Article | 20 min read

Sales prospecting 101: A beginner’s guide

A strong sales prospecting strategy is key to growing your audience and your bottom line.

By Patrick Grieve, Contributing Writer

Published December 29, 2021
Last updated May 23, 2022

The term prospecting has its origins in the California Gold Rush. Forty-niners (named for the year these fortune seekers began to arrive in droves) would sift through rocks and dirt, keeping their eyes peeled for the shimmer of precious metals.

Over 170 years later, most of the “prospectors” in San Francisco rely more on their laptops than on their pickaxes. But the sales prospecting methods they engage in today are still aimed at uncovering golden opportunities.

Of course, many of their prospecting efforts simply don’t “pan out.” But if you develop a deep understanding of the process, sales prospecting is still one of the best ways to produce valuable, lifelong customers who will help your business grow.

What is prospecting?

Sales prospecting definition: the process of identifying and contacting potential customers in order to generate new business.

Prospecting is the way sales reps find and engage with prospects (leads that are qualified) and set the sales process in motion. Sales prospecting can take the form of a cold email sent to someone who fits your buyer persona, a cold call to a consumer in your target demographic, or a message to a qualified lead found on LinkedIn.

The basic steps of the sales prospecting process include:

  • Research: Find out everything you can about a potential customer. Specifically, you want to learn how good a fit they are for what you’re selling and how you can craft a personalized message. In the B2B world, research is often done by looking at a lead’s LinkedIn page and social media accounts and reading about their company.
  • Qualification: Determine whether a consumer is worth pursuing, and if so, how to prioritize them. Prospective buyers are usually ranked by their likelihood of becoming a customer and/or their potential value to your business. These qualities are typically assessed through lead scoring.
  • Outreach: Spend time crafting a personalized pitch for each prospect. This doesn’t need to be a hard sell—you may just send them a helpful resource or informational article, for example. Contact them via the channel you believe they prefer, whether that’s email, phone, or social media.

What’s the difference between leads and prospects?

Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, there’s a subtle yet important distinction between leads and prospects.

The easiest takeaway for understanding the difference? All prospects are leads, but not all leads are prospects.

Prospect vs. lead

Lead definition: any person who may or may not be a good fit for your business.

Prospect definition: any person who has been qualified as a good fit for your business and would consider making a purchase.

Leads are often people who’ve expressed some interest in your brand, services, or products. Perhaps by visiting your website or engaging with some marketing materials, they’ve been identified as potential customers. They fall into the early stages of the sales cycle.

Prospects are people who’ve been qualified as leads worth pursuing. They may have shown a level of interest in your business that automatically qualifies them, like signing up for a free trial or demo. Prospects can also be people who haven’t shown any interest but are still qualified because of who they are, such as an executive at a company in the market for your services.

Though leads and prospects are categorized and prioritized differently, the ultimate goal is the same for both: to nurture them until they convert into a paying customer.

What’s the difference between sales prospecting and lead generation?

sales prospecting and lead generation

Most organizations use a combination of lead gen and prospecting strategies. However, they are still two distinct practices and are traditionally led by two different departments.

Lead generation is largely the responsibility of the marketing department. It’s their job to create content and web experiences that attract leads—such as blog posts, advertisements, videos, webinars, and gated content.

For example, a B2B company’s marketing team might create an ebook or white paper for industry professionals. To access the content, website visitors have to fill out a contact form that asks for their name, job title, company, and email. Using a lead-scoring model, marketing will qualify the lead (which is to say, determine if the lead is worth pursuing). Marketing-qualified leads are then handed over to the sales department as prospects for reps to contact.

This process is largely automated. Many businesses use a CRM to capture and score leads. Each lead is assigned a numerical value based on variables connected to their likelihood to convert. Points are often based on a lead’s status in a company or their website activity (such as whether they visited a pricing page).

Sales prospecting, by contrast, is primarily the responsibility of the sales department. It’s also a much more manual process. For example, a salesperson might find a qualified lead on LinkedIn and then message, email, or call them directly.

That type of one-to-one engagement can be more time- and labor-intensive than the one-to-many approach of lead generation. But it’s also more targeted and personalized, meaning it often reaps more meaningful (and profitable) customer relationships.

When does prospecting take place in the sales process?

Lead generation and sales prospecting both occur at the start of the sales process. A company needs to discover, qualify, and contact leads in order to begin the journey of converting them into lifelong customers.

