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Traditional Prospecting Works

As you were reading about my old ad agency business development process, did you start to see yourself in those words? Did you begin to relate the steps I was taking to the steps you take each day as you work your database?

Maybe you have a Rolodex instead of an ACT! database and a smartphone (the modern day Palm Pilot), or maybe you just keep your top desk drawer full of business cards with notes scribbled on them. The details of how you or your company manages a sales prospecting database aren’t important. What is important is that you understand that you’re spending your days filling and managing a database—and you’re living inside that database.

And why do you continue to work this way? Frankly, it works. But as I noted earlier, the sales cycles are long. Sometimes I’d have to call on clients for years before we could finally find a pain point or get invited to pitch for their business.

I remember one such pitch before I left Peter Mayer Advertising. I was about to move an A-List telecom prospect to our B-List due to lack of responsiveness. This meant that, instead of a personalized, high-touch marketing campaign, this prospect would receive only ongoing mass direct mailings with follow-up calls to ensure receipt. While I was working to figure out which B-List prospect I’d move up to replace this prospect, my phone rang.

Guess who was on the other line? It was that A-List prospect asking us to submit a proposal to handle a small public relations project for him. We talked, and I joked that I had almost taken him off my list because he’d never returned any of my calls, emails, or letters. He laughed and said he had every single thing our firm had ever sent to him. In fact, he was calling us because of all those mailers, emails, and phone calls.

You see, we continue to prospect in this old-school manner and live inside the database because, darn it, it does actually work. It’s like golf. You can have 17 bad holes, but if you get a birdie on hole 18, you’ll be back out there next weekend. But it’s painful, isn’t it? After I hung up the phone, I looked back through this contact’s electronic file in my database.

Not including the phone call I had just completed, I had contacted this lead via email, letter, phone, or direct mail 52 times in two years. That’s a whole lot of prospecting for one small piece of business. In fact, figuring up all the hours I’d spent at my hourly rate, adding in the hard costs associated with all the mailings, and subtracting that amount from the profit generated on this new account would have shown that the agency spent more to acquire the business than it would profit on the actual account the first year.

In addition to those pitches, we usually picked up one or two projects or clients without a competitive pitch. We successfully identified the key decision maker(s) and began qualifying the prospect. At some point, we discovered a pain point that wasn’t being satisfied and leveraged it to gain a meeting. If we did our job correctly, we could convince the client that a change in agency partners was warranted. Shortly thereafter, we had a new client.

But this process required tremendous effort on our part. In some cases, we developed and conducted field research studies to test a hunch. If the research results proved our hunch correct, we then had to find a way to get past the key decision maker’s gatekeeper and share the information with our prospect.

In one such case, we noticed that a high-end barbeque grill manufacturer was using direct-response ads to invite consumers to request more information via a 1-800 number. Because our agency had significant experience in direct-response advertising, we thought we might be able to help this company. But first we had to see if the company had any issues we could solve. I had 20 agency staffers each call the phone number in the ad and request more information. Then I had them do the same process with three competitive grill manufacturers who were also using direct-response ads. Employees had to keep track of when they called and when the information from each company arrived. They also had to give me whatever the manufacturers sent them in the mail.

Luckily for us, what arrived from our prospect was a complete disaster. Very few staffers actually received the official product brochure. Others were placed on hold for long periods of time when they called to order their brochure. Still others waited for more than a week to receive their brochure. Meanwhile, the competitive grill manufacturers all performed flawlessly. All quickly fulfilled the phone requests with beautifully designed brochures designed to drive intent to purchase.

These are all deathblows to a direct-response advertiser. Luckily for us, we had a story to tell. But we still had to spend more than 100 agency hours on the project, and then we had to travel to the prospect’s offices in another state to present the information.

And that is the problem with traditional outbound prospecting methodology. It’s highly inefficient and truly painful.

But it does work.

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