Back in the day, salespeople were trained to ask "effective questions" to discover customer needs. Today, however, much of what a salesperson needs to know about a company and the individuals within it is already available on the Web. Customers expect salespeople to have done their research and cut to the chase about what's important.
For the purposes of clarity, I'll use the term "customer" to refer to a company that might buy your product and the term "decision-maker" to refer to a person inside that company who might make the decision to buy your product. Here's how to quickly and easily find the background information you need to start the sales process:
1. Check the customer's corporate website.
The corporate website should always be your first stop. Skim the main page to see how the customer is attempting to present itself to the world. Then go deep:
- Management Bios. Note down the names of managers who might be decision-makers in the purchase of your product.
- Press Releases. Skim any press releases that have come out in the past year or so. Try to get a sense of the company's press strategy.
- Positions Open. The "help wanted" is a map of where the company lacks resources and its plans for expansion. Obviously useful.
2. Check the customer's SEC filings.
If the company is publicly held and is headquartered in the United States (or has a major US division), they're required to file reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (Sec.gov).
The most valuable publicly-available documents are the 10K and 10Q filings, which are the company's annual and quarterly reports. Search for discussions of marketing and product development; they'll tell you where the company is now and where it's headed.
Check the section on risks; some of them will be pro-forma (like "a downturn in the market could damage stock price") but sometimes you'll find tasty little insights into what's keeping the decision-makers awake at night.
3. Check the decision-makers' LinkedIn profiles.
Search LinkedIn for the names of the decision-makers you noted in Step 1. Look for a pattern or narrative in their career that might provide insight into their situation or the way they think.
For example, a client of mine recently asked me how to deal with a "decision-maker" who had contacted him asking for a bid on a project. The decision-maker's LinkedIn profile showed she'd only recently joined the company and had worked at a low level in her previous firm. I concluded that she wasn't the true decision-maker and suggested that my client request a meeting with her manager. He did and thus managed to move the opportunity forward.
While you're checking the profiles, keep an eye on the "connections" part, because you may know somebody who knows that decision-maker. A word of warning though: LinkedIn "connections" are often very tenuous; there are plenty of people who just try to connect with everyone, lessening the value of the entire LinkedIn network.
4. Check the latest corporate news.
Do a search using the term "business news" and the customer name (by this I mean the corporate name). Skim any articles that come up. Look for anything that might indicate a need for your offering. For example, if you sell marketing services, a new product launch might mean they're open to a different marketing approach.
5. Check the latest decision-maker news.
Do a search on the customer name (i.e. corporate name) and the name of each decision-maker that you've identified in previous steps. Look for any activities that might provide a "hook" to start a discussion, such as a speech that the decision-maker made at a conference. Take note of anything about that decision-maker that gives you an insight into his or her character. For example, I once learned that a prospective client of mine had an interest in model rocketry, a hobby that I had enjoyed in the past. It gave us something other than business to talk about when we had our next meetings.
Now that you've researched the customer and the decision-makers who work there, you probably know more where they're headed than any of your competitors. Heck, you may know more about the customer--and a holistic sense--than any of the individual decision-makers. This puts you in an excellent position to add value and insight from the start of any sales engagement.