Too many people believe that selling is an art form, an inherited talent to schmooze with people. It is true that some selling skills are "art;" however, many others are pure "science." When you can recognize the difference, you quickly discover that the best way to build your career is to first approach selling as a discipline, just as a great painter must first learn the skill of brush-strokes, perspective, and composition before painting the first masterpiece.

Similarly, prospecting skills fall into the category of science and, when mastered, they make the art of selling much easier because they often can enable people of average talent to outperform even the most gifted salespeople. Yet way too many experienced salespeople remain without a reliable prospecting methodology. To them, prospecting feels like attending a "Sales 101" seminar, and they leave it for the rookies. But this is a huge mistake because prospecting is Sales 101, and without prospecting skills, the more advanced skill sets of qualifying, presenting, and closing have no foundation upon which to build.

The four most important prospecting skills are appointment scheduling, database management, territory management, and prospect rating. A salesperson that develops a prospecting methodology they can rely on creates a foundation that solidifies their career path.

Appointment Scheduling

The first lesson in prospecting is appointment scheduling. Whether it is meeting over the phone or a face-to-face encounter, an appointment requires a planned time. Many salespeople troll aimlessly through their territories hoping to "catch the decision-maker" waiting in the office, as if a chance meeting will somehow result in a positive discussion. Don't fall into this mode, because success rates rise dramatically, as much as triple your productivity in my estimate, when planned meetings take place.

Therefore, a "cold call" should be defined as a contact with the intention of scheduling an appointment. Even when a cold call occurs as a physical visit to a prospect, proper decorum requires that the salesperson not impose or interrupt someone's day. In this case, all too often a salesperson selfishly assumes that because he or she has arrived at the office the prospect should gladly take time for a handshake, coffee, a product dissertation, and a few jokes.

Database Management

Many salespeople don't adequately and systematically manage the abundance of information available to them. As a result, poor database management skills are perhaps the most astounding failure of salespeople in the 21st century. Yet there are numerous software programs available on the market to facilitate basic database management skills (e.g., Act!, Goldmine, Dbase, Outlook, etc.) And if those programs don't suffice, a simple filing system can be just as effective.

A great Sales Leader recognizes that knowledge is power and that his or her leverage in the marketplace is founded on the ability to know the business details of customers and prospects. Many salespeople will proudly boast of their ability to remember personal information about prospects such as hobbies, birthdays, and spouses' names, but they fail to recognize that it is more important to understand the business issues such as the customers' market challenges, operational methods, and their decision-making processes.

You need to build a database that includes a separate record for each prospect and customer (database record, profile sheet, index card, or whatever system you use) to highlight both personal and business information, plus basic information, including name, company name, address, phone numbers, etc.

Database methodology must become a priority in your career. Your filing system should be updated daily and it should include prospects and customers in the same physical location or computer file. Most importantly, you must use only one database method. I've seen salespeople create multiple databases, keeping business cards wrapped in rubber bands (eventually to be entered into the database when procrastination is overcome), while using a computer database for customers and a folder with prospect information written on beverage napkins. A system like this is doomed to create confusion and inefficiency. Thus, create one database that you update daily.

Territory Management

Building a high-quality database is the means—not the end—to a successful sales career. The purpose of a database is to create ready-made productivity in your career. For it to be effective, however, you need to use the information, not just have the information. For example, part of your database record should reference the zone of your territory where each customer or prospect is located. If you first sort by zone and then alphabetically, you can avoid useless windshield time and create instant productivity because you can quickly reference your database records to locate a potential prospect or customer to contact (for a cold call) when there is a lull in your daily activity.

Keep in mind that your time is easily valued when you divide your annual sales by the number of sales calls you make. If you sell $2,000,000 while making 20 sales calls per week (1,000 per year), then you are worth $2,000 per sales call ($2,000,000/1,000). If you want to increase your sales, the easiest method is to find time to make more sales calls. Using this example, one more sales call per day could be worth $500,000 in a given year with 250 selling days (250 x $2,000 = $500,000). Can you see the science emerging?

Prospect Rating

If you want to take this science to a higher level, begin to rate your customers and prospects based upon their potential profitability. At first, this seems difficult. But when you learn to ask the right questions, you quickly discover that the value of a customer and/or prospect is very definable. For example, if a window salesperson meets a builder who constructs 15 houses per year (at an average size of 2,200 square feet) he probably knows that the builder will use approximately $35,000 to $40,000 in product (estimating 14 windows at $150 plus 1 patio door at $450).

Overall, the importance of rating your prospects has less to do with accuracy of valuation and more to do time management. If you are not exactly sure of a prospect's potential profitability, it is not a big deal. Simply make some general estimates for the purpose of time management. Rate your customers and prospects using a simple system, such as A, B, C, and D. Grade A customers and prospects are the people you want to visit on a frequent basis. Grade B customers and prospects are bread-and-butter accounts to visit on a regular basis. Grade C accounts, lower-volume accounts or those that generate spikes in sales as a result of large, yet infrequent, purchases, are the types you may choose to manage on a project-specific basis, utilizing the phone to maximize your time management. Grade D accounts probably are the ones you want to replace with better prospects.