Sales Best Practices

An introductory guide to sales prospecting

Serena Miller's Avatar

Serena Miller

Editor, Sales Best Practices

Effective prospecting is a crucial part of the sales process; one that helps reps engage with the appropriate audience and get the ball rolling. A strong sales prospecting strategy can help teams narrow their focus, create better connections with buyers, and — ultimately — close more deals.

But getting it right can sometimes feel like a confusing guessing game for sellers, who must often undergo a significant amount of trial and error in their prospecting efforts.

Here, we’ll discuss all things sales prospecting, including why it matters, some tried-and-true techniques, tools to consider, and even a few email templates to get your team started.

What is sales prospecting

Sales prospecting is the process of identifying and connecting with leads who fit the profile of an ideal buyer. It’s often the first step in getting your business in front of prospective buyers. It presents a critical opportunity for sellers to demonstrate their proactive attitude and deep knowledge of their products and services.

Since 71% of purchasers say they want to hear from reps early on in the buying process, strong prospecting is crucial for kicking things off on the right foot. When properly executed, sales prospecting helps reps fine-tune specific pitches for specific segments, unearth the most viable clients, and avoid wasting precious time.

Ineffective prospecting, on the other hand, often results in sellers chasing the proverbial white whale. They either spend unnecessary time digging up personal details on a potential client that won’t actually help them land the deal, or they cast too wide a net and end up overwhelmed. And if the team doesn’t have the proper means for tracking and measuring the prospecting process, they run the risk of several reps calling on the same potential client at the same time, which is a waste of time and resources and creates a negative brand perception, too.

Prospects vs. leads

While the two terms are often conflated, it’s important to note the difference between prospects and leads. Prospects are leads who have been identified as a good fit for your company, typically because they align with your ideal customer profile (ICP), and who are ready to be moved into your sales process.

On the other hand, leads fall into a much broader category of contacts. While they can come from various sources (e.g., referrals, lead lists, marketing, networking events, etc.), leads are basically anyone with whom sales has had contact. Leads do not become prospects until they’ve gathered enough information about them to determine that they’re interested in their product or service and that they fit the ideal buyer persona.

Lead generation, typically led by marketing, also differs from the prospecting process, which falls on the shoulders of sales teams. While lead generation relies on compelling content to attract interest from potential buyers, prospecting leans on thorough research and qualification.

Inbound vs. outbound prospecting

There are two larger approaches under which most prospecting activities fall: inbound and outbound. With inbound prospecting, the sales team generally works with marketing to develop thoughtful content that inspires potential buyers to make the first move — either by visiting your website or reaching out to someone on the sales team.

Outbound prospecting, on the other hand, requires a bit more manual labor, with sellers taking the bull by the horns and reaching out to inform potential clients about their products and services. It usually includes cold calling and emailing, connecting on social media, or using paid media (ads) to reach the target audience.

Why sales prospecting matters

Your sales cycle depends heavily on the industry in which your business operates and your organization's size, objectives, challenges, and other unique qualities. Still, regardless of those factors, a strong sales prospecting process is vital to your team’s success.

Before your salespeople can actually begin selling your company’s products or services, they must first identify and contact potential buyers with the right level of interest, budget, pain points, and objectives. Prospecting helps them weed out the unqualified leads who might otherwise drain their limited time, like those who don’t have the power to make purchasing decisions or those whose problems can’t be solved by your business’s solutions.

What’s more, strong prospecting also helps sellers lay a strong foundation for better client relationships. If from the onset, potential buyers see your team is proactive, engaging, and willing to put in the work, they’re more likely to connect with sellers on a personal level. This opens the door for reps to build a rapport that better sparks buyers’ interest and fosters more genuine, lasting relationships in the long run.

