In the third article I ever wrote for ProSales ("Sales 101," April 2004) I promoted prospecting. That message fell on deaf ears, largely because the market was so abundant with opportunity then that you didn't have to prospect; merely showing up and taking orders produced huge results.

Today, nobody doubts the importance of prospecting. The problem now is that this importance has been replaced by urgency. But urgency is the enemy of profit, because desperate salespeople give away too much business and treat every sales opportunity as if it is the last one they'll ever find. The challenge is to make prospecting a non-urgent, important task.

Take the dilemma faced by Jeff, a solid sales performer for a client of mine based in Canada. He was trying hard to land a new contractor in Buffalo, N.Y. He had been calling on the prospect for nearly two years with little success. While investigating, I discovered Jeff had few prospects in his pipeline.

We put a plan into action. Jeff was instructed to schedule three days of meetings with potential new prospects. He also was told to temporarily ignore the so-called fires and emergencies in his existing client base. (I know that, for some readers, just seeing that last sentence prompts heart palpitations. But it is essential to the exercise.)

Jeff had never prospected in his region, instead concentrating his time on dealing with existing customers and only hearing of new prospects when they called him.

I rode with Jeff for those three days and helped him evaluate each opportunity. Some prospects were unpromising because of credit problems or low volume. Others were good prospects who weren't prepared to switch suppliers; Jeff is still talking to them. But a solid, mid-sized contractor readily agreed we had the products and services he needed. He said his current supplier was not satisfying his expectations. Within two months of that first meeting, Jeff got the first order from a client that promises to be worth $200,000 in annual business.

Here is what you can learn from Jeff's story:

1. Make prospecting your first priority. Too many salespeople prospect with the time left over at the end of the day or week, after all other emergencies have been handled. Prospecting time must be allocated before all other tasks.

2. Think relationships, not transactions. If you urgently need business, you'll be vulnerable to combative negotiations and irrational client demands. Prospect to get all of a client's business over a long period, not merely the next job.

Make prospecting important for the rest of your career. I always ask old people (like me) what they would have done differently if they knew in their youth what they know today about savings and investment. Nearly everyone agrees they would have saved more money in their youth and heeded the warning to "Pay yourself first." If you want a healthy sales future, do the non-urgent, important thing: Prospect first.

Rick Davis is the president of Building Leaders, a training organization devoted exclusively to the sale of building materials. His next book, "The Sales Secret," will soon be available. To order it, go to, 773.769.4409, or contact Rick at