There’s a lot of advice out there on how to sell effectively, some better than the rest, but often it’s not that practical for agencies. It focuses on a philosophy, a system or a mind-set, but doesn’t give novices a set of “how-to” instructions to get started right away. And, let’s face it, most ad agency executives, even the new business directors, are more novice than expert when it comes to the ancient art of sales.

Prospecting Takes Practice, but the More You Do It, the More Success You'll Have
A few of my favorite prospecting techniques:
1. Stop making lists!
2. Use social media
3. Prospects are people just like you
4. Be a little pushy
5. Delay Friday's Happy Hour

Back in 2011, I wrote a piece for Ad Age on a few of my favorite techniques for polishing up prospecting skills.

They’re still techniques that I use with a lot of success, so I've decided it's time to reprise them, with a few adjustments. The biggest change since I wrote the article? Voicemail. Or lack thereof.

It’s been rumored that voicemail is headed for extinction. Even Coca-Cola announced that it would unburden its employees from voicemail. But people still use phones and cold/warm calling is still an effective weapon in the arsenal, as long as you adapt (for instance, many systems convert voice mail to text messages – so keep it short!) and combine it with emails, social media and networking. 

What hasn’t changed is that these techniques don’t require any special skill or experience but they can make an immediate and positive difference – as long as you use them. 

  1. Stop Making Lists. Every agency I've ever worked with is excellent at making prospecting lists. I've seen so many good prospecting lists that if I could have built a business around them, I'd be rich. The problem is, after all the work of making those lists -- defining criteria, researching prospects, having a few internal strategy meetings -- nothing ever happens with it. No calls made, no emails sent. Six months later, you realize you've got to start prospecting. So you make another list. And the cycle continues. Break that cycle! Grab the latest list and choose five -- yes, only five -- companies to call on. Don't make another list until you do.
  2. It's Not Stalking, It's Research. Use Social Media. LinkedIn and Twitter have changed the face of prospecting forever. LinkedIn is the best, lowest-cost way I know of to find out a lot about the person who you want to contact. By digging a bit deeper, it's easy to quickly identify other qualified targets at the same company and understand corporate hierarchies. (Some excellent subscription-based tools like RelSci are now available to amp up your social networking. The folks from The List recently did a review of RelSci and others.) And, of course, always take advantage of a connection to ask for a personal introduction. On Twitter, follow your prospect and get to know what's important to them by what they tweet. More important, let them get to know you by replying to (in an intelligent, compelling way, of course) and retweeting their post.
  3. Remember, Prospects Are People Just Like You. Dredge up one of the prospecting emails or cold call scripts you may have written in the past and take a look. Who is this person? The words sound nothing like you, right? And if they come off stilted to you, that's how they're going to sound to a prospect. Prospects are human beings and they'll respond much better if they think they're being approached by another human being. I give myself this exercise: Before writing an email or making a cold call, I think about that person as if they were my friend or brother or neighbor or aunt. My tone is still respectful and my message relevant and concise, but this exercise has an uncanny way of making me feel relaxed and confident. And that transmits to the prospect.
  4. Be a Little Pushy. This tip is important, especially if it is in your nature to be too polite. Learn to listen between the lines. Some people will dismiss you as soon as they possibly can and there's not much you can do about it. Regroup and move on to the next one on your list. But others may need a little drawing out. When you’re fortunate enough to get someone on the phone, be prepared with a question or two and see how they answer it. Sometimes that unlocks the door and the conversation goes from "We're all set with our current resources" to "We're all set with our current resources, but there is this one thing..." Wedge your foot in that door and pry it open.
  5. Delay Friday Happy Hour. It's tempting to ramp down toward the weekend, especially after a busy week, but I've had more luck reaching people on Friday afternoon than I've had any other time of the week. There are less meetings clogging up calendars and, with the weekend on the horizon, not only are you more likely to get someone in their office, you'll probably get them in a good mood too.

Prospecting can be daunting, especially if you don't do it on a daily basis. It takes practice. But the good news is that the more you do it, the easier it gets and the more success you have. 

Be yourself and believe in your message. Oh, and make the call.