After prospecting, sales reps move on to the next steps of the sales process:

  • Presenting: A sales rep delivers a personalized sales pitch to the prospect (and possibly other key decision-makers) in a sales call or meeting context. The rep must have a deep understanding of the prospect’s pain points and be able to articulate how their product or service will address them.
  • Quotation: The rep discusses the terms and prices with prospects who wish to move forward with the deal. After addressing issues like contract length, payment terms, and available features, the rep sends a quote to the prospect. The quote serves as a starting point for negotiations.
  • Closing: At this stage, the goal is to persuade the prospect to officially sign a contract. The sales rep may need to attend to last-minute concerns, like adjusting pricing or other details.
  • Won/lost: The sales rep has officially closed the deal…or not. Reps who successfully win a sale should keep in touch with the customer and develop a long-term relationship that could lead to upsells or referrals later on. Reps who lose a deal should evaluate what went wrong and work on their lead nurturing tactics.

Why is sales prospecting important?

As the first stage of the sales process, prospecting is fundamental to success. You won’t win over many customers if you don’t have qualified leads to contact.

The more you master the art of prospecting, the more opportunities you’ll have to close deals. According to a RAIN Group study, top performers in sales prospecting secured 52 sales meetings per 100 target contacts. Other sellers generated only 19 meetings per 100 contacts. Additionally, nearly 50 percent of the top performers met or exceeded their individual sales goals, compared to 27 percent of other sellers.

The more you master the art of prospecting, the more opportunities you’ll have to close deals.

Sales prospecting is actually fairly popular with customers as well. The same study showed that over 70 percent of buyers want to hear from sellers early in the sales process.

Of course, it may not feel like that to salespeople. Gartner found that it takes an average of 18 dials to get a prospect on the phone, and only about a quarter of all sales emails are ever opened.

It’s easy to get discouraged, but considering the importance of prospecting, it’s critical for reps to remain persistent.

Inbound vs. outbound sales prospecting

There are two ways to generate prospects. You can take the outbound approach by proactively contacting potential customers to tell them about your product or service. Or, you can adopt the inbound approach by creating and promoting content that will entice buyers to visit your website or reach out to you.

Most lead generation strategies involve inbound marketing, while sales prospecting typically entails outbound sales methods. However, there are both inbound and outbound prospecting strategies reps can use to engage leads.


Outbound sales prospecting

  • Cold calling: making an unsolicited call to a prospect in an attempt to sell them on a product or service. This tactic is one of the oldest forms of sales prospecting.
  • Cold emailing: sending an unsolicited sales email to a potential customer in order to sell them a product or service or initiate a conversation. Sales emails are extremely common, and reps use a variety of strategies to make their email subject lines and messages stand out.
  • Social media prospecting: using social media platforms to research and contact a prospective buyer. People often share personal details and opinions on social media that help reps research and qualify them as prospects. For example, if a lead is promoted to a decision-making role, they might post about it on LinkedIn. Seeing that, a rep might initiate contact with the prospect by reaching out to congratulate them on the new job.

Inbound sales prospecting

  • Warm emailing: sending a sales email to a potential customer who’s interacted with your business. The interaction could be as direct as signing up for a product demo or as indirect as spending time on your website’s pricing page. Any interaction that signals some level of interest gives reps a pretext to send a warm email.
  • Social selling: using social media to message a prospect who’s engaged with your social media channels. For instance, you might respond to someone who comments on a post or asks a question about your product on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

B2B vs. B2C prospecting

Sales teams usually decide how to prospect for sales based on the nature of their business and its customer base.

For example, in the B2C world, cold calling has a bad reputation. Telemarketers have never been particularly well-liked, and phone scammers have made people even more reluctant to talk to strangers. In 2021, a lost mountain climber made headlines when he ignored a rescue team’s calls for over 24 hours because they came from an unknown number.

In the B2B world, however, cold calls are more commonly accepted. Buyers are accustomed to sellers contacting them out of the blue and don’t seem to mind it—over 80 percent say they’ve taken meetings with reps who first contacted them through cold calls.

Generally speaking, outbound sales prospecting techniques are favored by direct sellers from B2B brands. Meanwhile, B2C companies usually experience more success with inbound strategies, including lead generation. But there are a few big-ticket B2C industries—such as insurance, financial services, and real estate—where outbound sales prospecting can be worthwhile.

Who’s responsible for sales prospecting?

The type and number of employees tasked with prospecting depends on the size and budget of the business.

At a young startup without a dedicated sales team, the founder often does everything. That includes lead generation, sales prospecting, nurturing, and closing.

At an SMB, there may be a team of sales pros who do their own prospecting. They might receive qualified leads from marketing, but they’re also expected to research and contact some of their own prospects. They’re responsible for guiding their prospects all the way through the sales process, too.

Large organizations often have entire sales teams devoted to prospecting. Individuals have different roles to play in the process, depending on their job title.

