Research Sales Prospects? Small Business B2B Tips

This post on small business sales and research was originally published on the Maestro Mastery Blog. Maestro Group uses a science-based approach to startup sales strategy and training. It gives teams the tools they need to sell more, faster. Suitless partners with Maestro Group to help companies (and VCs) make sure they are growing responsibly.

Sales discovery calls are a learning opportunity. The salesperson is there to learn about the needs of the prospect and try to show how they meet those needs. The prospect is there to learn if they see a need for the product or service.

To make the most of this learning opportunity, though, a salesperson needs to prepare. It might sound repetitive, inefficient, or circular. Nevertheless, research and learning is necessary ahead of the sales discovery call in order for it to go well. Targeted pre-learning creates a kind of scaffolding for the learning on the call. It supports rapport and trust-building, demonstrates professional diligence, and enables the salesperson to better understand specifics of the prospect’s situation.

Research can be done well or poorly, however. Indiscriminate googling can turn up false or irrelevant information. It can also give a stalkerish impression, which would be a very negative outcome.

Gather Public Information About Your Prospect

Research before a sales meeting should gather insight about the prospect company, its leadership team and organizational structure. A salesperson should identify the actual people who are going to be in the room. Just glancing at their website is not enough, though it is a decent starting point.

Information about the company

In this phase of research, a salesperson should identify whether the prospect fits into the target market. The salesperson should learn how closely aligned they are with the ideal customer profile from a firmographic perspective. What are their business goals that your product or service would support? How long have they been in business, and what are their sources of funding?

For startups, resources like Crunchbase can provide a lot of information about funding rounds and team composition. Public-sector organizations are required to report certain financial information. Press releases and media reports can also give an indication of organizational goals and whether they are growing or are likely to have a hard time affording your product. If they already have a relationship with your competitors, that is a useful data point as well.

It isn’t necessary to be exhaustive. In most cases, a few basic facts will give a broad view of the situation. This way, the discovery call can dig into the best questions and offer the most relevant examples of use cases. The call then fills in the details about customer needs rather than starting from nothing.

Information about the team and people in the meeting

A salesperson should try to inform themselves about the role and time in role/at the company of anyone attending the meeting. Keep in mind members of the C-suite who may have authority over buying decisions. If the salesperson is personally connected to any of these people, for instance through a shared former place of employment, shared friend, university affiliation, or hobby, this may well turn up through brief research. However, once sales research into individual people begins, it’s time to be aware of the possibility of creepiness. The internet is a vast trove of information, but the variability of its sources and accuracy brings attendant risks.

Much of social media sits on an uneasy boundary between public and private, and the internet also hosts a variety of publicly available third-party information that may or may not seem appropriate to bring up with a new acquaintance. It’s been nearly a decade since Andzulis et al. described the relevance of social media at each stage of the sales process in the Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management. In that time, information has proliferated, with more data potentially available than ever before.

“Creepy Marketing”

Marketing and law researchers have crafted frameworks to define “creepy marketing.” These discussions may be very useful to salespeople as well. Essentially, rapidly changing technology has created a lot of grey areas where existing community norms do not provide clear guidance of what is an appropriate or inappropriate use of information. A widely-cited New York Times report on Target’s practices of marketing to pregnant women gives examples of diverse responses to potentially intrusive information-gathering.

Googling a person may easily turn up information such as:

  • updates they submitted to an alumni magazine
  • their results on a local triathlon
  • pictures of their children
  • their political views
  • pictures of them at parties in college

Some of these types of information are appropriate to bring up, such as alumni affiliation or shared interest in a sport. These are useful early in the conversation in order to build rapport. Other types of information may inform your conversation, but you shouldn’t raise them directly. For example, if it is clear online that they are vegetarian or Hindu, do not break the ice by talking about the amazing T-bone you are planning to grill tonight.

Safe sources for sales research

It is safest to work with sales research information that the person has chosen to share publicly online. LinkedIn is a great source because you can easily verify that the person is in fact associated with the right company (rather than being a different Mike Smith). Also, users know that it is available for work relationships. A person who shares their interest in triathlon on their LinkedIn profile definitely expects and wants to talk about it.

Besides LinkedIn, sources of personal connection for rapport-building that are not creepy include shared alumni and professional association updates, and shared acquaintances. It is wise to reinforce that affinity connection by referring to success stories the prospect has recently shared. “Congratulations on becoming treasurer of the Rotary Club, I saw the announcement in our alumni mag” reinforces a connection where “I see from your Facebook profile photos you have four cute kids” may seem creepy or stalkerish if you are not friends with them on Facebook.

Rock Solid Information Uses

When doing research, focus on the information that will help advance the sale. This is information that builds rapport, gives you context and understanding (for instance, about the jargon and trends of the industry the prospect is in, or about their financial situation), and prepares you to shepherd the conversation effectively toward consensus.

1. Using sales research for rapport building

Certain types of knowledge gathering via social media are commonplace. At Maestro, we share the story of an executive who is a Carnegie Mellon–trained engineer. When that individual is interviewing young engineers for jobs, he is disappointed if an applicant has Carnegie Mellon on their resume and doesn’t bring up the connection. The job applicant has missed an opportunity to do their due diligence, check the LinkedIn of the person who will be interviewing them, and demonstrate their professionalism and desire to learn about the world around them.

2. Demonstrating professional diligence

Doing your research conveys an impression of professional dedication. Besides making an effort to inform yourself about the people who will be in the meeting, you can also demonstrate this interest about their company. Taking some of the most basic information you have learned about the prospect organization and team and using it to customize your slides (logo, agenda, etc.) will help the prospect see that you are focused on them and well prepared.

3. Achieving your meeting goals

Based on what you have learned about the company, you can prepare question trees in order to get well prepared for any direction the conversation can go. (At Maestro, we teach the DRIVE information-gathering framework; more on the details in future Maestro Mastery blogs.) Think about what information you most need from the prospect and what information they are most likely to need from you. It helps to write down three goals, things you want to accomplish during the call. Literally write them down—trust us, there’s a story behind it. Then, after carefully listening and building rapport, you can check near the end of the call that you have achieved your three goals. If not, politely ask to fill in those gaps!

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