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Overcome the 6 Most Common Phone Prospecting Mistakes, By Emily Yepes

Phone outreach is one of many tools in 2023’s multi-platform sales toolbox. It’s a tool that (depending on your market and your role) may become an important part of your individual behavioral plan … if used properly. What do I mean by “used properly?” Salespeople I see who initially struggle in this skill area, or who resist using it, tend to make a number of common mistakes. Fortunately, all of these can be overcome with a little practice, support, and reinforcement over time. Take a look at these six common mistakes and think about which could be holding you or your team back this year.

Phone Prospecting Mistake #1: Over-relying on a “calling script.”

Notice that this mistake heads the list. It’s at the top of the list for two reasons. The first is that, since any worthwhile conversation is dynamic, relying on free choices from the individuals involved, it’s a mistake to imagine that we can map it with certainty out ahead of time. There’s an old saying about no battle plan surviving contact with the enemy. Of course, the assumption that we are at war with the prospect doesn’t really fit, but the saying’s emphasis on strategic flexibility definitely does. The second reason it doesn’t make sense to depend heavily on a script is that whatever words we may choose to say during the call will carry far less meaning than the tonality with which we deliver them. This reality is often lost on those who memorize and recite specific talk tracks verbatim. I’ll have more to say about tonality in mistake #3 below, but the first takeaway is simple. We’re looking for the best, most flexible strategic pathway into the conversation, or (even better) the best and most flexible way of thinking about the conversation strategically. We are not looking for a list of magic words we can recite that will turn hostile contacts into willing buyers. Those words don’t exist.

Phone Prospecting Mistake #2: Not following a sequence.

If your conclusion from mistake #1 above is that the best prospecting conversation is entirely improvised, think again. We do want to plan this call carefully and execute it consistently. We do want to follow a clear sequence. We just don’t want to imagine that we’ll be saying the same words throughout the call, time after time!

In executing the prospecting call, our goal is to follow this broadly defined sequence:

Pattern Interrupt > Contract > 30-second Commercial > Hook Question

I’ll define each of these terms in a moment. For now, just understand that we want to be sure we touch all four of these bases.

Phone Prospecting Mistake #3: Not using a Pattern Interrupt (or using someone else’s when it isn’t right for you).

The Pattern Interrupt – which is basically a way to shake things up, be different, sound unique, quietly subvert and challenge what the person on the other end of the line expects is going to happen during the call – is our opening. It’s maybe a second or two in length. This critical element of the call must be designed with great care and delivered with total personal authenticity. Everything depends on it.

This part of the call is one that I’m going to strongly suggest you “script” and deliver verbatim – but there are a couple of important caveats. First, understand that it must sound comfortable coming out of your mouth, which means your tonality must be perfect: confident but not aggressive, optimistic but not surrealistically cheerful. (Salespeople who are off-the-charts cheerful for no apparent reason are an instant turnoff for prospective buyers.) And second, it must make you feel good about moving forward and touching the other three bases you will be touching during this call. If you find, as you deliver it, that the Pattern Interrupt you have chosen makes you feel stressed or uncomfortable about the call you are leading, change it. Don’t assume that a pattern interrupt that works well for someone else will work well for you. It may not.

My mentor, John Rosso, uses a Pattern Interrupt that sounds like this:

"Prospect: Hello?
John: Is this (name)?
Prospect: (any positive response)
John: John Rosso. Sandler Training. (Pause.)"

He can deliver that, and it feels really great to him. For him, it works! But I'm not comfortable with that approach. I tried it and it just didn’t work for me. After some experimenting, I came up with this, which I now use often:

"Me:  Hi, this is Emily. I know that you weren't expecting my call. (Pause.)"

The moral: Find a Pattern Interrupt that works for you. Then use it, with what I call peer-to-peer tonality! You’re calling because you have a right to call and because you have an idea you want to discuss. You’re not a supplicant, and you’re not on a power trip. You’re a peer. If you get that tonality right in the Pattern Interrupt, it will be much easier for you to get it right on the rest of the call.

Phone Prospecting Mistake #4: Not touching all the bases (or touching them in the wrong order.)

If you were playing a baseball game, and you hit the ball out of the park, then ran the bases backward, the umpire would call you out. Prospecting calls are like that, too. If you do things in the wrong order or skip steps, nothing much gets accomplished. After your Pattern Interrupt, set a contract – that is to say, establish a mutually workable agreement – for the call. For instance:

"Let me tell you why I'm calling, and you can tell me whether or not we should chat. Is that fair?"

I love the word “fair.” It really nails that peer-to-peer tonality I was talking about. And once we nail that, roughly nine times out of ten, the other person is going to say, “Sure, tell me why you’re calling.”

Now, what about the remaining bases? The third one, the 30-second commercial, is a targeted summary of the main reasons people like the person you’re talking to have chosen to work with your organization… namely, to make a specific kind of pain go away. There are a lot of different ways this summary can go, but the more specific the pain indicators you reference are to the world of the person you’re calling, the more effective your call is going to be.

Here’s something I use. Notice how it flows naturally out of the contract.

"Me: Let me tell you why I'm calling, and you can let me know whether or not we should even have a conversation. Is that fair?
Prospect: Okay."

Well, listen, we're sales trainers. And we're definitely not the right fit for everybody. But typically, when organizations begin to work with us, it's because one of two things is going on. Either they have a lot in their pipeline, but not enough is closing, and they've had a difficult time forecasting because although there is a lot in the pipeline, they're not sure how much of it is real. So, forecasting and budgeting are difficult, and it’s difficult to get things across the finish line. When other teams manage to get something into their pipeline, they tend to close it a good bit of the time … but they actually have a difficult time getting those opportunities into the pipeline in the first place. Which means there are revenue problems.

That’s a thirty-second commercial. It’s built around a couple of classic pains that people we work with pay us to make go away. Notice that I’ve summarized each of those pains and their impact concisely and that I’m not going into case-study mode. It’s just about what motivates organizations to work with us, not about the minutiae of an individual program we developed. It’s also not about when we were founded, what our values are, what awards we’ve won, or anything along those lines.

We want to take the time to design a thirty-second commercial that’s relevant to the person we’re talking to. Once we’ve delivered it, we’re going to ask a hook question – a question that makes it more likely for the prospective buyer to stop and think for a moment about whether it might make sense to have a conversation. Here’s an example of a good hook question:

"Now, I don't want to assume anything about your business. But you tell me - Is there anything there that might be worth a conversation when you're actually expecting my call?"

Touch all the bases! Touch them in the right order! Once you do, you may find that people are more open to talking to you than you’d imagined.

Phone Prospecting Mistake #5: Trying to sell during the prospecting call.

Everything I have shared with you here is relevant to the situation where we are trying to determine whether it makes sense to schedule time for a discovery call. We don’t want to make the mistake of transitioning into discovery mode on this call. That’s a great way to dilute our impact and squander our leverage. We just want to set the appointment, set the agenda for the next call, thank them for their time, and disengage.  (Side note. The dynamic is very different if you’re trying to sell your product or service over the phone in a one-call close; that’s the subject of a different article.)

Phone Prospecting Mistake #6: Rushing the call.

We are professionals. We are not trying to wrap this up quickly. We are not trying to shoehorn in what we have to say before we get rejected. Never forget: We are peers. We take our time. If it turns out that there is no good reason to set up another discussion with this person, that’s okay. We can still ask for a referral. And if we do end up setting the appointment, mission accomplished! There are no bad outcomes here, and there’s no reason to rush anything.

Overcoming these six common mistakes typically takes practice, and support from an experienced third party, over an extended period of time.

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