  • Sales development representatives: SDRs are typically tasked with generating new leads and prospects through outbound prospecting methods, like cold calling and cold emailing.
  • Business development representatives: BDRs usually focus on inbound sales prospecting. They partner with marketing to qualify inbound leads as prospects worth pursuing.
  • Account executives: AEs act as the “closers” who actually connect with prospects, make sales presentations, and conduct demos. These reps guide prospects through the final stages of the sales process, answering their questions and concerns and (hopefully) converting them into customers.

Meanwhile, managers must know how many prospects are in the sales pipeline at any given moment. Sales pipeline management allows leaders to track the progress of active deals, see how many qualified leads convert, and forecast future sales. When a sales manager notices a shortage of prospects in the pipeline, they can direct reps to pursue new leads.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

How to prospect

sales prospecting email

Email and phone remain popular and effective methods for prospecting; each prospecting technique has its merits. Both play a big role in establishing a successful sales cadence, which is a series of set outreach methods designed to build personal relationships before in-depth sales discussions happen. Below we’ll explore how to employ these methods effectively.

How to write a sales prospecting email

Email remains one of the most popular prospecting methods—for good reason. A RAIN Group survey found that 80 percent of buyers prefer to communicate with sellers via email.

There are two keys to penning great prospecting emails:

  1. Craft a strong subject line

    Arguably the most critical aspect of a sales email, the subject line determines whether your message even gets opened. Try to keep it brief—a Leadium study revealed that subject lines with four words or fewer performed best.

    It also helps to personalize the subject line by including the prospect’s name or the name of their business. A friendly tone should improve open rates, too. “Mark, time to discuss […]?” is more approachable than “Requesting time to discuss […].”

  2. Write personalized, engaging copy

    The body of your email must be personalized as well. A B2B sales email should include the prospect’s first name, job title, and business (at the very least).

    It may even help to go a step further and reference something a little more specific. You might research a prospect’s social media presence so you can work in a reference to a mutual connection, their alma mater, or the city they live in. (Don’t force it, of course—there’s a thin line between being friendly and creepy). Or, you could use any recent, relevant industry news as a conversation starter.

    When it comes to pitching your product or service, don’t just talk about how great it is. Use the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) model to explain exactly how it will address your prospect’s pain points and make their life easier.

    In terms of word count, aim for short and sweet. An Overloop study found that cold emails with 1,400 to 1,500 characters had the highest response rate (8 percent). That’s equivalent to roughly 300 words.

    Mastering the art of prospecting emails is a never-ending process. You need to continually try new things and measure the results to assess what’s working and what’s not. A/B test two unique subject lines and see which one has higher open rates. Experiment with different email templates and track the response rates. Use this data to keep improving your sales prospecting emails.

Cold email templates

Writing prospecting emails from scratch can be difficult and time-consuming. It’s often easier (and more effective) to take proven templates and then customize them.

Most of the email templates below pitch a customer service software solution, but they can be tweaked for any type of product or service.

The “let’s get down to business” email template

Busy professionals with crowded inboxes don’t have a lot of time to beat around the bush. Sometimes, the best approach is the direct one. Here’s a sales email template that cuts straight to the chase.


Hi [First Name],

Is your customer support system actually making you lose money?

We’ve helped large companies like yours lower support costs by [X%] and improve overall sales by [Y%] in less than a year.

All we did was integrate their company-wide support system into one efficient, easy-to-manage workflow called [Product/Service Name].

It’s quick and simple to set up and doesn’t require any onboarding. Do you have time this week to discuss how [Product/Service Name] could boost your sales?

[Insert email signature here]

This email has a short, attention-grabbing opening line that serves as a good hook. The body gets straight to the point, provides concrete proof of the product benefits, and ends with a low-commitment call to action (CTA) for the reader.

The “something useful” email template

If you want to be a little less forward, there are ways to break the ice before promoting your business.

Do some research on your sales prospect to see what they’re sharing on social media. Then, find a piece of content—a news story, study, or another article—that looks like it would interest them.


Hi [First Name],

I stumbled upon a post you wrote on [Social media site] about [topic or post]. I thought your points were spot on!

[Insert main takeaways from the piece and how they were helpful.]

Did you read [Article] by [Name] on a similar topic?

[Insert email signature here]

Connecting with a contact over a shared interest is a great way to kickstart a relationship. The outreach also feels less transactional because you’re not asking for anything in return—you’re just starting a conversation.

The PAS email template

The popular PAS sales email template is based on a three-part formula:

  • Problem: Call out a pain point that’s specific to the prospect and/or their business. You can use social media to see what your prospect has complained about or to read what others have said about their company.
  • Agitate: Emphasize how frustrating that problem must be for the prospect.
  • Solve: Provide the perfect, no-brainer solution—the product or service you offer.

