is too general for use in a serious conversation where both parties need to fully understand what is going to happen next.
  • Does that make sense? So, you think the other person is too thick to understand? Much better to say “How would that work for you?”
  • Phrases like; let’s run it up the flag pole to see how it flutters or blue sky thinking or thinking outside the box should be avoided. They are basically quite meaningless and can leave the other person with the impression that you don’t actually have anything substantive to say.

The final group of danger words and phrases are associated with the use of language relevant to your product, business or the selling process. Some examples of things to avoid would be:

  • Internal language that you use to talk about your products and services. In most cases this will be meaningless to someone outside your company. Use plain language that is commonly understood, such as there are a number of features on the new X25 model that increase the intervals between routine maintenance calls and also reduce the time taken by the engineers, and avoid jargon and acronyms; they do not need to know that MTBF has increased due to new wiffly waffly widgets!
  • The language of business. If you put two financial people together they may use terms such as; ROCE, discounted cash flow, transfer pricing and they will both know the meaning. However, when a sales person uses such terms there is a real danger they will damage credibility unless they really understand the full meaning of the terms and can engage in a deep conversation with the FD. The one term that is used widely enough that it is usually safe is RoI.
  • The selling process. As sales people we think in terms of; decision makers, competitive strategy, dealing with objections, negotiation, closing the deal and the budget. While these are perfectly acceptable and useful when discussing a particular customer with your sales manager the terms are inappropriate for a conversation with that customer.
  • Ego. Don’t use words just to show how clever you are as it will probably have the opposite effect. Danger words and phrases in this context could include; strategic, commercial landscape, and gaining buy-in. Boastful terms such as; best in class, market leader and number one all carry the danger of damaging credibility unless you can back it up with evidence.

It is always better to use simple plain language that describes things that can be easily understood and substantiated.

Snakes and Ladders anyone?

It’s the festive season and a time for games; but what game will your business be playing in the New Year?

Snakes & Ladders was a family favourite at one time but I am sure it won’t be played in many homes in 2015. However, it is still seems to be a firm favourite of many businesses. snakes-and-ladders-games2-e14495011718631You know the feeling; you work hard, get warm feedback and seem to be progressing up the ladders but suddenly the decision on your proposal is delayed with no new date set; you’ve hit a square with a snake’s head, you slither down a few layers and have to start climbing back again.

Such interruptions to progress can manifest themselves in many parts of the business but we are focusing on three leading areas of the business where landing on the snake’s head not only retards your progress but can also have a domino effect:

  • Relationships with prospect or customers; seem to be developing well but at some point suffer a sudden reversal that proves difficult to recover from.
  • Proposals; seem like the final stage in a smooth bidding process but suddenly the prospect is incommunicado or stalls about making the decision.
  • Sales recruits; had great promise but fall short of your expectations once they are doing the job.

There is one common factor that applies to all of these; you think you know how you are positioned but unbeknown to you the other party has a different idea. There is a closer link between the root cause of this issue and Snakes and Ladders than you might think.

It is easy to feel out of control and blameless when playing Snakes and Ladders as progress through the game is dependent on the way the dice fall which is of course random. All too often the approach to developing customer relationships, pursuing opportunities and recruiting sales people is conducted like a game of chance. Imagine how easy things would be if you could determine the score that would come from each throw of the dice; fortunately such certainty is achievable, not with Snakes and Ladders, but in the aforementioned areas of business performance.

Customer relationships

The key to creating solid customer relationships that will endure and strengthen over time is to base them on what the customer needs from the relationship rather than what you need. Of course if what the customer needs fails to deliver something that is acceptable to you then the relationship will not last and should therefore not be started. You need to ensure that your engagement process enables you to spot these situations early enough that you don’t waste a lot of time before deciding to abandon the pursuit.

Getting customer relationship building right is relatively simple but it does bring with it the potential for conflict and this is something that many people avoid. In my experience, rather than avoiding conflict, appreciating the potential for it to arise and managing it successfully will always deliver a better result and it is a crucial commercial skill to employ when building relationships.

If your objective is to avoid conflict this also means you will be avoiding asking important questions. For example; in the process of building a relationship with a potential new customer you will need to discuss and agree the commercial terms for any business that you might do together so you will need to ask questions. But all too often suppliers do not ask the questions early enough to effectively handle potential objections for fear that it will create a disagreement that might damage their chances. Surely it is better to get this topic out of the way early, before it becomes the primary deciding factor, than do a lot of work before discovering business that you might do will be unprofitable or will involve unacceptable commercial terms?

