When I started my company, SquareFoot, in 2011, I had an inkling that the commercial real estate industry could be disrupted from its traditional thinking and operations. Even if my theory was right, I still had to figure out how to find my clients. So I assembled an online commercial listings platform, invested in some technical SEO, brainstormed a blog with educational articles, and launched a website unlike any other real estate company had attempted. Sure enough, people who were Googling for information and for solutions started to find their way to us. Our in-house team of brokers has worked with these high-intent leads over the past eight years to show them available offices in their area and to negotiate and complete deals on their behalf.
That emphasis on inbound leads has served us well. But I knew as I embarked on the next chapter of my company’s evolution that we would have to begin to build our outbound sales team. In addition to serving those who come to us through organic search, we wanted to go out and find the next set of companies in big national markets we serve to establish and nurture relationships with executives and their People and Operations teams well before they physically outgrow their spaces. The lessons from years of doing inbound would not transfer or apply to the outbound team. We had to step back and think about how to start again from the beginning.
Sales Development: The Old Way
Our outbound team got started last summer the same standard way everyone else would tackle this assignment: They got on the phones, took lists of numbers for companies, and began calling. Not only was this approach ineffective and labor-intensive, resulting in few viable leads, this project was taking its toll quickly on our junior staffers. They were previously used to having high-quality conversations with people already looking to move into their next space, and now they’d been reassigned to try to convince people we didn’t previously know to chat with them about their long-term real estate needs. Many conversations, as you would expect, resulted in quick hangups. I began to wonder if there was a better way.
So much of real estate is conducted through canvassing strategically, showing up at people’s places of business at times when you reasonably suspect they might be looking for their next place. I consulted with my team – executives and other staffers with knowledge to share – about how we could more adequately approach this work on the phones to anticipate more accurately who might be more in the mood to hear from us. We wanted those on the other end to think of us more favorably, as partners to help them resolve their issues with real estate.
So, before they jumped on the phones and dialed, we began to research a bit about areas in our city, to collect information that we could share with business owners. That way, when we did reach them, we could be of greater help to them than if we were dialing in the dark. As it turned out, this strategy worked much better for the team to uncover the right profiles. We stopped leading with the question of whether they were seeking new office space, and instead we delivered valuable ideas and insights that matched what they already felt. For example, we know that people in coworking spaces tend to outgrow them after some years, especially after their team has grown. We presented possibilities to startup founders whom we believed would be craving a change of environment just around the time of our call. It is a smaller niche to pursue from within the larger group of all companies in a metropolitan city, but for us this tactic proved to be more productive. We saw the results turn around almost immediately.
We had the luxury of knowing that our industry moved relatively slowly. From the first inquiry to a final move, it can take 6-12 months, depending on the size of the team and the amenities involved. That long runway plays to our benefit. We don’t call with any kind of urgency so our BDRs have no reason to be aggressive or pushy. Rather, they are bucking the trend and coming across as patient and empathetic, values that are important to us but aren’t widely known to define real estate brokers. We develop trust and credibility on that initial call through showing them that we want what’s best for them – even if it may mean at times helping to get out of their current lease and tracking down a different company to move in in their place.
The Challenger Sale
Our BDRs now follow the trends and anticipate people’s needs. The big change to their approach is that they know at the top of the call where rents seem to be rising. They dial up those who might be feeling that pain, even if they haven’t expressed it to anyone yet. We stay on top of which buildings or landlords might be more problematic for tenants working with them. We want to understand their situation, most of the time that wasn’t any fault of their own. Through offering knowledge and expertise about their immediate area, we can offer solutions they didn’t know possible while they were scrambling and struggling to deal with.
Unexpected construction is a key example of this phenomenon. A building could be working out well for a tenant until the month or more it no longer does. People, we have found, are more open to a preliminary conversation with our BDRs who ring them up out of the blue if the tenants are dealing with these headaches of setbacks already. We drop in at the right time with solutions they didn’t know about. Because we aren’t selling them anything on that first call, or coercing them into believing anything they didn’t already feel prior to the call, we have set up a better process and prospect to outline our services on the second call, directly with a veteran broker. The goal has always been the same – to get to that handoff. However, only once we tweaked our strategy did we begin to see the outcomes we wanted.
I recognize that this approach and application might depend on industry. Obviously, the commercial real estate industry has always relied on longer-term relationships to get deals done. At the same time, though, every B2B with longer sales processes would be wise to at least consider rethinking how they construct and conduct those first calls to better appeal to prospective clients on the other end. Redesign your questions to encourage less-obvious responses that inspire and drive original thought in your prospect’s decision-making process. Anticipate where people are and give them what they want while teaching them a new perspective. Taking the time to understand the subject matter and teaching points, plus a little research and planning, will go a long way.
What this gives to the client is paramount. They sense right away that you’re reaching out to them for a reason, not just because their name appeared on a list somewhere. In this way, we flipped our outbound sales process on its head. At the outset, we had thought that those initial calls would vet for us who would and wouldn’t be interested in looking at office spaces this year. But that thinking was wrong. We could do a better job of vetting before we even rang them up. This has meant more valuable and meaningful calls for the team, and better results across the board.