Screening Your Best Prospects

IF YOU HAD a blank sheet of paper and the task of developing a list of prospective clients, where would you begin? For most of us, the first step would be to pull out some of the hundreds of name cards collected over the years and select the most likely prospects from among them. If asked to explain why those particular firms were chosen, your answer would probably be that they are big and have potential, have a large budget for professional services, that contact has already been established, or that some business has been done with them in the past.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it is not enough to define the best prospects in the market.

Think carefully about whom you want in the prospecting section of your pipeline. And remember that making the wrong choices could have negative results: the prospects may become clients - only to end up not paying their bills, making unreasonable demands, or giving work that turns out to be unprofitable. In a nutshell, they become a problem, and you would be better off without them. Basically, your sales efforts would have been wasted.

All that time, money and input would have been better spent on prospects that could have provided a secure, long-term income.

How, then, should you go about creating a potentially rewarding prospect list? Ask yourself whether the selected companies are of the right calibre, and whether they are "winnable". You could weed out potentially "wrong" choices by using a system of triggers and filters.

Triggers No senior manager wakes up with a burning desire to appoint a professional services firm. A company's costs are always controlled, and professional firms are appointed only when there is no other option. This happens only when a company has to get something done but lacks the internal resources or relevant expertise.

Such a situation can arise for several reasons: a merger or acquisition on the horizon; market changes demanding new technology; new legislation or regulations affecting operating procedures; intensified competition; growth outpacing the capacity to handle it, or a key management position waiting to be filled.

These are the kind of triggers that compel an organisation to consider bringing in professional assistance from outside. If a quick decision has to be made, it is likely the incumbent or a previous appointee will be used again. However, if an alternative is available, and time is on the client's side, most organisations would consider more than one option. This is your opportunity.

Filters Even so, you must be careful. A "trigger-rich" company is not necessarily a great prospect. You must also use filters that show whether a prospect would be easy or hard to approach, and how much better they are than other clients.

There are various filters you can use to assess a client's "approachability": whether you know someone in the company; the ease of obtaining an introduction; your understanding of their decision-making process; your ability to match their needs, and whether you have a proven track record in their industry.

When examining the prospect, consider the company's financial standing, size, image, corporate culture, and the way it uses the type of services you provide.

Using triggers and filters is not a complicated process, and you can train yourself to do it by following certain steps.

Firstly, agree on a total of six to 10 measures you can apply consistently to screen all prospects. Less than six may give an unbalanced view of the client's value; more than 10 may complicate the process.

Next, devise a scoring system to measure the various criteria. For example, if "company size" is a filter, the prospect may get a zero if it has less than 50 employees; a three if it has between 50 and 150 staff, and a five if it has more than 150. Then decide on a minimum score for a company to qualify as a prospect, and screen all potential clients strictly according to the triggers and filters you have selected.

Finally, review and monitor your criteria and process from time to time to ensure they produce the desired results.

This all sounds like work - and it is. The process involves time and research on your part. You cannot depend on general knowledge or guesswork.

But once everything has been set up properly, you should be able to classify each company under one of three categories: unsuitable as a future client; definitely suitable to become a key client and meriting immediate attention, and those that fall in-between.

Information about the first group should be logged in your database. Changes at some point in the future may turn these names into viable prospects.

You may not have time to focus on the third group now, but keep them in mind and collect information about them with a view to approaching them later.

Your immediate targets can now be moved into the next section of the pipeline - promoting.

It is time to start revving up your marketing activities to make them aware of who you are and what kind of services you provide. The result: your first sales meeting.

By investing time at the very outset, you ensure better future rewards.



Triggers Without Filters You could select your prospects based purely on triggers. However, you might then find yourself with a list of companies with work to offer, but little hope of winning the business. The opposite will happen if you use filters without triggers. The prospects will look interesting and approachable on paper, but they may not need what you can offer. Therefore, use a combination when selecting your key prospects.

Eyes Open When waiting before a meeting do not pace the room - it only makes the receptionist uncomfortable. But do not just sit there either. There is a lot to see and observe. Companies use the reception area to showcase their work, so read the certificates on the wall, pick up brochures and learn what they take pride in. Read the company newsletter, scan their press clippings for insight into the organisation. A reception area is full of valuable information. You may even get a chance to glance at the reception log and find out which competitors have been there lately.

Creating Interest How many times have you called a potential client in the hope of arranging a meeting, only to hear those dreaded words - "Not interested". Instead of moving on to the next prospect, try something different. Tell the person that you would not expect them to be interested without hearing about the benefits their organisation could gain. Explain that a meeting would allow them to view those benefits and then gauge their interest. You may have to adapt your words depending on the situation, but do not expect interest if you have not shown value. Do not give up immediately without asking for a meeting. However, if you are clearly getting nowhere, drop it. Do not risk creating ill will with someone who might one day turn out to have an interest.

Look at Current Clients When creating your selection criteria, take a look at your existing client base - both your key clients and the problem accounts. Look for common denominators. If most of your key clients share a trigger or filter, make sure you include it in your selection criteria. Also, identify what problem clients have in common and do not make the same mistake twice. Once you have your selection criteria, apply them to your client list. How do these companies score? You may be surprised at the insights you get.