May 2017

How to Turn Suspects Into Prospects

By Ray Mascola

Learning any skill takes commitment, effort and focus. My path to becoming a veteran sales leader started with a meeting with a VP of sales that took place after a call. I was a young, excitable sales rep. As I recounted the call, he kept repeating, “so what?” and then asked, “How did he react when you posed the question what happens to your business if you don’t address the problem? Oops. I had not asked that question to my prospect. The VP said, “Ray, you don’t have a prospect, you have a suspect.” He then defined a prospect as a business that needs to solve its problems. He went on to say that if the company is not committed to solving them, then it is merely a suspect. I’ve never forgotten that comment and hopefully I have learned and honed my sales skills over the years.

The goal of this article is to show you how to effectively and repeatedly identify prospects and, as a byproduct, to help you close sales and accelerate the growth of your business.

Let’s start with the end. You actually have prospects when:

  • They (not you) acknowledge they have a pressing problem;
  • They understand that there is a substantial cost to not solving the problem (with your help);
  • They are committed to solving the problem in a specified period of time (e.g., 90 days);
  • Money is budgeted for the solution;
  • You are talking to decision-makers;
  • Your company’s products/services are potential solutions to the clients’ problems.

The key question for you is, how do I get decision-makers to acknowledge that I can help them solve their problem?

Over the years, I’ve learned that adopting the following mindset pays off: “I am prospecting (cold calling) as an advisor, not a predator. The most critical skill of a sales leader is communication, more specifically, listening. An exceptional listener can hear not only words, but also understands the prospect’s feelings, priorities and passion.”

One of my heroes is Stephen Covey, author of the iconic business book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, originally published in 1989. This article is inspired by Covey’s Habit #5: “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.”

When engaged in conversations, most people speak. This is why Covey talks about “setting aside your autobiography.” Your focus should be on listening, listening empathetically. This skill is known as active or reflective listening. Empathetic listening includes observing nonverbal signals and focusing on your prospect’s information, thoughts and feelings. Mastering this skill takes time, patience and commitment. Empathetic listening allows you to truly understand the other person’s concerns and priorities. By actively listening you show that you care and in the process you develop credibility and trust. One of the techniques I use to understand what matters to the client is to ask open-ended, instead of close-ended, questions—close-ended questions are limited to facts. An example of an open-ended question is, “Has business been good in Q1?” Open-ended questions help identify opinions, feelings and passion. Remember that clients communicate what matters to them.  

 As a skilled sales leader, you will ask a series of open-ended questions to assist your prospect describe how his problems impact his business. You are “peeling back the onion,” thus helping to clarify difficulties and opportunities.

By committing to understand, you learn and adjust as new information unfolds—indeed, you are well positioned to uncover what matters to your prospect. For example, you might find that the cost of sales is cutting into the profit margin. With this information, you can propose creative solutions that address your client’s concerns and increase your chances of becoming the sole advisor, thus surpassing the consulting competition.

Your ultimate goal ought to be to build long-term relationships, which in turn are the path to sustained growth. To do this, you need an outbound sales strategy plan, which involves the following concepts:

  • Prospecting, that is, identifying new clients in new and existing markets (prospecting does not include renewals with existing clients, referrals or responding to inquiries);
  • Expanding sales plans to reach beyond existing clients; 
  • Establishing footholds in target industries;
  • Researching market trends and utilizing this information to identify growth opportunities, preferably before your competitors do;
  • Anticipating market developments to help customers solve problems using your products and services.

Your goal is to create a strategy for outbound prospects that leads to new clients and scalable growth.

Key Factors to Consider With Each New Client

  • Is the problem critical? Is it urgent to find a solution?
  • Can the business grow if the problem is solved or solving it will result only in stable production?  
  • What changes do you need to make in your business infrastructure to solve the client’s problem?
  • How selling a solution to this prospect gives you a foothold in a target market?
  • How do you create a renewable business relationship with new clients?

If the answers to these questions indicate that the potential client is interested in solving the problem and you ascertain that a sale is likely, then you can justify investing your time and the time of your staff to develop a proposal. At a later stage you hope to negotiate the agreement.

Empathetic Listening Works

Asking open-ended questions and listening aggressively is part of a successful sales strategy. By committing to understand, we learn and, most importantly, we adjust—we can adjust our conversations, presentations and proposals with the knowledge gained from asking open-ended questions and listening to the answers.

The Most Important Take-Away

You can uncover prospects from a group of suspects by identifying their pressing problems and understanding how they impact their business. You then need to determine whether you can provide a solution. But keep in mind that unless you understand the clients’ needs, priorities and passion, you won’t know how to advise and recommend a course of action. By listening carefully and planning strategically, your proposal will stand out from the competition because it will address key concerns, giving you the opportunity to increase sales.

About the Author

Ray Mascola, MBA, is founder of Targeting Sales Growth, a sales strategy firm focused on helping smaller businesses increase their sales revenue. Ray is a veteran of over 35 years as a sales leader. Ray holds an MBA from Northeastern University of Boston. His “Sales Resources” website page includes sales and marketing suggestions, which visitors to his site have found helpful. Go  here. You can contact Ray at Targeting Sales Growth at +1-978-764-1760,, or through LinkedIn.