During my three decades in the sales industry, I’ve worked with, met, coached and observed thousands of sellers from a multitude of industries. They’ve been new reps and experienced ones, inside and outside sellers, big ticket and small time, very successful and barely hanging on. But with rare exceptions they all have one thing in common: They’re busy. They’re all doing stuff.

And a great deal of the time, when you ask them what they’re doing, they’ll tell you they’re prospecting. They’re busy trying to find business. They’re focused on getting a contract in the door and getting paid. Some are very successful. Most are not.

So the natural question is—what’s the difference? Why are a few sellers exceptional at finding prospects, while the majority are not?

Turns out most of the time the answer is really pretty simple. The successful sellers spend their time prospecting. Meanwhile, the rest are simply infected with the disease of “prospecting”—that is, they have the illusion that what they’re doing is prospecting. In reality, it’s nothing more than busy work so that they don’t have to do the tough work of actually prospecting.

These unsuccessful sellers can show lists of several hundred names and phone numbers they have spent hours researching. They can show stacks of fliers and letters they have mailed out. They can produce a list of networking events they have attended. They can produce a passel of emails they have sent out. They may even have their business cards up in every restaurant, Laundromat and car wash in the area.

Certainly they’ve been busy—there’s no doubt about that. The problem is that although they have been busy, they haven’t been prospecting. Instead of prospecting, they’ve been “prospecting”—creating filers, writing letters and emails, attending non-qualified networking events, making phone calls and spending time “connecting” with prospects via social media. They confuse prospecting with preparing to prospect.

If you cold call, prospecting is being on the phone, not getting ready to be on the phone. If you network, it’s getting in front of prospects (or getting introductions to prospects from referral partners), not attending events where you’ll meet few, if any, qualified prospects. Investing time and energy in the wrong activities has killed many a sales career. 

As salespeople, we have three very basic duties: finding and connecting with quality prospects, working with those prospects to help satisfy their wants or needs and insuring that they are taken care of during and after the sale. Everything else is busy work. And busy work doesn’t make a sale.

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Paul McCord is a best-selling author, speaker and leading authority on lead generation. He has more than 20 years’ experience coaching and mentoring salespeople. For more information, go to mccordandassociates.com.