Prospects vs. Suspects: 7 Ways to Tell if a Sales Prospect Is Wasting Your Time

Too many sales prospects are nothing more than suspects pretending to be prospects.

Many times a suspect will engage with you repeatedly for no other reason than to gain information they can use elsewhere. Other suspects will engage because their bosses told them to meet with you. And still others will meet with you only because they don’t have the courage to say “no” to your requests for a meeting.

Mark Hunter, CSP / Photo courtesy of

The absolute worst suspect is the one who engages with the salesperson just long enough to warrant a couple of free meals or box seats to a game.

How often have you spent too much time with what you thought was a great prospect, only to have them wind up being a suspect? Never forget that the most valuable asset you have is your time, and the sooner you can validate the intentions of the person with whom you are talking, the sooner you’ll be using your time efficiently.

Here are some quick tips for determining who’s a prospect and who isn’t worth the effort.

1. Have they told you when they are going to make a decision?

Nothing is a bigger waste than spending your valuable time dealing with someone who only winds up saying they’re not going to make a decision for months, or even years.

Just because they’re not going to make a decision for another year doesn’t mean you ditch them. They will remain a good lead for you, but because they’re a year away from being a customer, the person isn’t someone you need to spend time with now.

2. Have they shared a piece of proprietary information?

Proprietary information is something you would not be able to find any other way unless the person with whom you are talking shares it with you. The information might be personal or related to their business.

I like this as a clue for one reason. A person is not going to share proprietary information with you unless they have confidence in you and feel there is a reason to do so. To put it another way, a person who has no intention of buying from you is most likely not going to share something that is proprietary in nature.

For more great prospecting tips, pick up Mark Hunter’s book, High-Profit Prospecting

3. Do they have a need you can help them with?

If they’re not willing to share a need with which you can help them, then stop wasting your time. There are far more important people to whom you can devote your time and effort.

Don’t get carried away with putting words into the customer’s mouth as to how you could help them. A test I use: Unless the customer says it with his or her own mouth, then don’t believe it.

Think about this for a moment. Would a person talk about a need if it weren’t real? No. Let them tell you. Don’t go putting words in their mouth.


Nutshell is flexible enough to fit every sales model.

Choose the model that best fits your business and see how we help teams like yours close more deals.



4. Are you sure they’re the decision maker?

Your ability to close a sale is going to go down dramatically if you’re dealing with someone who is only conveying information to the real decision maker.

A question I like to ask is, “How have you made decisions like this in the past?” A question like that is not threatening and will allow the prospect to share. Of course, what you’re listening for are clues as to whether they will be making the decision.

I also don’t hesitate to ask, “Is there anyone else who will be involved in making the decision?” Again, it’s straightforward and designed to ensure you’re using your time in an effective manner.

5. Do they have the financial ability to buy?

At one time or another, we all have wasted the time of a salesperson by talking about something we wanted to buy, but had zero ability to actually buy.

What makes this so bad is many times the person wants to buy, but lacks the ability. So the whole time they come across as being sincere in their intent to buy. A question I like to ask to gain the information is, “When you’re making big decisions like this, what criteria do you consider?”

This is extremely difficult for the salesperson, because many times the customer still will blow smoke in your face claiming a low price is essential. I’m not concerned at this point if they do this, because I’ll be fine if I do my job right and demonstrate value and total cost of ownership. What does concern me are signals that from a financial standpoint, they simply don’t have the cash flow or credit to make the purchase.

6. Has one of your competitors already clearly developed the customer’s expectations?

This could be a request for proposal (RFP) or bid quote to which you’ve been asked to respond. Very simple rule: If you didn’t help write the RFP/bid, what makes you think you have a chance at winning it?

If you didn’t help write it, your competition probably did. If you’re being invited to the party at this late stage, the only thing you’re doing is providing the customer with information they can use to wrestle better terms from the salesperson who did help write the RFP.

Sorry, but being invited late to the party is a kiss of death. The only thing you’ll do is crank out a lot of responses, and in the end you’ll have nothing to show for it.

7. Are they willing to do something “extra”?

There’s one final item that I don’t include as essential, but nonetheless it does help validate if the person with whom you’re dealing is serious: Ask the person if they would do something for you after you end the conversation. For example, you could ask them if they would review and comment on information you’ll send them soon.

The reason this is a good gauge is because someone who is not interested in you at all will definitely not take the time to do anything “extra” you ask. Not only does this allow you to measure their interest, but it also helps you stay in their mind after the call.

Mark Hunter, CSP, “The Sales Hunter,” is the author of “High-Profit Prospecting: Powerful Strategies to Find the Best Leads and Drive Breakthrough Sales Results” and “High-Profit Selling: Win the Sale Without Compromising on Price.” To find out more, visit


Nutshell presents: ‘Someone’s Gotta Make It’

Our new podcast series showcases the founders and leaders behind products you use all the time but never really think about, from bedsheets to barbecue sauce.



Join 30,000+ other sales and marketing professionals. Subscribe to our Sell to Win newsletter!