Sales prospecting process

Like the sales cycle, your prospecting process might vary depending on your unique business. But there are a few major steps that organizations commonly follow when it comes to prospecting:

1. Research 

As it relates to prospecting, research is a rep’s best friend. Before determining whether a lead is a good fit for a particular solution or make a genuine connection, the seller must perform some basic due diligence on the potential buyer. This might include looking into the overall buyer landscape, identifying the potential customer’s pain points, uncovering their competitors, scouring their company’s social media page, and digging through their website to discover which products and services they might already be using. Sales reps and SDRs conduct a great deal of research to find potential prospects who are ready to move to the qualification phase, so they need cohesive processes and adequate tools for support. Without both, they risk duplicating their efforts or having high-value prospects fall through the cracks.

2. Qualification 

Just because a prospect might initially look good on paper doesn’t mean they’re actually worth pursuing. SDRs spend a lot of their time trying to determine if they’re a good fit before they push them to the outreach phase. The qualification strategy depends on the individual business, audience, and marketing channels, so the SDR must carefully measure each prospect against each to determine their value. It’s a time-consuming (albeit essential) part of the process for teams that don’t have tools for automation. Manual qualification is tedious, error-prone, and often drags out the sales cycle, so many competitive sales teams have started using platforms that automatically qualify prospects based on pre-established criteria, then pass the appropriate potential buyers to sellers.

3. Outreach 

Once a prospect is pushed into the ‘qualified’ bucket, they’re ready for outreach. This is the stage in which sellers make contact with prospects and start to build genuine relationships using emails, phone calls, social media messages, and even letters. It’s important to lean on personalization through the outreach stage, as 31% of salespeople say that sending one-to-one, customized messages is extremely effective. Perhaps the toughest part of this stage is breaking buyer silence, since, on average, sellers only have 14 days to engage a buyer before it’s too late. Buyer silence is even tougher to overcome if reps don’t have the right tools to tap into their response to each engagement — whether it’s positive, negative, a referral, or an unsubscribe. This makes it incredibly difficult to identify the best course of action and garner a response within that 14-day window.

4. Discovery 

The purpose of a discovery call is to prove to the prospect that the solution you’re selling is a perfect fit, and that now is the right time to buy. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen by accident. Sellers must adequately prepare ahead of time, carefully build rapport with the prospect, ask the right open-ended questions (and lots of them!), identify the buyer’s needs and goals, assess the competition, match the client with the solution that will provide the most value, and much more. Simply put, there’s a lot that goes into a successful discovery call, and inflexible, outdated tools (like spreadsheets, note apps, etc.) aren’t sophisticated enough to keep up. Action items fall off sellers’ radars, details get lost in the shuffle, and salespeople spend more time than is necessary preparing for and analyzing their discovery calls.

5. Close 

After several weeks (and sometimes months) of objections handling, negotiations, collaboration, and resource sharing, the deal is finally ready to close. Forward-thinking sales teams take note of every step along the way and learn from their mistakes and triumphs, then use both to fine-tune the prospecting process. While this can seem like a time-intensive, burdensome activity (particularly for those without the right tools for tracking every activity, engagement, outcome, etc.), it’s essential for driving growth and boosting prospecting performance.

Sales prospecting techniques

Although it’s crucial to their performance, many sales teams simply haven’t put in the effort to ensure their prospecting strategy is up-to-date and impactful. It’s a too-often ignored part of the sales process, but making some adjustments and adopting a few modern techniques can make a world of difference.

Clearly define your target

As you develop or review your prospecting strategy, remember to make your targets crystal clear. By first determining the persona, industry, or company you’re after, you can more effectively build a prospecting sequence that’ll yield greater results. This is important because your target will impact your approach, like how long your prospecting sequence will last and how many manual touches you’ll need.

Establish your desired outcome

Your end goal is always closing the sale, but that’s not the outcome that should be top-of-mind when prospecting. Instead, take it one step at a time and establish what you’d like to accomplish by executing your prospecting sequence. Are you hoping to schedule a meeting, book a demo, nail down a referral, or get in contact with that VP-level persona? Be sure to hammer out the goal prior to getting started, then align each step with that intended outcome.

Evaluate the performance of your tests

The best way to get better at pretty much anything is to learn from your mistakes — and prospecting is no different. If you aren’t already doing so, start A/B testing your emails to determine what works and what doesn’t.

