Inbound and Outbound Sales Prospecting in 5 Steps

Girl making phone calls

Let’s set the scene. Before we make a purchase decision, 60 percent of us rely on word-of-mouth, friends, and social media; 49 percent on customer references; 47 percent on analyst reports and recommendations; and 44 percent on media articles. That is a lot of information for one decision, and when you lather, rinse and repeat for all the decisions necessary to work toward a business goal, it can get overwhelming. 

As a result, before a salesperson even has a chance to contact a prospect, he or she is already 57 percent of the way through the sales process. Yet, salespeople are still cold calling in a silo as if buyers have no awareness. According to a Baylor University study, experienced salespeople can expect to spend 7.5 hours of cold calling to get one qualified appointment. 

Despite what Beyoncé projects, there are still only 24 hours in a day, so there must be a better way. Enter the inbound methodology. While there is still a viable function for responsible outbound sales techniques, they are much better positioned for success when coupled with inbound tactics that cater to a heightened level of buyer awareness. 

Outbound vs. Inbound Sales Prospecting Techniques

As the sales environment matures, we’re seeing a shift from an either/or methodology of prospecting. Reps no longer have to choose. Here’s the big difference in the two methodologies:

Outbound Prospecting

  • Cold calling: Unsolicited calls to sell a product or service.
  • Social spamming: Unsolicited social media messages to sell a product or service.
  • The process: Research takes longer without any prior history with a contact. Less context for you when you’re ready to reach out to establish a connection.
  • Example: “Hi John, I wanted to reach out to you because I’ve worked with companies like yours in the past.”

Inbound Prospecting

  • Warm emailing: Warm emails to explore a relationship with a lead who has already expressed familiarity with your product or service.
  • Social selling: Using social media to explore a relationship with a lead; sales reps can offer value to prospects on social media by answering their questions and introducing them to useful content.
  • The Process: Research process is shorter as you already have their contact information and interaction history. This gives context about the prospect’s interests or prior behavior, allowing you to develop more personalized outreach.
  • Example: “Hi John, I’m reaching out because I noticed you were looking at our eBook on improving sales productivity.”

Now that you’re warmed up, here are five steps to a balanced prospecting approach. 

Step 1: Research
We believe the word “strategy” should precede any action, so we’re all about hitting this step hard. We must make sure that we’re qualifying our prospects to improve our chances of providing value to them or their business.

Questions to ask in this stage:

  • Is the prospect’s business an organizational fit? This type of qualification is based solely on demographics. Does the prospect fall within your territory? Do you sell in their industry? Does it fit your buyer persona? You can eliminate any potential customers outside of these criteria.
  • Who are the key stakeholders? There are two types of people involved on the other end of the sales process: Decision-makers and influencers. Influencers may not have the power to buy, but they’re often the ones that will be using the product and thus can become your biggest internal advocates. Decision-makers are the ones that either approve or reject the buy. 
  • Do you have familiarity with the market? Group similar prospects by characteristics such as their service offering, their market, or their industry, and rank these groups based on your familiarity with them. Classify prospects by the level of value you think you can offer.
  • Do they have an awareness of your offering? Your prospects will likely have varying levels of knowledge about your product or services. The more awareness they have, the more likely they are to see the value in your offering and become customers. If a prospect has visited your website, subscribed to your blog, or posted content about something related to your offering, they probably know a lot about your company or service. 

Step 2: Prioritize

Prioritizing your prospects saves time and allows you to dedicate your strongest efforts to prospects that are most likely to become customers. Levels of prioritization will vary between each type of sales organization and each individual salesperson, but the main idea is to create a few buckets of prospects based on their likelihood to buy, and focus on one bucket at a time.

Break down the qualifying dimensions used in the list above (and any added relevant dimensions) into percentages between one and 100 percent based on how important they are to the sales process.

For example, size of opportunity is probably more important than timing when closing a deal, so it would receive a higher percentage than timing. Next, assign a value between one and 100 to these dimensions for each prospect on your list. Once you complete this step, multiply each prospect’s value by the percentage weight given to the dimension. Add up these dimension scores until each prospect has a total score. Ta-da! Now your entire list is ranked.

Step 3: Prep the outreach

The end goal of this step is to gather in-depth information on your prospects to hone your pitch and personalize your outreach. Thus, you first must pinpoint what your prospects care about. You can do this in a few ways:

  • See if the prospect blogs to define what they write about (as a proxy for what they care about).
  • Find their social media presence. Do they have recent updates or a new post?
  • Check the company website to review “About Us” information.

Once you’ve learned more about your prospect’s business and role, you need to find a reason to connect. Do you have mutual connections? Has there been a trigger event? Have they recently visited your website? If so, which search terms drove them to your site? Which pages did they look at?

Step 4: The first communication

Whether calling or emailing, your approach should be highly tailored to your prospect’s particular business, goal and industry. Keep these general tips in mind when contacting a prospect:

  • Personalize. Reference a specific problem that the prospect is encountering with a specific solution.
  • Be respectful. Everyone is busy; don’t waste people’s time through lack of preparation or fit.
  • Stay relevant and timely. Make sure the issue a prospect is trying to solve is still relevant to him or her and their team.
  • Be human. No one likes to communicate with a professional robot. Adding in details like wishing someone a happy holiday weekend or conveying how awesome their company’s product is are real touches that allow us to make a connection on a deeper level.
  • Serve, don’t sell. Give value and ask for nothing in return. This process isn’t about you, it’s about THEM. For example, instead of scheduling a follow-up meeting, you could offer to conduct an audit of an accessible facet of their business and get back to them with your findings in a week.
  • Keep it casual. Remember this is just a conversation. Stay natural and as non-salesy as possible. The key to prospecting is that we’re never selling. We’re simply determining if both parties could mutually benefit from a relationship.

Step 5: Iterate

Keep notes throughout this process to assess what activities generated value for the prospecting process and which wasted time. After each contact with a prospect, assess how well you:

  • Uncovered challenges
  • Helped create well-defined goals
  • Confirmed availability of budget
  • Understood decision-making process
  • Determined consequences of inaction
  • Identified potential results of success

This self-reflection helps improve techniques in the future.

Wrap it Up

Just like no two people are exactly the same, neither are any two prospects. Tailor your approach to maximize your time and theirs, and you’ll be well on your way to building that list and filling up that pipeline. 

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