Tips and tools for conducting prospect research

Researching new business prospects before picking up the phone or sending an email will help you determine whether they are a good fit for your accounting firm’s services. Proper prospect research can also help you discover the decision-makers and the best way to engage them.

Since the average B2B professional services sale can now involve up to half a dozen decision-makers, it’s essential to understand each company’s structure, its stakeholders and decision-makers, and what motivates them. Good prospect research can provide a wealth of information that will help you better connect with the prospect and increase the likelihood they’ll want to buy your services.

What is prospect research?

Prospect research is the discovery process used to identify, evaluate and gain insight into the industries, organizations and individuals that offer the most value for your accounting firm. Its purpose is to help you develop the most effective tools and techniques you can use to engage and persuade prospects, with the goal of establishing a client relationship with them.

Prospect research, done correctly, offers a number of key benefits:

  • It identifies prospects’ “pains” — the challenges and problems that affect their businesses the most — so your pitches can be more persuasive;
  • It helps you build expertise and value in their eyes because you know and understand the issues that interest them;
  • It reduces the learning curve; prospects are more willing to hire you if they know they won’t have to waste time and money helping you learn their business;
  • It helps you avoid mistakes that could result in failure to close new business and damage your firm’s reputation; and
  • It helps you provide more effective solutions because research provides context to help you better understand their business, market segment and competition.

The three levels of prospect research

Whether your prospect is an SMB or a large enterprise, comprehensive research is generally conducted on three levels: individual, firm and industry. Let’s take a closer look at each of them:

  • Individuals: If you’re going to engage with an individual as a prospect — whether they are a referral, a website lead or a cold call — it’s always a good idea to do a little research first before contacting them. A quick online search can provide significant background information that can get you started on a dialogue. The more valuable the prospect, the more you might want to dig a little deeper. Initial search results can often provide additional keywords to expand your research.
  • Firms: In most B2B situations, you will not only be interested in the individuals with whom you’ll be engaging, but also their firm. Both are important for developing context to better understand who they are and what motivates them, setting yourself up for success because you’re positioned to more effectively address their concerns. Prospect research uncovers the details — names, titles, business functions, biographical information, financial information and more — that enable you to reach out and engage these businesses in a way that’s more relevant and personal.
  • Industries: If you suspect a particular industry might be fertile ground for harvesting new clients, it’s crucial that you gain a basic understanding of industry trends, challenges, priorities and what issues they are currently wrestling with. A general knowledge of the industry and its players will go a long way in creating a positive impression on prospects and encouraging them to engage with you. You may also want to determine how your firm is perceived in that industry — or if it’s even visible — to help you determine what’s needed to turn those prospects into clients.

Top prospect research tools

In most situations, prospect research typically involves basic information gathering and can be done relatively easily using a variety of light-weight tools.

However, some circumstances might require a little more firepower and some formal research, such as investing in a professionally conducted industry-level study to gain objective insight into how your firm is perceived in the industry relative to potential competitors.

To get started, here are some basic, free tools to help you gain some quick and valuable insights into prospective clients:

  • Information on individuals: Valuable information about their current and former status is often available in their LinkedIn profile and other social media such as Facebook and Twitter, their bio on their firm’s team website page, a web search of their name, and even on available internal records such as CRM and marketing automation systems.
  • Information on firms: A significant amount of information can be gleaned from a variety of online sources — from the more obvious, such as their website, LinkedIn company page and a general web search — to more specific resources such as SEC filings and analysts’ reports (for public companies), news releases, trade and business publications, customer and employer review sites, proprietary databases (such as D&B Hoover and ZoomInfo/DiscoverOrg) and available internal records such as CRM and marketing automation systems.
  • Information on industries: Some of the same sources of firm information can also provide a larger industry picture — resources such as trade publications, industry association websites, analysts’ reports, proprietary business databases and general web searches. Other resources can fill in the gaps, such as SEC filings, census data and original research studies.

There is no end of research tools out there. And if you are looking for specialized information (financial information, web metrics, etc.), you can seek out dedicated tools that may require a greater investment in time and money. No matter how you choose to conduct your prospect research, you can be certain there is a wealth of information available to those who make the effort to look.

Prospect research is one of the keys to successful business development for accounting firms — even if you don’t have the resources to devote considerable time or effort to it. However, the more you can commit to prospect research, the more value and benefits your firm will reap from it.