A few tips on relationship building:

  • At an early stage ask the punchy questions. Here are few examples to get you thinking. Do we meet your criteria to become a supplier? How likely are you to ask us to tender for business? Is there anything about our company, our proposition, or the people you have met that might put you off working with us?
  • Ensure you fully understand the decision making process and landscape; who gets involved in decisions and what process do they have that you will be expected to align with? Once you understand the full list of those involved in decision making ensure you meet all of them. This will equip you with multiple lines of communication that will help you if the primary point of access becomes difficult to contact at some point.
  • Don’t confuse relationship building with pursuing specific pieces of work. If you start to pursue a piece of work before you have a complete relationship your chances of being successful are diminished. Many companies have a sales approach whereby sales people do not spend time with a prospect until there is an opportunity to bid for and while this may seem like an efficient use of time it is not an effective way to maximise your success rate for winning new work.

Following these steps will help to ensure the dice falls more favourably and you are better prepared to avoid the squares with snakes’ heads.

Proposals getting stuck

We have discussed this issue in other articles so I will just provide a refresher on the key points of the approach we recommend.

  • Picking up from the previous topic; don’t bid for work until you have a sufficiently established relationship to understand the dynamics of the customer’s decision making process and what will motivate them to decide. Understanding your customer and what matters in their business will help you to craft winning proposals.
  • The right time to present a proposal is when the customer is ready to evaluate what you have to say in the light of a decision they are trying to make – not when your sales process says it is time. All too often I see sales people who have a first meeting with a new prospect and they close the meeting by saying “would you like a proposal?” – few prospects will say No either because they are too polite or because they would like some free research and insight.
  • A quotation is not a proposal. A proposal is “A plan or suggestion, especially a formal or written one, put forward for consideration.” The whole point about a proposal is that it should provide a vision of what the future will look like if the prospect goes ahead with what you are proposing. With a quotation the only thing the prospect can consider is the price you are quoting in which case they are likely to haggle.
  • Before presenting a proposal ensure you have an agreement with the prospect for all the steps and stages from proposal presentation through to final decision. If they cannot tell you what is going to happen it probably means they don’t have a real intention of making a decision at all. Don’t be shy to politely decline to bid – they will respect you for this, it will probably strengthen the relationship and you are more likely to be told when there is a real opportunity to bid for.

Again, the above steps will help determine the score you get on the dice.

Sales recruits falling below expectation

I regularly hear complaints that recruiting good sales people is very difficult these days. As we undertake recruitment projects for customers I can confirm that it is tough but it is still doable. Early in 2015 we undertook an assignment to recruit 12 account managers and completed the project in just under six-weeks – so it can be done.

One of the main difficulties arises because the investment in training and development in sales and selling skills has been progressively cut since the mid 1990’s. So; finding well trained and qualified sales people is difficult and as a result a lot of recruitment decisions are made on the basis of taking the best of the bunch rather than just the people who meet the standard you are seeking. In effect, the seeds of disappointment have been sown even before the person joins you.

If you want sales people to be successful you need to create a fully integrated contiguous process that consists of ALL of the following steps:

  • Create a job definition that truly matches your expectations for the role – don’t try looking for a ‘Superman’.
  • Create an advert or other candidate sourcing techniques to match the nature of the job.
  • Ensure your evaluation and selection process is rigorous and independent of any influences other than the desire to recruit people that fully match the job profile. If you use external agencies to source candidates use different people to help in the final selection.
  • Once you decide you are recruiting someone prepare thoroughly for their arrival. You need to consider on-boarding but also a comprehensive induction into your company.
  • During the selection process you will have identified their strengths and weaknesses; ensure their manager is fully briefed on the particular support they will need and an appropriate training programme is scheduled early in their tenure.
  • Ensure that all tools and collateral they need to do the job are ready for their arrival, but more particularly ensure that they understand the nuances of what you provide that makes you different from competitors.
  • To be truly successful sales people need to operate within a regime of proactive sales leadership where the most important facet is regular one-on-one coaching by the line manager and periodic training/refreshers.

Regardless of experience or track record a newly recruited sales person is raw material to your organisation and the responsibility for turning them into a fully effective employee rests with you, the employer. This may sound like hard work but it is much less effort than will be expended struggling with under-performance, or staff churn and the need to regularly re-recruit. Doing all of the above goes a long way to helping you to dictate the score on the dice.