This will help you craft stronger, better-performing emails that contribute to stronger, better-performing sequences. Remember: prospecting isn’t a stagnant activity, but an ever-changing process that should be consistently tweaked for improvements. Evaluate your A/B test results and take action, as needed.

Eliminate bottlenecks

Each sequence step has the unfortunate possibility of becoming a bottleneck, so it’s essential to take a close look at each to see if prospects are moving to the next stage of the funnel. If, for instance, a particular email step starts with 100 active prospects, but only 10 make it to the next stage, you can probably safely assume that step has become a bottleneck.

By taking a careful look at what’s going on in that email, you can ameliorate the issues that might otherwise kill your sequence. Perhaps that particular email comes off as too “salesy” or aggressive, or contains broken links that have gone undetected. Whatever the issue, it’s important to identify it early, take swift action, and use it to avoid bottlenecks in the future, too.

Construct better emails

Chances are, inundating your prospects with email after email isn’t going to do much more than irritate them, especially if they’re not strategically crafted. There are myriad theories on how to create the best prospecting emails, but the truth is, getting it right isn’t all that complicated. A strong sales email should:

  • Explain your reason for emailing, describe your company and/or solution’s value, and provide a clear call-to-action
  • Be customer-centric in nature
  • Be short, sweet, and free of grammatical errors and typos
  • Be personable, personalized, and truly human

There are, of course, many other ways to gussy up your emails; but starting with these hard and fast rules will put you ahead of the curve.

Test your subject lines

Speaking of better emails, don’t neglect your subject lines! They’re often the first impression prospects get when hearing from your company, and they provide a great opportunity to captivate your audience — or turn them off entirely.

Sweeping, nonspecific subject lines won’t do the trick, so make sure to construct (and test!) subject lines that are personalized, genuine, relevant, and casual.

Empower your AEs to get involved earlier

It’s no secret that account executives (AEs) often rely on sales development representatives (SDRs) to build their pipeline. For the most part, this approach is just fine and dandy; but if and when something goes wrong and you need to quickly rebuild pipeline, chances are your SDRs will need some help. Plus, it’s just good practice to enlist and empower AEs to start generating more of their pipeline rather than waiting to dive in at a later stage.

The best way to make this happen is to have your AEs build account plans using a mapping methodology.

Account Mapping Methodology

By using this process, AEs can develop a thorough document that enables them to select specific prospecting plays for each account. They can then collaborate with their SDR colleagues to create outreach strategies, which will outline who will contact whom and when.

They also lean on co-workers from other teams, too, who help drive a title-to-title prospecting approach, wherein people of similar roles and professional backgrounds reach out to their counterparts at the prospect’s company. If, for example, the AE wants to interact with a marketing persona in a target account, they’ll ask one of their marketing colleagues to reach out and appeal to them in a marketing-specific way.

This strategy also enables sales teams to push their way further up to access more senior personas within an account. Because the AEs already have their ears to the ground, they’re more likely to get higher in the account at a faster pace than if the SDRs were prospecting on their own.

Sales prospecting tools

There are countless tools out there that promise more effective, efficient sales prospecting for your team. From B2B lead databases, to website visitor tracking tools, to lead scoring software, to professional and social networks, finding the right prospecting tool(s) for your team can seem like a daunting feat.

Of course, not every tool is built equally, and none is truly one-size-fits-all, so it’s important for leadership to take into account some key considerations before making an investment:

