It’s Only Common Sense: Do You Have Prospects or Suspects?

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Do you ever feel as if you’re barking up the proverbial wrong tree? Do you keep seeing the same people and getting nowhere? Do you ever wonder if you are in the right state, never mind the right company, with the right person? Scary thoughts, especially if any of them apply to you.

In this second of three columns inspired by Matt Hunter’s fine book, High-Profit Prospecting, published by Amacom, we are going to focus on how salespeople like you spend your time. We are going to look at how you can decide whether the people you are talking to are true prospects or just suspects.

So many times when I am working with salespeople, I have to help them make these kind of decisions. So many of them do what we all want to do: Hang out with people we’re comfortable with instead of those who can offer new business. This reminds me of the old joke about the drunk who lost his car keys and was looking for them under a nearby street light. When his friend came over and asked him what he was doing, he replied that he was looking for his car keys. When the friend asked him where he lost them, the drunk pointed to a spot 20 feet away. The friend asked him why then was he looking here instead of where he knew he lost them, and the drunk answered, “The light is better over here.”

Many of us do this same kind of thing when we seek out our comfortable old customers, maybe someone who used to give us a lot of business but doesn’t anymore, because they are easier to hang out with.

Referring to Matt Hunter’s book, here are six ways to separate prospects from suspects:

  1. Have they told you when they are going to make a decision? This is the buyer who won’t give you a decision deadline, but would rather string you along as long as he can. Maybe he just can’t say no, or maybe he just likes the free lunches. Your job is to get a firm date or get out.
  2. Have they shared with you a piece of proprietary information? Get them to put some skin in the game. Get them to commit to your relationship. This is kind of like the bad guy getting the undercover cop to commit a crime to prove he is not a cop.
  3. Do they have a need for you to help them with? Does the person really have a need that you can fill? Has he told you what that is? Do not assume anything; get the customer to commit. Get him to tell you in his own words what he needs from you. If he will not do this, then get out of Dodge and go somewhere where your time will be better spent.
  4. Are you sure they’re decision-makers? Or are you talking to the middle man, the guy who is meeting with you to keep you off Mr. Big Decision-Maker’s back? Ask him point blank if there will be someone else involved in the decision-making process or if he has the authority to do it on his own.
  5. Do they have the financial ability to buy? In the PCB business, we have all been burned by this one. Be very careful if it seems too easy to get an order from a new customer. It could very well be that everyone else has cut him off for non-payment. If it all seems too easy, it is. Make sure you check their D&B or whatever else you use before you even consider moving forward. It makes no sense at all to get a new customer and build product for him only to find out when it’s too late that you will not get paid.


  1. Has one of your competitors already clearly developed the customer’s expectations? In other words, is he so happy with who he is working with right now that you will never break into his vendor base no matter how hard you try? Watch this one carefully, because he can just be using you for your quotations so that he can feign a competitive situation. If you are quoting all the time and never winning, then call this customer to task. Ask him what it is going to take to get an order. Ge a commitment or get out.

And here is another tip from the book. If you want to get a customer to commit to work with you, ask him to do something for you. It does not have to be big—it just has to be something that is going to take some effort on his part.

By looking for any of these signs from your prospects, you will very quickly be able to validate the true prospects and get rid of the usual suspects, and that’s a very good thing. Next week we’ll be talking about one of my favorite subjects: Price, and why pricing has no place in the prospecting process. In the meantime, I’ll say it once again: Get a copy of Matt Hunter’s book—it’s the best money you’ll invest in your career.

It’s only common sense.



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