In summary

If you want to load the dice in your favour and avoid the snakes’ heads you need to create the right foundations as outlined above. If you get all of this right you can begin to play with a reasonable expectation of winning as you will progressively be able to accurately forecast the outcome.

Intelligence Led Prospecting

Time is a precious commodity in any business so we all need to ensure we spend it wisely. When we commit ourselves to any activity we need to know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that we will get an acceptable return for the effort invested. While this can be said about any business activity the need to spend time well is at its most acute when prospecting for new customers and new business as; to fail at finding enough new business can put the whole company at risk.

What do we mean by Intelligence?

In this context it is quite simply information that equips you to be more discerning and precise in your prospecting activities.insight7x4 Useful information can be readily gleaned through on-line and off-line research and should be a standard element of all prospecting activities. Before you leave the office or pick up the phone you should know what you are heading into.

What is prospecting?

It is any activity that enables a business to identify companies or individual people (depending on what your business does) who might want or need what you do and so could become new customers for you. We class these identified companies or individuals as suspects; all you have is an external view that suggests they have the potential to become customers for your business.

To be clear; you have identified them but this is just the beginning and you now have work to do to filter those suspects, convert them into prospects, then customers and eventually users of your products or services

How can Intelligence help you look for new suspects?

The classic sources of prospecting for new customers or opportunities of; cold calling (telephone and face-to-face), advertising, mailshots and exhibitions have been joined by; social media, LinkedIn, networking (face-to-face, on-line, organised and casual), e-mailing, in-bound marketing, blended in/outbound marketing, SEO and other website strategies, seminars and other executive speaking opportunities, referrals, introductions, recommendations and the list goes on.

This is not an exhaustive list and more are coming along almost daily – you must choose carefully the combination of prospecting sources you will use to protect the use of precious time and funds. This is the first point where intelligence will help you to focus your efforts – by studying what works and what doesn’t, you can decide on the optimum mix of activities for your specific business needs, market and products/services and thus create your ideal prospecting environment.

How else can intelligence help your prospecting?

Once you have decided on the mix of sources you will use, undertaking research to collect intelligence will make a significant contribution to the effective use of your time. To quote Peter Drucker, my favourite business expert, “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” He also observed “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
Having decided upon the mix of sources you will use for your prospecting you now need to continue your research to further filter where you will apply your efforts. For instance:

  • LinkedIn – if you want to be seen on LinkedIn by organisations or people that might have the potential to become customers then you need to be in the right places. If, for example, you provide a commercial cleaning service in the home-counties there is no point joining/starting a group focused on business in Yorkshire or a group focused on, let’s say, baking.
  • Physical networking – as with the previous example you need to attend networking events that are most likely to attract people who might be interested in what you do. Before you commit to an event do the research; what type of people have attended in the past, if there is a speaker is the subject relevant to what you do and if a list of attendees is available look them up before you commit to attending. If you do attend make a list of people you want to meet and seek them out.

The basic principles established in the previous examples will also apply to; exhibitions, speaking opportunities, advertising, publishing blogs and articles. You need to do the research before spending time and effort on any prospecting activities to ensure you will be in the right place and with the right people.

One area that requires a special mention is telephone prospecting. Some call this cold calling but we see it as warm calling or more accurately and simply telephone prospecting. If all you do is pick up the phone and call anyone then it is cold calling and it is also a very poor use of your time. Fortunately technology provides us with excellent tools and facilities that enable detailed research to be conducted before a programme of telephone prospecting commences. The starting point is to create a profile of your “ideal” suspects and undertake the research to identify companies that match the profile.

Consider a relatively simple example of a profile; insurance broking firms, turnover between £5m and £10m, no more than 40 employees and based in the Thames Valley. Using web based tools you can quickly identify a short list of companies that match your criteria but you can also find out contact names, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, web presence (or not), and other useful information about the current state of affairs that will empower the conversations you have when you call. Now your telephone prospecting activities will be much more focused and productive.

If you don’t follow the research based process outlined above, then you will effectively be taking a business directory, calling every insurance broker in the book and suffering time wasting rejections. This is the needle in the haystack approach not the intelligence led approach.

Sales and selling is at its most effective and productive when approached systematically and research to equip yourself with intelligence is the most effective way that I have found to make it systematic and to make the outcome from my prospecting effort predictable. Try it; you never know, you may even enjoy it and it is mainly free – how bad can that be?

If you would like more tips and advice on original ways to improve your sales and selling performance take a look at some of our other articles or contact me directly: or call me on 07974 914 557