26. Sales Process #1: Prospecting

It’s a cliché that sales is a “numbers game.” Basically, that phrase means that the more people you try to sell to, the more sales you will make. Experienced salespeople know their “ratios”: for instance, that they will have to make X numbers of calls each month, in order to have Y express interest in their product, and Z who actually buy. A sample ratio calculation could be:

I need to call 1,000 customers a month—or 50 calls each and every workday—so that 100 (10 percent) express a positive interest in my product. Out of that 100, 25 (2.5 percent of the original 1,000) will agree to let me come to their offices and make a presentation, which means I need to make at least 7 office visits each week. [Actually 6.25, but you need to round up to make your quota.] Out of those 25 presentations, I need to close at least 5 sales (.5 percent) of at least $3,500 each, for a total of $17,500 in sales, or I won’t meet my target.

Note how small the ratios are: only 2.5% of the customers she calls agree to a meeting, and only .5% will wind up buying. And in some businesses and activist organizations, the ratios are far smaller. Activist Linda Stout reports in Bridging the Class Divide that she had to call “fifty or sixty” people to find eight ministers who would meet with her to discuss holding a regional peace conference—a “yield” of about 15%. That doesn’t sound so bad, all of a sudden, does it? It’s not—but we also don’t know how many of those ministers stayed with her until the project’s completion . . .

All this is an argument for getting very good at weathering rejection, and it also means that you need a very large pool of “prospects” from which to draw your customers. Most salespeople’s prospect lists contain hundreds of names, and many contain thousands. All of those listed should, at least in theory, be willing to buy your product at some time. Some may be ready to buy this year, some next year, some two years from now, and a relatively small percentage should be statistically likely to buy NOW. That last group is obviously of the greatest importance to the salesperson who has a monthly quota to make, and all of the hundreds of calls he makes each week are made with the single aim of locating them. The process of making hundreds of calls to locate the few likely customers resembles gold mining, where you sort through tons of gravel just to get at the few valuable nuggets. Hence the sales terms “prospecting” and “prospect list.”

Why would someone be ready to buy at one time and not another? It happens all the time. Some sales are seasonal; for instance, most swimsuits sell in spring and early summer, and most computers sell either during the holiday season or before school starts.

We also tend to buy certain products or services at different life stages. Someone who has just gotten engaged is probably looking to rent a reception hall and purchase flowers, catering, music, etc. A year ago, she didn’t need those services, and a year from now (hopefully) she won’t, either. It’s all in the timing.

Use Quantitative Goals to Stay Focused

If you do what professional salespeople do and set quantitative goals for your activism—i.e., “I need to get 100 signatures today” or “I need to get 12 people to come to this week’s meeting”—that will help you keep focused on those activities and customers who are likely to pay off, and avoid those who aren’t. Be sure to set ambitious but reasonable goals, and not to berate yourself harshly if you fail to meet them.

How to Build Your Prospect List

Activists, too, should work from a large prospect list. You build your list as part of your marketing—in fact, the list should consist, as much as possible, of people from the market segments you are focusing on. Your list should be as large as possible—at least hundreds of names, and thousands, or even tens of thousands, is better. You should also be constantly adding to it.

You can build your list from many sources, including union rosters, liberal religious congregations, community organizations, university clubs, online communities, petitions and people who sign up for more information while you’re tabling or doing demonstrations. Other sources include the phone book and lists of property owners (available as public information at most town halls). Be creative in building your list, and remember that lists of names from organizations and online and offline communities should only be used with the official permission of the leader of the group—who should have gotten prior permission from the members to give out their information.

Trading lists with other organizations is also a good idea—but again, make sure you have your members’ permission to give out their information before you do so.

If you’ve got some money, most magazines will rent or sell you pieces of their subscription lists, and many organizations will do the same with their membership lists. Rented lists are generally provided in the form of stick-on labels that you can just use once, while sold lists are generally provided on a CD that you can use over and over. Rates vary widely, and range from two cents to five dollars a name, depending on how valuable the list is considered. If you are serious about paying for lists, you may want to seek the help of a professional called a List Broker who specializes in helping organizations buy the right combination of lists for their needs. Check the Yellow Pages or the Web for more information.

Many salespeople consider their prospects lists, which they may have built up over years or even decades, their most precious career asset, and you should, too. That means that you should maintain your list on professional software, keep it up-to-date, and back it up constantly and redundantly—with one backup copy residing in a bank vault or similar secure location.

OK, so now you’ve started to build your list. The next chapter tells you how to use it.