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What’s become the most important sales skill over the last 10 years?
A recent survey asked senior sales executives at Fortune 500 companies exactly that question. The answer was a surprise – it had nothing to do with proficiency on social media, asking great questions or taking a consultative sales approach. According to senior decision-makers, the sales skill that is now most important compared to the past is the ability to effectively cultivate and manage a pipeline of prospects.
Just as managing a pipeline is critically important for salespeople who work for large corporations, so it is for every financial advisor.
Of course, the notion of a prospect pipeline is far from new; the idea that it takes patience and repeated contact to bring new customers on board has been around since the first merchants set up shop in the bazaars in the Middle East in the third century BC. What’s new is the fundamental change over the past 10 years in what it takes to nurture prospective clients.
Here are eight new rules on building your own pipeline of prospective clients.
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Rule 1: Someone isn’t a prospect until they say “yes”
Let’s first define what we mean by a prospect. College classmates, former work colleagues, next-door neighbors and people you know from your golf club or Rotary meetings are suspects, not prospects. People don’t become prospects until they do or say something that shows some level of awareness and interest in what you do, whether it is sitting down for a coffee to talk about their situation, attending a lunch you’re hosting or agreeing that you can add them to your newsletter list.
Rule 2: Don’t rely on gravity
For the past 100 years, sales trainers taught salespeople to think about sales like a funnel. Put enough potential purchasers in the top, even though some would leak out through holes in the side of the funnel, over time gravity would see a certain number emerge from the bottom. Today, you need to think about the process of cultivating prospects differently – more like a pipeline, less like a funnel. Yes you need to put prospects into the entrance of that pipeline, but you can’t rely on gravity to convert them to clients. Today prospects will become clients only if you initiate contact and activity to move them through the pipeline and get them out the other end.
Rule 3: You need a communication catalyst
Which takes us to the next new rule for adding clients. In times past, persistence was the key to success – check in with prospects often enough and after a while they’d agree to meet. Even if you can reach prospects today (let’s suppose they pick up the phone by mistake), most people are way too busy to respond to a check-in call that effectively says “ Just following up to see if you’re ready to buy yet.” Of course there will always be exceptions; maybe you’ll get very lucky and hit prospects just as their existing advisor has done something to annoy them. But that’s not something on which you want to rely.
While persistence is still important, today it’s no longer enough. You need a communication catalyst, something that demonstrates at-a-glance value and positions you with prospects as delivering differentiated value to them. Some advisors do this via quarterly webinars or lunches to update clients on market developments. I’ve seen advisors who do this through large-scale annual client events, still other advisors send clients weekly or monthly emails with links to articles from the New York Times or Fortune. To be effective, your communications catalyst needs to be clearly credible and stand out from the reams of information that overwhelms potential clients. That’s why sending an email with your chief strategist’s outlook is much more effective if he’s been interviewed in the Wall Street Journal than if it appears with your firm’s logo at the top.