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  • 11.09.05

Know Thy Prospects

Using online tools businesses can gain a better understanding of potential customers before they make the sales call.

You’ve done the industry research. You’ve worked out the size and type of companies that might be interested in your service or product. You’ve even picked out a potential buyer. But now that you have a target in sight, how do you fix the potential client in the crosshairs of your pitch?

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“Buyers expect more than products — they buy thoughts, ideas and solutions,” asserts Sherry Borchelt, national sales leader for Capital H in Detroit, a consultancy specializing in human resources. As such, any business intelligence you can gain about a client — from financial information to the firm’s culture — can help you craft a pitch that will resonate with your target and eventually result in a sale.

Luckily, the Internet has provided companies with many options for gaining better insight into potential customers. Internet search tools and company websites can help you sketch out a prospect’s mission, products and services, and business relationships. Online research houses that make it their business to amass financial, operational and sales data, in detailed reports can help you dive into harder-to-find details, and networking tools can help you connect with people within your target company.

Google your prospect

Googling a company and surfing its website can reveal surprisingly useful information. Imaginatik, a Boston-based firm selling software that helps companies manage ideas and innovation, used this method of sleuthing to incorporate details from prospect companies in its demonstrations to them. According to CEO Mark Turrell, Imaginatik tripled its rate of converting demonstrations to sales by using potential clients’ logos and specific wording and color schemes found on their websites in its sales presentations.

Web searches also help Turell’s company prioritize the potential clients it pursues. “If Alliance Data Systems calls,” Turrell says, “are they a local 50-person IT shop or a multi-billion dollar industry leader?” (ADS is the latter.) By doing a quick Web search, a firm can conclude which company is the better prospect. One of Imaginatik’s earliest clients, a credit-card processing company, was revealed via a quick background check to be a successful, fast-growing firm. Immediately, the company jumped from being a “lukewarm” to a “drop-everything-and-help-them” prospect, says Turrell. That sale amounted to $125,000 of revenue during Imaginatik’s first year in business.

Most important, perhaps, is that a potential customer’s website often contains its mission statement and product line. For instance, if you are looking for a long-term relationship, but the target’s website reveals that it prefers short-term price competition, you can save time by eliminating them from your call-up list. If the potential customer is public, downloadable annual reports and financial statements from the investor area of its website may indicate key drivers of its revenue segments.

These details can help you build a value proposition, explains Turrell. His example: if you can say to the potential client that based on its historical 20% year-over-year growth and current $1 billion in revenue, it needs $100 million in newfound sales this year and another $110 million next year, that’s $220 million of “missing” revenue. According to Turell, if you can show a potential client how your solution can find that $220 million, it could result in a multimillion-dollar contract.

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A second generation of “clustering” search engines may prove even more beneficial. Raul Valdes-Perez, CEO of Vivisimo, the software company behind Clusty.com, describes the company’s site as a pair of binoculars, because it helps users see websites that may be ranked lower on regular search engines. Clustering engines organize search results by theme and thus reveal the “landscape of information,” explains Valdes-Perez. In contrast, regular “ranking” engines produce a disorganized list with thousands of results, making it difficult to uncover something unique. Clusty.com, in particular, organizes results in folders that help users further focus their search.

The Internet also can uncover research catering to specific industries. Typing “company research tools” into Clusty.com, for example, brings up a themed list of reports distinct to the mining, medical instrument, automobile or other industries. And when Capital H’s Borchelt typed in “tools and tips to research companies” the search revealed guidelines by independent consultant Gary Polson, who provides a step-by-step process on how to research companies on his website. Polson’s website enumerates an almost baffling range of budget-savvy tools, from Harvard case studies, local libraries and industry websites.

Company research reports and resources

When freely available information is insufficient, a business may need the help of company research sold via a subscription or a fee-based report. The financial or operational details found in more thorough research resources may even reveal a problem a potential client doesn’t know it has — until you propose a solution.

To clinch a deal worth more than $200,000, Capital H dug through a prospect’s turnover statistics, available from a Hoover’s report. The consultancy identified a problem with executive attrition, says Borchelt, and by adjusting compensation and coaching individuals, reduced its client’s turnover from 26% to 18% in the first year.

In another case, Capital H used turnover statistics to show a large utilities company that it had a problem in the area of disability absence management. The client was spending too much money administering these absences because of inefficient processes and technology. Borchelt says her firm helped the client sort out a very cumbersome process by providing a preliminary analysis of its current state, identifying gaps, and laying out a plan to improve the process to make it more efficient. The solution saved the client $3.6 million over three years. The result for Capital H: a $5.7 million contract.

The full Hoover’s ProPremium subscription costs about $8,000 a year and contains information such as the structure and hierarchy of large clients, which can help companies identify key decision-makers, according to Akamu Whatley, a Hoover’s business information consultant. Its less comprehensive and less expensive subscriptions may prove more cost-effective for smaller businesses, but still reveal more information on a particular prospect than what is freely available on the Internet, including the ability to build company and executive lists and receive breakings news on target companies.

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Business networks

When scouting for company priorities, operational procedures or firm culture, the most invaluable resources are individuals within the organization you’re targeting, typically a potential client’s current or ex-employees. To this end, membership in alumni networks and trade associations or sitting on committees of the local chambers of commerce can yield useful contacts. For those disenfranchised from such elite circles, networking technology like LinkedIn or ZoomInfo may help.

LinkedIn is a social network specific to business relationships. Users put up profiles that can include their employment history, responsibilities, associations, education, and occasionally, social interests. The network helps users find and contact persons close to key decision-makers in a prospective client’s company, explains Konstantin Guericke, vice-president of marketing for LinkedIn. “You might find out that this person really loves golf, or alternatively that his boss told him that such and such are his top three priorities,” he adds.

Contacting anyone within three degrees (i.e., a friend of a friend of a friend) is free, and because the average person has 20 to 30 contacts, it is “pretty rare that you don’t have someone in your network who doesn’t work at the company,” says Guericke. Alternatively, users can pay $10 to contact people not in their network. Guericke claims this leads to a 50% acceptance rate of in-mail among users, a far higher rate than that for regular e-mail from an unknown source.

ZoomInfo, previously known as Eliyon Technologies, is another resource that helps users build a list of leads. The subscription-based employee database is searchable by name and position, and allows users to capture information on prospects. Work history, contact information, education and more can be directly exported to an Excel spreadsheet or into your own address book.

Research is good, but it’s no substitute for listening

All of this background information and research can be instrumental in focusing your sales efforts and useful in starting conversations, but don’t rely on good research alone to make the sale. As Turrell says, “It doesn’t remove the salesperson’s job to ask good questions and understand the client’s needs.”