Resources  >> What to Do When Your Prospects Fish for Free Answers

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  July 01, 2008

What to Do When Your Prospects Fish for Free Answers

Originally published for RainToday.com

It’s easy to dismiss those long-winded, unfocused conversations – a.k.a. fishing expeditions — as a waste of time. Professional prospects, those who go from provider to provider looking for free advice, have given such conversations a bad name. But you can’t let that bad name stop you from having meandering conversations altogether. Lot of serious buyers want them, not for freebees, but out of a concern for being cautious and doing due diligence.

And so you have a challenge: When you’re selling what’s between your ears, how do you walk the fine line between showing your value to qualified buyers and helping someone who has no intention of working with you?

Below are two types of inquiries and how to showcase what you can do without spending too much time solving problems for free.

Here’s My Story

These prospects come to you without a clue. They didn’t know they needed your help until they discovered you. They read your book, or heard you speak, and “just know” that you can help them. But they don’t know how you work, or how to use your services. So they start with “their story” to brainstorm ways to proceed.

You can qualify which prospects are serious and which are not by the amount of information they share and the time it takes them to share it. Serious buyers will give you the Reader’s Digest version and then move on to asking you how you can help. In contrast, professional prospects will spend too much time giving you too much information. Boldly going where no initial conversation should ever go; they are looking for enough validation and advice to move on without you.

Their agenda: These folks are strong believers in context. They evaluate your services by how well you understand them, believe in them, and are excited to work with them. They want to make sure there’s chemistry and that you “get it.”

Serious buyers are looking for feedback on what to do next. Once they know you understand, they move quickly to logistics. The pole-in-the-water people, on the other hand, want the “atta boys” and ideas they can use immediately. They are content talking to people without making actual progress on their goals. They say they’ll work with you “someday” but don’t count on it.

Your best response: Answer their questions by asking in-depth questions to chart their next move. Once you get the Reader’s Digest version, politely interrupt with a question that feeds back what you’ve heard and that identifies a next step.

For example: I would ask an emerging speaker with an inspiring story this question: “So it sounds like you are ready to launch a profitable business so your story could empower and inspire others, correct?”

This question acknowledges their altruism but also moves on to creating a profitable business and the approach allows you to create value by focusing the prospect’s thinking without offering premature solutions that are educated guesses at best. In this example, I would “talk shop” about what’s going on in the motivational market and what it takes for speakers with stories to succeed.

Serious buyers will be okay with not getting specifics. They will take this next step and want to explore further. Buyers who aren’t ready to act will be disappointed and will want to talk more about their story and get specific ideas. You now know when to end the conversation.

Here’s My Problem

These prospects are on a mission. They have a problem and are looking for ways to fix it. They’ve been looking for a while and your name popped up on their radar. They know either they have a problem that is hurting the business or have the high-class problem of managing growth and don’t want to plateau.

These folks have more urgency to act but are not necessarily more decisive than the storytellers above. They may or may not know how you work, but are intrigued enough to reach out and find out more.

These potentials qualify themselves by the questions they ask. The serious buyers will briefly outline their situation and ask more focused questions about your experience and approach. They will have a timeline for making a decision; they are ready to act.

The wanna-be prospects will ask for minute details about what they should do next. They will give lip service on the importance of the problem, but don’t know when they will solve it.

Their agenda: These problem-solvers are focused on the issue at hand and want to make sure you can really help them. They evaluate your services by your insights about their problem and by your experience and approach to resolving their challenge.

They are most afraid of spending money and time on a solution that will cause more harm than good. They are more jaded prospects if they have tried other vendors/solutions and it didn’t work.

Real buyers want a workable solution they can afford. The false buyers want ideas they can implement on their own.

Your best response: These folks feel uneasy, so empathy is a great springboard. If I see a pattern, I’ll respond with “Ya know, I see this problem a lot, so you are not alone.” And then I reframe the issue by identifying a common underlying cause.

For example when speakers raise their fees too fast, they begin competing with colleagues who are better branded than they are. This results in a huge drop in speaking engagements because they went from top dog in one category to the weaker option in another. This insight shows the buyers that you understand their problem. It also opens the door to your approach.

In this case, I’d say, “If we were to work together, I’d focus on either rebranding you in the new category or maximizing your revenue in the lower-fee one.” The focus is clear without specific recommendations (which you shouldn’t have yet anyway). Real buyers will move to explore both options.

This approach allows you to create value by helping the prospect understand how they got into their predicament and offering options to consider. And this approach allows you to outline a focused approach without establishing a step-by-step plan.

Fishing Expeditions Can Work

Unfocused inquiries, like fishing expeditions, are a sign that your marketing activities, or bait, are doing their job.

Your brand is intriguing enough that folks contact you and want to learn more. Your articles pinpoint a problem and show how you can help, so prospects want to know if your solutions will work for them.

And I have found that professional service pros are generous people. They got into the service business because they have something to share and genuinely want to help others. By walking the fine line between showing your value and helping yourself out of an assignment, you can get more assignments from serious buyers who want to work with you but need to go fishing first.

Filed Under: Experts, Market Strategy, Sales


About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.