  • Unique business needs - No two businesses are exactly alike, so before adopting a new solution, take stock of where your organization is, where you’d like it to go, and what you’ll need to get there. For example, you may need to automate certain processes and workflows to become more efficient and productive, and therefore more profitable. Or maybe you need to make some major improvements to your customer experience to boost brand perception, client loyalty, and revenue growth. Be sure the prospecting tool you choose offers capabilities that help you address those specific business needs and take your organization to the next level.
  • Pain points - Your reps (and sales team as a whole) face very real pain points that often make it unnecessarily difficult to prospect. Perhaps they don’t have an effective method for tracking and measuring their prospecting efforts in real-time. Or they may struggle to make smart decisions around prospecting because they don’t have what they need to build accurate sales forecasts. It’s vital to evaluate your team’s pain points and how potential tools and solutions might solve them.
  • The need for multiple tools - In an effort to equip their sales teams with everything they need to thrive, many organizations have inadvertently made a crucial mistake. They’ve implemented various point solutions that can solve specific problems at specific points of the sales cycle, but they’ve also created redundancies, inefficiencies, and data silos within their tech stacks that are only slowing their teams down. Leaders are better off examining their current sales tech stacks, identifying what tools they can consolidate, what tools they can retire, and what tools they need to fill in the gaps.

Sales prospecting email examples

For sellers, crafting effective prospecting emails can feel overwhelming. It’s often helpful to get them started with some foundational templates that enable them to hone their skills.

PAS template

The problem, agitate, solve (PAS) email encourages reps to identify the recipient’s pain points, validate them in their frustrations, then offer up the obvious solution (their company’s product or service). It works because it enables sellers to empathize and connect with prospects while also demonstrating their ability to problem solve. It also shows that they’ve taken the time to research the pain points that may be irritating the recipient, rather than simply shooting off an email touting their solution’s fantastic features.

Subject: [First Name], quick call next Thursday?

Body: Hi [First Name],

I’ve noticed that some of your previous and potential customers have opted to buy from your competitors, [competitor A] and [competitor B] because of your complicated buying process. I know how frustrating it must be to lose sales for a quality product just because your website’s checkout process isn’t sufficient.

[Service name] removes the barriers associated with a sticky checkout process with beautiful, seamless user experiences that increase conversions.

I’d love to chat more about how [service name] can make it easier for customers to purchase your product through your website. Let me know if you’re available next Thursday to hop on a call!

Cheers,

[Sender’s first name]

AIDA template

The AIDA structure has long been used in all types of content, but is particularly effective in sales. It stands for attention, interest, desire, and action, and aims to entice the recipient with something catchy and relevant. It’s a strong framework because it immediately gets the reader on the hook and keeps them wanting more.

Subject: Poor UX kills customer satisfaction - just ask [prospect’s competitor]!

Body: Hi [First Name],

Did you know that poor UX could cost you customer satisfaction and loyalty? In fact, [prospect’s competitor]’s customer satisfaction rate continues to plummet as they struggle to get their UX right.

Now’s the time to strike. [Service name] has helped companies just like [prospect’s company name] improve their website design, UI, and UX to improve customer experience and satisfaction by [%].

I’d love to discuss how [Service name] could help [prospect’s company name]’s website get a leg up on the competition. Do you have time to chat next Tuesday?

Best,

[Sender’s first name]

Basic sales template

Sometimes sellers just don't have enough information to craft a highly specific email, and other times they just want to get straight down to brass tax. There’s nothing wrong with sending a clear cut message that demonstrates their company value while grabbing the recipient’s attention. Just make sure to include an attractive CTA!

Subject: [Sender’s first name] from [Sender’s company name]

Body: Hi [First Name],

Is your website’s UX costing you customers?

At [company], we help our clients attract and retain more customers with beautiful, intelligently designed websites that are easy and intuitive to use. In fact, we’ve helped companies in the [prospect’s industry] space boost their online sales by [%] in just [time frame].

I’d love to discuss how we can help [prospect’s company name] see similar results. Are you free to chat next week?

Best,

[Sender’s first name]

More effective sales prospecting to create and close more pipeline

Prospecting is an absolutely crucial part of your sales process. Leveraging strategic techniques is a great jumping-off point, but to succeed in this new era of sales, you need a platform that does more than outbound prospecting. 

The Outreach Sales Execution Platform goes far beyond traditional point solutions. With centralized tools that help sellers manage their pipeline from creation to close, Outreach helps sales teams gain more efficiency — and improve win rates and deal velocity across your entire team.

Learn more about how to achieve scalable, repeatable success with your team’s email prospecting or request a demo today.