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7 steps to ace pre-call sales planning

In a sales call, you not only have to traverse the rocky, psychologically nuanced terrain of persuading a stranger to purchase something from you, you also have to execute that process within a purely auditory medium. Body language and facial expressions can’t be seen.

But there is hope. Whether it’s a warm call, cold call, or room temperature rap session, a little preparation and a handful of simple, effective tips can help turn a sales call into a sale.

1. Research the company

Perhaps one of the most obvious, and yet most important things a salesperson can do before a call: research the company they’re calling. Learn about the history. Read up on their clients and customers. Is the company growing, shrinking or maintaining? Or are they cyclical? What are their values? What are the issues facing their industry?

“Learn about the company’s financials, history of growth, who their previous solution provider was, and key players within the organization that may need to be involved in follow-up meetings,” said Rudy Joggerst, Digital Marketing Manager for the the sales training and consulting firm Janek Performance Group.

Some of this intel, Janek said, can be used to build rapport with the prospect during the call. It can also help salespeople devise a proper selling strategy, as well as anticipate likely customer objections and how to overcome them.

2.Research the person

While getting to know the prospect on a macro level is highly valuable, researching the specific person you plan on speaking with is equally important.

"Prep for the person, not just the company,” said Jake Dunlap, founder and CEO of the revenue innovation group Skaled. “People typically don’t research the person's background and potential biases that they may have, which provide key insights into reasons that they may buy.”

Knowing the person’s job history, for example, can be used to frame the entire conversation. As Dunlap explained, if someone has been in the same role for 15 years, it might be wise to assume they are looking for a proven product, one that makes them feel secure. However, if someone has only been in the role for six months, and mentions an interest in innovation on their Linkedin profile, they might be more open to something cutting-edge, and probably want to be spoken to in a different way.

“People with the exact same title can have completely different preferred communication styles," Dunlap said.

Looking beyond the person’s professional history can also be beneficial. For example, if the person’s alma mater just won a football game, a simple comment on the game can show them you’ve done your homework.

3.Audit their competitors

After studying the company and scoping out the point of contact, your last research-oriented task is to audit your prospect’s competitors. If, for example, your lead is in the cosmetics industry, identify the company’s biggest competitors and determine their unique selling proposition, their marketing strategy, their brand image. This information can help you tailor your solutions.

  • I noticed that some of your competitors are driving traffic to their website through product posts on Instagram. Have you integrated Instagram into your website?
  • Some of the bigger cosmetics companies in your area are sponsoring local fashion events. That might be something to think about.
  • One of your closest competitors is neglecting a key demographic. What if you jumped in to fill the void?

Garrett Mehrguth, CEO of the digital marketing agency Directive Consulting, finds that auditing your lead’s competitors can also help you develop a rapport.

“I have found that when you talk wisely about a lead’s competitors, they feel like you understand not only their business, but also, their industry,” said Mehrguth. “That comfort lends itself to better conversations and more deals closing.”

Mehrguth uses tools like SEM Rush, Moz and SpyFu to audit his competitors, as they provide unique insight into what his leads’ top competitors are doing, and what the lead can do to overtake them.

4.Plan the questions

While a healthy dose of research provides a strong foundation to your sales call strategy, it’s the questions that move the conversation forward.

Author and sales trainer Barry Maher advises salespeople to plan the specific questions you’re going to ask, as well as the follow-up questions. The right questions don’t just uncover useful information, they get the prospect involved, and show “him or her how much you care about understanding his or her needs.”

“The right questions can also demonstrate your expertise and the extent of your specific knowledge of the prospect’s field,” Maher said.

5. Establish your goal for the call

Sure, the overarching goal of any salesperson is to make a sale, but not every sales call is meant to end with “All right, I’ll buy a dozen.”

"The number one tip for pre-call planning is understanding what you are trying to get out of the call,” said Dom Matteucci, account executive at DocSend. “Depending on the point in the sales cycle, it could be to understand the prospect’s workflow, propel the deal forward by getting another meeting with a decision maker, or closing the deal.”

Without a specific objective, planning is nearly impossible. But once you establish your ideal outcome, you can begin to understand the steps you need to take in order to reach it.

6. Plan the call for 5 minutes before the hour

The majority of sales call planning may be content-related, but logistics should not be overlooked. Common sense might tell you to schedule a call for the top of the hour, or in half-hour increments. But consider this seemingly counterintuitive, yet effective scheduling tactic.

For cold calls, sales consultant Siamac Rezaiezadeh suggests calling the prospect at five minutes before the hour. When the prospect picks up, here’s what Rezaiezadeh says:

"I am about to run into a meeting and [something] triggered me to get in touch. I think I have a way for you to [achieve desired objective]. Like I said, I have a meeting in a minute, can we schedule a 10-minute chat later today at [desired time]?"

Unlike the majority of cold calls a prospect is used to hearing, this type of call is short and sweet — almost off the cuff — which lends an unusually authentic, even candid, air to the salesperson. And by providing an alternate time to chat, the customer has time to warm up.

“It makes them comfortable that you aren't a time waster,” Rezaizadeh said, “and it forces you to think of the absolutely top reason why they should take the call.”

To increase the likelihood of achieving a same-day chat, Rezaizadeh makes the initial call in the morning, with a suggested call back time of three to four hours later.

Heads Up: Making your call sound spur-of-the-moment is more difficult than it seems, and if you hit the wrong notes, it’s easy to come across as blatantly manipulative. While rehearsing the initial call might feel counterintuitive, consider running it a few times with a friend or colleague and prompting them for feedback. Sometimes improvisation needs practice.

7.Don’t over-prepare

Yep, you read that right. After five tips on how to best prepare for a sales call, we have the gall to tell you not to prepare too much. Leave a little to the imagination. Why?

Pindie Dhaliwal, director of business development at the Skyrocket, a digital branding agency, said: “If you are overprepared then you will anticipate instead of listening. Your goal should be to create an environment where you allow your prospect or client to share their challenges. To open up. To be real.”

Knowing 100% of everything there is to know about the prospect will affect your ability to actively listen to the prospect, and speak to them with authenticity. And while the line between useful preparation and overpreparation is a fine one to walk, keep this in mind: Getting to know the prospect helps you develop a trusting relationship, but you can’t get to know the prospect if you already know everything.

So before your next call …

Talking on the phone is only half of the sales call process. The other half is what you do before dialing that number. Research is certainly a centerpiece of the pre-call procedure, but don’t spend all your time studying the company. Remember to learn a few things about the specific person you plan on calling, and audit your competitors for some inside insight. Next, put that research into action by planning your questions, and the follow-ups to those questions, but do your best to walk the line between useful preparation and stalker-level obsession.

Oh, and try shaking things up by calling the prospect at five minutes to the hour. You might be surprised at the results.

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