Prospecting for Sales | Sales Strategy and Implementation

Prospecting for Sales: It’s Not About Your Offer

An associate of mine (let’s call him Bob) is making some good traction and headway in his consulting business. While talking with Bob this morning he said, “You know, I think we are really close. The only thing holding us back now is our sales process.”  My response was: “Yup…that’s usually the issue.” He replied, “We really need to sit down and define our offer.” I asked what he was talking about and he said, “We need to know what to approach clients with so that we can come at it from a few different angles.” My response was rapid and direct. “Bob, we’ve had this conversation, and no you don’t.”

When prospecting for sales, articulating your offer is the last thing that you should do. As much as people tend to follow that path, defining your offer starts the conversation with ‘me.’ It’s as if you are saying to your prospect “Nice to meet you, here is what I’ve decided to sell you, and now I am just looking for the right angle.” This whole approach to selling rubs me the wrong way.

Certainly if you are only good at one thing or if one thing you do is dramatically better than anything else it makes sense to allow your offer to define your conversation. However, to my friend I said, “Bob, you’ve got a such a wide range of tools and resources at your disposal, there is almost nothing you can’t deliver in terms of marketing strategy. So why would you limit the conversation by approaching your prospect to present something you’ve already decided  they need?

Pitching your offer limits possibilities (and ultimately your income.) Moreover, I find it presumptuous and disrespectful to the prospect, and it is the root of why most individuals dislike salespeople. Nobody wants to talk about you, your competencies, your product or your services.

Of course prospects ask the question “What do you do?” or “What can you do for us?” However, I take the approach that the basis of conversation when prospecting for sales needs to about your issues not what I think I can do for you. The problem of course is that prospects are reluctant to open up about their situation. And who can blame them? They are accustomed to salespeople using information against them. The result is an endless and useless ‘loop’ where salespeople pitch to prospects hoping they stumble upon an actual need.

What’s The Solution?

I address this challenge by focusing my half of the conversation on examples of the situations and emotions associated with people like them at companies like theirs. By way of example I might say: “I work with CEO’s like you who are frustrated with the fact that their CRM has been running for three years and they still don’t have any meaningful data on what is going on in their sales organization.” This is a true statement and, more importantly, orients the prospect as to what I do without pitching. The specifics of how I accomplish this objective (reducing CEO frustration) are irrelevant at this stage of our relationship. At some point, I’m certain the prospect will want to understand how my process works but only if they decide that the outcome is something they desire and want my help achieving that outcome.

The ideal client-prospect relationship would be one where you can approach them and directly ask about their problems. Then you could say, “Ok, these are the two problems you have that I can solve.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way because sales prospects have been tricked into sharing their problems and opportunities by salespeople using SPIN Selling and Solution Selling only to be pitched products that don’t even address their specific needs. As such, prospects have become closed down in their dialogue, which makes it virtually impossible engage in an honest or productive discussion. Selling has become a dysfunctional conversation where sellers say: “Tell me what you need help with,” and prospects reply, “No, tell me how you can help me first.”

Where do we go from here?

In my practice, when asked “Tell me what you do,” I typically reply, “I work with small companies, typically those under ten million in revenue. I assist them in a couple of different ways by working directly with the CEO who is most likely frustrated with ‘Problem A’ or ‘Problem B’ or ‘Problem C.’ Do any of those resonate with you?” Essentially, I’m inviting the prospect in to talk about their situation by associating an emotional condition (frustration) of someone like them (a CEO of a five million dollar company.) In this context, it’s not difficult for them to respond “That sounds like me.

From there the conversation can move on to me saying, “Tell me a little more about your world. Tell me what better looks like.” As they open up, I can ask more specific questions like, “Are you are concerned you are not getting accurate data in your pipeline?” By asking these questions, we flow into real discovery. Prospects engage and begin to share when they connect with a desired end state and the emotion that would produce, not because they understand exactly what we do and how we perform our services.

I believe you can draw a comparison to a high end professional relationship such as that of a surgeon and a patient. In reality, the patient never really understands what the surgeon does once they cut them open, both because of the anesthesia and the fact that most patients haven’t gone through 15 years of medical school and residency. However, the patient must have confidence that the surgeon has done this many times before and has helped people like them. The patient typically needs to know the context of the relationship, not how it’s going to work. For example, the surgeon might explain: ‘We are going to have two consultations and you can ask what’s going on; you’ll come in for a pre-op; we’ll do the surgery and take out your gallbladder; you’ll wake up; and here’s how you’ll feel afterward.’ As a patient, you have to understand the end result but the details will always be over your head.

The same applies to the buyer-seller relationship when prospecting for sales. For my clients, the work I perform is a lot more complicated and sophisticated than they are going to understand, and they are paying me to get them to a destination, not to understand the intricacies of what I do.

Wrapping this all up, remember that selling is not about creating an offer that wows your sales prospects. It’s about demonstrating your understanding of their situation, their world, their domain and, more importantly, how they feel. When they connect on an emotional level they tend to open up and share the specifics of their situation. You can earn and maintain their trust so long as you can authentically present a solution that meets their needs.

By Townsend Wardlaw

photo credit: asenat29 via photopin cc


  1. Townsend,

    As always you hit the mark…your correlation to the surgeon was excellent. I am sure Bob walked away with some insights. However, insights are only as good as the ability to implement. It really is amazing to me the trust we place in surgeons, when we could actually die and we don;t understand “jack” about what he or she might do. Our “need to know” details is not at the same perceived “need to know” level of what a consultant could provide me…yet when it comes to buying professional services, the perceived risk may be just as high…my business could die…or I’ll just waste a ton of money bla bla bla. I guess wisdom comes from being able to see in the dark. Thanks again…BOB

  2. This was a fantastic refresher… pointing a lot of folks to this article. This in combination with another concept you taught me which is prior to any “education” you may give a customer (industry, product, other competitors, etc) – is to properly qualify that customer – is this the right person? can they purchase? what are you going to get in return?

  3. Hi Townsend,

    Thank you for your post. I would be interested in more specifics of your perspective of SPIN selling, as you mention it in your post. Thanks, Shelly

    1. Author

      Shelly…as I am fond of saying: a decent methodology well implemented will always outrun the best methodology poorly implemented! SPIN has passed the test of time and is as relevant today as it was 20 yeas ago…

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