As a kid learning to play basketball, my coach never focused on the importance of the approach to the layup but, rather, the follow-through. A great scorer in basketball, the kind on display every night right now in the NBA playoffs, knows that how you finish your shot makes all the difference in the world when it comes to putting points on the board.

As a sales professional, I’ve learned acutely that the importance of the follow-through applies in many areas far beyond the basketball court. In particular, this crucial (but often minimized) practice for every professional seller frequently ends up as the primary difference between hitting aggressive sales quotas and falling short.

Just like in basketball, where there are statistics to prove the importance of following through on your shots, the same rings true for sales pros in terms of the importance of following up with prospects. According to this infographic from Propeller, 80% of sales require no fewer than five follow-ups after the initial contact.

80%!! Let that number sink in for just a moment.

Yet there’s so much more to this practice than simply calling people again and again. If you’re interested in improving your sales success rate, use these guiding principles and unlock the true power of great sales follow-through.

Properly Identify Prospects Worth Pursuing Right Now

For the most part, sales prospects fit into two categories: hot prospects and bench prospects.

Hot prospects: Just like in basketball, these are your go-to people at this current point in time. They are people who you have either spoken to on the phone or via email and they are ready to take action; all you have to do is follow up.

Bench prospects: These are people who have the potential to be great sales leads, yet at this point in time, they are not responsive and/or have a long buying cycle.

I have found that identifying hot prospects quickly is a key to success. Doing this helps me move along with the right people during the sales process (and relegate the lesser prospects to a future touch). If a prospect asks for specific information or for further discussion, call them back or follow up on that information you sent right away. Prospects seeking information are giving permission for increased engagement, and you should stay on the ball with them. They are much closer to a sale then the bench prospect.

Build a Strong Cadence

Cadence as a drumbeatMuch like my experience in basketball, having a good game plan is arguably more important than the game itself – and it’s especially critical in facilitating your follow-through efforts. In sales, the game plan is your sales cadence. You must develop a methodical plan to connect with your target audience. It is key to identify your hot prospects early, so you can create a road map to the sale that makes sense for that specific prospect.

As you schedule and plan your outreach cadence, be sure to map out exactly when (and how) you are going to get in contact with hot prospects. This road map outlines when you are making calls, sending emails, and leaving voicemails for everyone on your list. Also, when building your cadence, remember to keep in mind that it takes on average five to 12 “touches” (calls, voicemails, emails, etc) to truly close a prospect.

Make sure to vary the methods of communication you are using to reach your prospects — a combination of calls, emails, LinkedIn messages, social media mentions and more should all be in play. This will keep you at the forefront of a prospects’ mind and it helps you stand out from your competition.

This great article from the team at outlines the basic elements a sales pro needs to construct a great prospect outreach plan. There is room to be creative, but absolutely be intentional about this step of the process.

One other thing to keep in mind when creating your cadence is that it should be specific to your prospect and their timeline. Not every prospect will need the same approach, which makes it imperative to create your cadence to fit your prospect and not inundate them.

Be sure to routinely document touch points in your cadence. Your style to track this can vary (CRM software, Excel spreadsheet, or old fashion pen and paper), but recording the flow is vital. This act keeps me personally accountable to follow up with prospects and stick to my plan.

Pay Close Attention to Timing

A shot clock exists in basketball to keep the game moving and the action flowing, and all players know they must get the shot off before it hits zero. Once it hits zero, their chance has expired. There’s a shot clock in sales, as well. Sales pros have a certain amount of time to follow up with a prospect before the chance at a sale evaporates.

The follow-up period with a warm prospect is short and your outreach timing matters. Now that you know who to follow up with and have a game plan on how you are going to push them along the sales cycle, you need to understand precisely when to contact them. There are some key components to factor in when choosing dates and times to reach out to prospects.

Best Time to Call

Based on a recent CallHippo study, there are optimal days and times to reach a prospect over the phone. The study found that the best day to call a prospect was Wednesdays, with Thursdays being a close second. In fact, calling someone on a Thursday had a 46% better chance to reach the prospect then Monday, which was the worst day.

Overall, the study found that the worst day to reach prospects is Friday afternoon. This is something that I have personally found to be accurate. My connection rates drop on Friday afternoons. And when I do reach prospects, I get in inordinate amount of “It’s a bad time” or “Not right now” curt responses. People in “weekend mode” seem to be less interested in detailed business conversations.

The time of day was also examined in this study and they found the best bet to get in contact with a sales prospect was between 4pm and 5pm (in the prospect’s respective time zone). Reaching out during this time frame was 71% better than trying to reach a prospect during the worst time of the day, between 11am and 12pm.

One important caveat here: sales pros are constantly looking for data on the best time of day to contact prospects, so these results can vary and change as your peers and competition flock to align with the latest and greatest study results. Stay on top of the current trends and adjust your sails accordingly.

Best Time to Email

Email is another vital tool in your sales prospecting tool belt. And unlike the best calling times, some of these results might surprise you.

Based on this Propeller study, researchers found the best days to email a prospect during the work week is on Tuesdays or Thursdays. However, the very best days to email are not during the work week at all. You need to zig when everyone else is zagging, so to speak.

Saturdays and Sundays feature the very top open and response rates for email. The digital age and our “always connected” world impacts your timing. Keeping within this spirit, the study found that the best time of day to receive an email response was either first thing in the morning or right after business hours closed.

Always Get Next Steps

The worst thing that can happen in any sales cycle is to not get definitive next steps. It kills momentum and leaves all parties mired in uncertainty. And it’s flat out painful for sales pros practicing great follow-through principles.

As John Costigan, world-renowned professional sales expert and trainer, puts it, “Yes is a great answer, no is a good answer, but maybe stinks.”

When stuck in the maybe zone, you don’t know how to progress the sales cycle. This is why you should constantly ask for reasonable next steps throughout the process. This allows you to keep pushing the sale along (and close the deal), while at the same time not wasting anyone’s time if there isn’t a fit.

There’s another hidden benefit to consistently seeking next steps. It allows you to make sure you’re not needlessly bothering the prospect, which could push them away. If, as an example, your potential buyer is in a contract with another solution provider for one more year, contacting them multiple times per month is probably a very poor move (this is simply annoying and not the point of good follow-through).

Alternatively, you should be asking these prospects directional questions such as, “Do you mind if I reach out in six months to check in and see how things are moving along?”

By asking this at the end of your initial discussion, you eliminate the possibility of pestering them and it keeps you out of the dreaded maybe zone.

Stick to the Plan

Since finding success early in my sales development role, colleagues tend to ask me what my secret sauce is. The truth is, I don’t have a secret sauce – I’m persistent and I consistently use the core sales development principles outlined here. This makes my follow-through activities potent and it limits wasted effort.

If you can stick to it and follow-through with prospects the right way, it will pay off in the long run.