By most measures, prospecting is one of the least-welcome aspects of the sales profession. Call it what you will, from the unpolished "cold calling" to the more elegant "business development," the mere mention of prospecting in any of its forms can send sales professionals into an uncontrollable flurry of activity involving anything else but. However, by avoiding a few obvious traps, a sales professional can come to excitedly anticipate the thrill of prospecting and get gratifying results doing it.

Let's untie five "nots" that can undermine your sales prospecting efforts:

#1: Not knowing who to call

Narrow your audience to those who would:

  • Know you
  • Be interested in you and what you do
  • Care about what you can do for them
  • Be able to act or get others to act on what you offer

Define your prospecting audience too broadly and you waste time and energy; define it too narrowly and you miss opportunities.

#2: Not getting through

Like Tom Cruise's character in the movie Jerry McGuire, you stand a better chance of being successful if you "have them at hello." The name of the game is getting attention in a busy and sensory-over-loaded business world. That means your chances of getting through are completely dependent upon:

  • Luck
  • An exciting headline that grabs attention in mere seconds – quite literally, the time it takes to read it

For emails and letters, that attention-getter will be written; for voicemails and person-to-person contact (in the unlikely event that your prospect answers the phone), that attention-getter will be auditory. In either case, carefully plan and deliver an arresting, simple, direct, and creative "headline" message that will lead a prospect to desire more of what you have to say.

#3: Not having anything of interest

Customer interest levels are compromised by distraction overload and continuous partial attention. Both are a product of our technology and pacing, and neither tolerates anything that appears to be irrelevant to the moment.

Beyond your headline, your main message needs to contain information that your prospect doesn't know, hasn't thought about too much, or has thought about in an entirely different direction from how you present it. By default, most of us today are just-in-time, opportunistic listeners. As a result, the main message you deliver to your prospect better be relevant to their business, their company, their role, and their responsibilities or they'll move on to something that is.

#4: Not having anything compelling (urgent interest)

Even if your prospect has some interest in the topic you offer, deciding to act upon that interest is based upon their level of urgency. Buried deep in the reptilian portion of the all-too-human brains of decision-makers there lurks the pain and pleasure motivations derived from centuries of survival. In a hostile world, hesitation could mean extinction and sudden movement brings rapt, momentary attention followed by a quick assessment around "Will it hurt?" or "Will it feel good?" In other words, you and your prospect both need to understand how much worse or better their condition could become, based upon the issue that has drawn their attention in the first place. A well-placed, well-worded, and brief question by you is the best method for jointly exploring that level of urgency.

#5: Not following through

Finally, just as your prospects are just-in-time, opportunistic listeners, you, too, have your limits of interest as the hunter. When it comes to prospecting, the most common mistake is lack of tenacity and momentum necessary to gain and keep the prospect's attention. Worthy pursuit requires worthy effort.  And that means anywhere from five to seven to infinite attempts to make contact with your prospects! Your energy should evolve from your intent. Do you really need to get through to your prospect or are you willing to let your competition persist and make the contact you wish you had?

Mastering the art and science of sales prospecting doesn't have to be painful and is typically a very necessary skill set for any sales professional. In addition to the obvious pursuit of new customers, the same skill set can be used for penetrating existing accounts and developing new business opportunities. Don't let yourself stay tied up in "nots" when it comes to prospecting. Focus and determination can turn a tangle of activity into a lifeline of results.