Prospecting: Context, Perception and Strategy

A recent NAPA Net post, “Is Cold Calling Dead?” seemed to answer that question affirmatively, noting that “plans are getting bombarded by sales calls and the level of sophistication of the sponsor and the advisor, especially as you move up market, is growing.” The post also included a key conclusion of the Chatham Partners’ “Advisor Win/Loss Study” commissioned by Franklin Templeton Investments: “81% of plan sponsors sought advisors through referrals, with very few responding to cold call solicitation.”

From a personal perspective, I actually found this statement quite encouraging, because I could only surmise that the “very few” might be as many as 19%. If, however, you find those numbers somewhat discouraging, let me provide some perspective.

Context First …

Years ago, before I discovered the retirement industry, I started my sales career in advertising. With no referral base or client list to work with, survival meant hitting the phones hard. When making my 80 to 100 calls a day, it wasn’t uncommon if I reached a prospect decision maker who abruptly (or rudely) informed me that I was the second or third solicitation of advertising services received on that same day! Now that’s what I call “getting bombarded.”

Yet somehow, and admittedly with the benefit of substantial formal sales training, I managed to not just survive, but prosper. Looking back on that experience, if someone had told me that as many as 20% of my targeted prospects might be receptive to even a brief discussion about my value proposition, I would have enthusiastically dialed faster. Somebody get me a second phone line!

Simply put, prospecting or cold calling in the retirement market has never been easy. But is this really substantially different from any other healthy industry with many motivated sales professionals? The answer, of course, is “No.” If 81% of plan sponsors seek advisors through referrals, does that differ from the percentage of employers who are seeking service providers for other needs via referrals first, such as accounting services or health insurance? Probably not.

Plan prospecting, via cold calling or any other method, is a skill. Like most skills, it must be learned. If cold calling really is harder (still an open question, in my opinion), this might be viewed as positive news for those with the training, ability and strategy to be effective at it. Many competitors with less experience and preparation will soon give up, leaving the business to those with staying power, competency and compelling technique.

Then Perception …

For many advisors, the task of cold calling to secure appointments with plan sponsors evokes negative visions of being strapped to a phone and pounding out 50 to 100 calls a day — a scenario few advisors have time for and one that sounds about as appealing as a root canal. This perception is also a myth, often born from lack of confidence, experience and/or a solid game plan.

… And a Strategy

A successful outbound prospecting campaign is built on several fundamental principles:
Campaign Sustainability — Even if time constraints limit you to contacting as few as 50 new prospects per month, a well planned and well executed strategy can generate two or three appointments with new prospects monthly. A close rate of just 20% from those meetings would bring in five or six new plans per year. The key to success is sticking with your program. This enables you to build and track a “pipeline” of prospects, many of whom will eventually meet with you — in time. It doesn’t often happen on the first call.
Value Proposition — Why should a plan sponsor meet with you? When prospecting plan sponsors, you need to offer a substantive and compelling reason to meet. Ideally, that would be a topic or agenda that transcends a discussion of the prospect’s perception of “happiness with their current plan or service provider.” A plan sponsor’s perception of “satisfaction” is irrelevant if you don’t know what knowledge or experience their perception is based on. Therefore, never ask a question like, “Are you happy with _______.” If no legal alarm bells are going off, most sponsors will say they are happy, thus shutting you down.
Target the Right Plans and Decision Makers — When prospecting, select the type of employers and plans you feel best suited to support. If most of your current clients have fewer than 100 employees and/or less than $10M in assets, don’t prospect $25M plans. Not comfortable selling to attorneys? Don’t prospect law firms. Also, do your homework on plan decision maker contacts. Don’t rely solely on plan administrator contact data provided in Form 5500 filings or Form 5500 databases. Most plan prospectors won’t dig this far, leaving the real decision makers all to you.
Drip Process — Complementing the concept of campaign sustainability (see first bullet), staying in touch with prospects (both old and new) and tracking your progress throughout the sales cycle is essential. What’s the best form of drip process? Distributing a periodic self-published newsletter? Sending an occasional third-party article, a follow-up phone call or an invitation to a lunch seminar? The answer is: all of the above.

In summary, while I would agree that bad cold calling is indeed dead, there are plenty of open minds and open ears out there willing to listen to a competent and experienced professional. I’ll explore each step listed above in greater detail in future articles, so stay tuned. And for more information, please visit my website or email me at

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