In practice, it looks something like this:


Hi [First Name],

I noticed your company has some negative reviews about poor customer service. It’s incredibly frustrating to lose customers because of lost tickets, a lack of tools, and disorganization in the support department.

[Product Name] integrates all your customer data into one centralized place, allowing you to easily track, manage, and measure customer interactions—no matter the channel.

Would you like to hear more about how [Product Name] can turn those negative reviews into raving testimonials by loyal, satisfied customers?

[Insert email signature here]

When you demonstrate familiarity with a prospect’s problems, it shows you’ve done your research. And if it’s a powerful enough pain point, they’ll be tempted to learn more about the solution you offer.

The AIDA email template

The AIDA cold email template is based on a four-part formula:

  • Attention: Hook the prospect with a thought-provoking opening line that presents an attractive scenario.
  • Interest: Keep the reader engaged by offering data or social proof that backs up your opening statement.
  • Desire: Highlight desirable, tangible results that come with using your product or service.
  • Action: Provide a CTA that tells the prospect what they need to do next.

In a sales prospecting email, it might look like this:


Hi [First Name],

What if a [product/service] could help you [solve a problem]?

In one year’s time, [Company Name] achieved an [X%] increase in sales after implementing [Product Name].

In addition, [Product Name] enabled [Company Name] to improve their overall workflow, enhance efficiency, reduce response rate time, and boost customer satisfaction from [A% to B%].

I’d love to talk to you about how [Product Name] could help you refine your processes and increase your company’s revenue. Do you have time to connect this week?

[Insert email signature here]

The AIDA approach goes heavy on data and social proof, which makes it a good fit for prospects at data-driven businesses.

No matter what template you use, the important thing is to tailor the email to your prospect. The more thoughtful and genuine your message reads, the more likely you are to get a response. For more inspiration, take a look at additional cold email templates that skyrocket response rates. (And if you need help keeping the conversation going, try these follow-up emails on for size).

How to make prospecting calls

Much like crafting an email to a prospect, for phone prospecting you’ll want to begin from a place of knowledge. That means having a full understanding of a prospect’s pain points, company, and position in your sales funnel before you ever pick up the phone.

Here’s where your team’s buyer personas will play an essential role: by matching leads to your buyer personas, you’ll be able to target the ideal customer profile. That saves time and ensures you’re talking to the right prospects. And don’t avoid using call scripts; though they might seem a bit constricting, they’ll actually help keep you on task and productive.

Once you’re on a call with a prospect, remember that pushing to close a deal at any cost will likely do more harm than good. You’re not there just to make a sale. You’re there to help the customer, and sometimes that means being patient as a prospect wrestles with a purchasing decision. And no matter how a conversation goes, make it a point to follow up, even if the prognosis isn’t good.

Tools

There are numerous apps dedicated to building prospect lists and sourcing contact details. Rather than attempting to weigh the merits of competing software, we’ll focus on a few common but fundamental sales prospecting tools.

LinkedIn

With nearly 800 million members, the world’s largest professional networking site is fertile ground for sales prospecting. You can find a prospect’s LinkedIn profile and quickly learn what their position entails, how long they’ve occupied it, and what their background is.

You can also learn a lot about a prospect’s business by perusing the LinkedIn Company Directory. Check out their company’s page to learn about new product launches, marketing campaigns, and other recent developments.

Hemingway App

Struggling to keep your prospecting emails short and sweet? Try the free Hemingway App, named after the legendary American author known for his economical prose.

The Hemingway App highlights lengthy, run-on sentences that should be tightened up (or cut in half). It also calls out complex words that should be replaced with something simpler. The app even assigns your writing a “readability” score, which tells you how easy it will be for someone to read it.

Zendesk Sell

The most critical sales prospecting tool is a CRM software solution. It enables you to capture and qualify leads, communicate with prospects, and track their progress through the sales process—all in one place.

With the right CRM, you can even automate some of the most time-consuming aspects of prospecting. Zendesk’s lead generation software allows sales teams to instantly produce targeted lead lists and enrich contact info by pulling from a database of 395 million prospect records. Sales reps can instantly find new prospects to engage with.

Zendesk Sell also gives reps the ability to create custom email templates that can be personalized for different prospects. Our sales CRM can even remind reps to send follow-up emails—or send automated follow-ups.

As a repository of data, Zendesk makes it easier for reps to convert prospects into customers. You can segment prospective buyers for insights, see where your most lucrative leads are originating, and find patterns in customer data.

Zendesk Sell’s robust capabilities empower sales reps to generate, qualify, and engage prospects—and ultimately, turn them into loyal customers. See what a difference it can make by starting a free trial.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

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