B2B Selling: 4 steps to gain customer intelligence before your sales call

They’ve downloaded your whitepapers, attended your webinars, read your blogs. They’re actively engaged with your content, and their lead score is consistently climbing.

When your prospects are doing their research, make sure your sales team is doing the same if you want an immediate competitive advantage, advises Dan Kosch and Mark Shonka. Kosch and Shonka are authors of the business book, Beyond Selling Value, and co-presidents of IMPAX Corporation, a sales consulting company.

“The old adage, knowledge is power, has never been truer for sales professionals,” says Kosch. “Doing research on your prospect will set yourself apart from your competition.”

He proves his point with a study by SiriusDecisions and Ball State University’s HH Gregg Center for Professional Selling. It highlights outcomes from a survey of more than 150 top executives at companies with at least $150 million revenues:

  • 82% of senior executives said they ”almost always” or ”frequently” experience sellers who are uninformed about the executive’s needs and the executive’s company.
  • 71% almost always or frequently experience sellers who talk too much about the salesperson’s company and products and not enough about the potential customer.

“Fortunately, it’s never been easier to do the kind of research that gives you the inside information that impresses prospects,” says Shonka. “You just have to know where to look and whom to ask.”

Step #1: Use online resources to research your prospects

Shonka and Kosch advise beginning research with publicly available data sources:

  • Analyst presentation and transcripts
  • “If we only had time to review one source of data, this would be it,” says Shonka.
    They reveal the prospect’s goals, issues and challenges and how they plan to deal with them. Publicly held companies make analyst call information available through presentations and even call transcripts which are often available on their website.

  • Annual, 10-K and quarterly reports that you can typically find under Investor Relations on websites, such as Pfizer financial reports
  • “You’ll learn a lot about your prospect’s objectives, strategies and issues,” says Kosch. “If nothing else, look at the CEO’s message in the annual report. It will give you a snapshot of where the organization has been, where it wants to go and what’s in the way.”

  • Executive biographies
  • When you set the time to meet with an executive, ask the assistant to forward the executive’s biography if it isn’t readily available on the website’s leadership section.

    “One of our clients did that and found out he shared an alma mater with one of the key decision makers,” says Kosch. “It enabled her to create an instant bond.”

  • Search engines such as
    • Mool – dedicated to news; find out how your prospect is making headlines
      Samepoint – dedicated to social media. See what people are saying about the client
    • Pipl – focusing on people-specific Web searches
    • Sedar – focusing on Canadian companies
    • Guidestar – focusing strictly on nonprofits

Step #2: Want the inside scoop? Find a coach

Take research to the next level by conducting research meetings with “coaches.” Shonka and Kosch define coaches as people who are eager to give you inside information because if you win, they’ll win. Here’s where they say you can find them:

  • Departments that will use your solution and departments related to the end users

“They’re eager to talk to someone about their needs and applications – entry-level management is the perfect place to find this person,” says Shonka. “They’re in tune with front-line solutions but can address broader company concerns. And, if they can’t, ask them to refer you to someone else who can.”

  • Ex-employees

“Just keep in mind the circumstances surrounding their departure,” warns Kosch. “Retirees can make great coaches.”

  • Your own company, and your personal and professional network

“Never overlook who may be in your own network; they may have worked with your prospect or sold to them or provided technical support,” points out Shonka.

“People are more eager to help than you think,” he continues. “Be gracious and let them know how important they are to you.  Initiate the conversation by asking them whether they could spend a few minutes with you to confirm information you’ve gathered and give you their perspective and insight.”

Step #3: Interview your coaches

Kosch and Shonka advise:

  • Showing up with a folder containing the research you’ve already done, and reference it. Or, if you’re meeting over the phone, make it clear that you’ve done your research by citing specific sources.
  • Preparing your questions beforehand. Make sure they are brief and open ended. Here are some examples:
    • What are your company’s top objectives for this year?
    • What are the most significant issues you and your company must deal with to achieve these objectives?
    • What strategies are in place to help address these issues?
    • How do you and your company measure success?
    • Being an active listener – lean forward, summarize answers.
    • Following up with a thank-you note.

Step #4: Come up against a roadblock? Go around it

If you’ve thoroughly researched the company, you’ll also know about other possible prospects in the company if you hit a roadblock with your first attempt.

“Of course, sometimes you may run across a gatekeeper who won’t let you speak to anyone else,” warns Shonka. While he recommends converting gatekeepers into coaches when at all possible, sometimes you can’t. Then it’s best to go around them to get to the decision maker. Shonka relates the story of a sales rep for a leading printing company.

He asked his purchasing contact if he could speak with the VP.

“Absolutely not! I’m the person you deal with,” the contact retorted.

The rep made the call anyway; the VP revealed a situation for which the sales rep’s company had a specific solution. The VP was impressed by the sales reps’ question and his immediate response to his need.

“In one meeting, that rep launched himself from a vendor to a business resource,” says Shonka.

And that’s really what executive-level prospects want in their sales professionals, if the Ball State/Sirius Decisions survey is any indication. It reports 93% of respondents said that it was important or very important for sales professionals to have “done their homework.”

After all, your prospects have done theirs.

Related Resources:

Shonka and Kosch’s Beyond Selling Value is up for grabs in the July 9 weekly MarketingSherpa Book Giveaway

B2B Sales Cycle: 4 steps to avoid the wasteful ‘no decision’

Marketing Strategy: 3 Steps to find the best tactics and results

Lead Nurturing: Market to personality and behavior, not job title

8 Questions to Steer Your Marketing Priorities

Beyond Selling Value by Mark Shonka and Dan Kosch

Andrea Johnson

A born communicator who loves connecting people to ideas, insights, and opportunities that can make their lives better

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