Prospecting is the soil in which sales careers grow. Like farmers planting this season’s crops, sales professionals do amazing amounts of research, leg work, and phone calling to turn prospects into paying customers. While no specific prospecting activity is guaranteed, we know that consistent, high quality prospecting always results in new customers!

Sales trainers and managers recognize this truth and build prospecting into every type of selling. For many reasons retail sales prospecting is the most difficult soil to till! Not because the customers aren’t open to building a relationship or reaping the benefits of a sales professional’s knowledge and experience. Rather, sales professionals are reluctant (read: “afraid”) to actively prospect.

40 Acres and a Mule

ProspectingRetail sales people have a magical front door that produces customers who want to buy their merchandise. Because of the advertising and marketing departments’ efforts, these sales reps have been lulled into a false sense of security. In some cases they are even convinced that they “own” any customers who walk in the showroom.

When the business cycle inevitably trends downward, those same sales people who were quick to claim a customer “belongs” to them will reject the suggestion that they call their clients or follow up on their “be-backs”. The most common validation of their lack of action is that sales compensation packages reward the results, not the process.

The Hard Truth

Whether your company pays commission on written business or delivered business, the sales team only makes money when the sale is closed. The challenge is getting the sales rep to connect the front end of the deal – specifically finding new customers to come into the showroom – to the compensation! This is a challenge because prospecting is a high-effort, low-return activity that is not specifically mentioned or rewarded in the compensation plan.

We know the sales saying, “you can’t close a sale that you don’t open.” When the marketing and advertising departments are doing their job, the perceived need for prospecting is dissipated. The new prospects walking in the door every hour can make a sales rep feel invincible. When the complaints about “bad” ups, and “wasted” door turns or lack of door turns begin, it may be too late to start a conversation on the value of prospecting.

Getting Over The Prospecting Wall

ProspectingThis prospecting challenge is a true conundrum: There is an activity that will definitely benefit your sales team, but they don’t see the value and aren’t willing to do the work until it is too late. Since we cannot lower the “cost” of prospecting, we need to both raise the perceived value and lower the obstacles to prospecting success.

1. Tie goals to specific activities

When discussing Weekly, Monthly and Annual production goals, ask your sales reps how they will make the goal. When an answer is built on external events, challenge the rep to address the goal in terms of prospecting. For example, “Your average ticket is $1,200. To reach your goal this month you will need to make 50 sales. How many of them will come from your prospecting efforts?

By framing the prospecting as one of the available tools, you make the connection from the front end to the results that are compensated. By linking the prospecting efforts to the goals, when the results are tallied and those prospecting results aren’t there, we can identify a controllable cause of lower paycheck. No more of the general “I just need to do better and close more sales.”

2. Define prospecting activities

There are two reasons prospecting isn’t done. One reason is the sales rep can’t prospect, i.e. he doesn’t know how. The other reason is that he won’t do it, usually because he doesn’t see the value. The first group simply doesn’t know the mechanics: WHO do I call? WHAT do I say? WHEN is the best time to call? WHERE can I make these calls and not be embarrassed?

The second group is more challenging. They are asking the more philosophical questions: WHY should I take time away from selling? HOW do I make this all work in the 40 or 50 hours I already put in?

By properly defining prospecting for your reps, these questions can resolve on their own. For example, you can define the prospecting activity: “Call your customers who purchased more than a year ago to invite them to the holiday sale. We can budget 10 of the 50 sales you need this month.” We have already answered the Who and What questions. Your sales rep’s WHERE and HOW questions are easily worked out with a bit of creative scheduling.

If your rep is holding on to the Why questions, you should ask yourself and the rest of your leadership team WHY is this person still on your team…

3. Dedicate time for activities

For the retail sales rep, the question of  WHEN to prospect is directly tied to commissions. Honestly stated, salespeople would rather wait to sell than spend that time prospecting. “When do I stop selling to do something I might get paid for in the future?” In this respect, retail sales is a lot like firefighting. We are clocked in for a lot of hours but we are actually working less than a third of that time.

When you have some time, go visit a firehouse: The trucks sparkle. The food is delicious. The station is immaculate. The firefighters are in great shape. Firefighters complete all these “non-work” activities while they are on the clock. In addition, all these actions tie back to their ability to effectively fight fires! The same holds true for the hours of down time retail sales reps spends (or wastes) each week.

4. Tie activity back to results

When you review the sales rep’s periodic performance, their prospecting results must be tied to their actual performance. When the sales rep exceeds company expectations, describe her prospecting results as pure bonus! If her results just meets expectations, prospecting made the difference. For the sales rep who failed to meet expectations, prospecting is all the more important next month!

We all know this is a difficult topic. Without clear leadership, salespeople can convince themselves and each other that prospecting is not worth their effort. It is our job as leaders, coaches and mentors to show our departments, teams and protégés that prospecting is one of the few elements in sales which we can control.


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