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Posted: August 27, 2013

Best of CoBiz: Shotgun or rifle approach to sales?

Choose your weapon carefully

Julie Hansen

It took me three months to close my first sale. I was working for the third-ranked Top 40 station in the market, KS-104, home of the Cash Cow. (Yes, I have just bravely dated myself.) This presented a unique set of challenges, namely, how to differentiate yourself when playing the same forty songs over and over, however why they didn't fire me for taking so long to close a sale remains a mystery.

I came from the buying side of the industry and carried over that analytical, methodical approach to my new career. I would spend days researching and preparing for a meeting. Hours getting ready for a phone call. Even cold calls required a full study of the prospect's industry, market and competition. Finally my sales manager sat me down and told me in no uncertain terms, "You have to get more irons in the fire. Use a shotgun, not a rifle."

Not being a pistol-packing member of the NRA, I wasn't sure where he was going with the gun metaphor. When it was explained to me that a rifle was effective at hitting one potential target while a shotgun could cover a wider range more efficiently, I realized that I had become quite masterful with the rifle but I had better learn some shotgun skills...and fast.

My first attempts at using a shotgun approach were awkward at best. I felt uncomfortable making a call without having extensive knowledge of a particular client or industry. I felt absolute pain submitting a proposal that wasn't thesis quality. But when I realized that much of my research was being wasted on prospects that weren't likely to buy or that my thoughtfully prepared "thesis" was often relegated to the circular file, I began to see the value of the shotgun.

As my client list grew, I found I didn't have time to do the type of in-depth research I was used to. Meeting more people meant turning things around at a more rapid pace and letting go of some of that control that had fueled my confidence. I had to learn to trust my judgment and soon I had the experience to back it up. Improv training was instrumental in helping me learn how to "sell on my feet." If you missed my article on how to effectively use improv in sales, go here.

I think we all have a propensity toward over- or under-preparation. We're either more comfortable toting a shotgun or a rifle. But there are times when one style is more suitable than the other. During these times, I suggest you have your rifle ready to go. The easy targets are scarce: budgets have dried up, businesses have cut back or closed. The chances of hitting something with a haphazard spray of cold calls, emails or mass mailings are slim.

The big game has been over-hunted as well, but if you've carefully identified your target, qualified them and discovered how you can help solve their problems, your chances of winning a sale are greatly improved. While the rifle approach is about doing the research to more precisely hone in on your target and take careful aim, don't fall into the trap I did. You have to know when to put the research down and pull the trigger. You don't have to be an expert on the client's business or industry, just an expert on yours and how you can impact their business. As an interested outsider with a unique perspective you can offer fresh and often unexpected solutions.

Choose your weapon carefully. Become proficient with both the rifle and shotgun approach and know when to use them. Had I not, I might still be working on closing my second sale.

Julie Hansen helps sales and business executives differentiate their solution and deliver winning presentations by leveraging proven performance skills from film, stage and improv.  The founder of Performance Sales and Training, Julie’s techniques have been adopted by Fortune 500 companies across the globe, including IBM, Oracle, SAP and local Colorado companies to gain a competitive selling edge.  Julie is an international speaker, sales trainer and the author of ACT Like a Sales Pro!  Learn more about workshops and keynotes at  PerformanceSalesandTraining.com, start a sales conversation at Julie@actingforsales.com  or connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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Readers Respond

I like the idea of "scouts" a lot, Barbara. If more companies realized how much it's costing them to have salespeople do all of their own research, they would make a bigger investment in support staff. And thanks for offering that interesting perspective from a competition shooter, Catherine. I'm glad I didn't mix up my rifle and shotgun metaphor! By Julie Hansen on 2011 03 03
Being a Competition shooter, I know all about shotguns and rifles. I use the shotgun for finding new prospects, but I have to use the Rifle when I want to hone in on a particular customer, after connecting with them through the blast from the shotgun. By Catherine James on 2011 03 02
Great article Julie. I am a big proponent of the rifle; however, all that research can sometimes masquerade as an excuse for not getting out there. Actually, I like to train what we call "scouts" to do that research for the sales person/team, so that you get the deep research but it's not keeping the sales people in the office. Thanks for the ideas! By Barbara Weaver Smith on 2011 03 01
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