Learning to Dig Wells Before You Are Dying of Thirst

It’s Summertime and The Living Is Easy

Early in my sales career, I was fortunate enough to win a number of really big clients in short order. I won a large government contract with a bit of pricing strategy and the ability to meticulously follow the purchasing agent’s directions. Then I won two divisions of a large retail clothing chain from much larger competitors, both worth millions of dollars in revenue—and both of which were very demanding.

To maintain the two divisions of the large retailer required a daily presence at each location to manage the delivery of our service, to plan for future needs, and to troubleshoot and solve problems. They were located close enough together to make it easy enough to see each one, and I started my day at the first location at 5:30AM.

As these clients grew, so did my income. Soon I was making as much in commissions as I was in my base salary. I had it made. Or so I thought.

As I managed these large clients, I had far less time available to prospect and acquire new clients. I still called on some of the dream clients I had been working on, but without the disciplined focus that I had before I obtained my three giant wins. Over time, events would change my circumstances.

Welcome Wintertime

One of the large retailers made a strategic change that caused them to need my services only during their peak season, eliminating my service the rest of the year. But with the other two clients locked down tight, I didn’t worry too much about it. Then disaster struck, and the second large retailer decided to move their location out of my territory and completely out of my company’s market.

This was more than a little painful. This was a neutron bomb to my personal sales—and my commissions! Neither loss was my fault. Neither loss was my company’s fault. Neither loss was predictable at the time.

The loss of the first retailer did nothing to cause me to rethink how I was using my time. The loss of the second sent me into a panic. I was young and naïve, and because winning the biggest deals in my territory had come so easy, I had no understanding of the sales cycle. I had worked on and with these clients long enough, using my taking care of their needs as a rationalization to postpone prospecting. I had nothing in my pipeline.

I regained my discipline for prospecting. And over time, I eventually lost the large government contract when the entity decided that the entire contract should be awarded to a minority vendor. By the time the contract was taken away, I had put myself in a position where the loss was no longer felt because I could easily afford to lose.

What I Learned:

The One Thing You Can Control : There are things that you can control, and there are things that are not in your control. The one thing that you alone control is how you spend your time, what you focus on. Deciding what you will work on and when you will work on it is completely under your control, even if you are busy, and even if you are succeeding with existing dream clients.

While you have no control over whether or not you keep your client’s business, you have complete control over whether or not you allow it to derail your prospecting for new business.

All Good Things Come to an End: You will lose your biggest and best client. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. It may not be next week. This will happen whether or not you are at fault, and without any consideration for how badly you or your company needs the client. That day is coming and you need to prepare for that day now.

You have little control over when you will lose some of your best clients, but you must behave as if that day is coming.

Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty: Prospecting and selling is harder when you are desperate. You call on prospects that don’t fit your company’s target criteria. You call on prospects without any real needs. You sell on price alone because you can’t afford to lose. Success in sales is learning to dig your well before you are thirsty!

Prospecting is an activity that must be undertaken with daily devotion that borders on the religious. It must be done when even when it is the best of times, and there is no way to cram for success. Dream clients must be nurtured over long periods of time.


Prospecting requires an iron discipline. It is easy to let your prospecting efforts suffer, especially when you have won the big deals to meet your personal and company targets and goals. But disaster strikes without warning, and it is far better to dig your well before you are thirsty than is to wait until you are desperate.


  1. On your daily calendar, is there a time blocked off for prospecting?

  2. Can you easily afford to lose your largest client?

  3. Can you afford to lose the biggest two deals in your pipeline and still meet your goals and quota?

  4. What can you do today to better control the one thing that you can reasonably control: your time and attention?

  5. Are you digging your well now, or are you tempting fate by believing that you can cram prospecting later?

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  • http://sellbycaring.com Claudia Dail

    Anthony, thanks for the refresher and reminder. I believe the focus on continued prospecting is one of the major factors separating those who succeed from those who once had a position in sales.

    Claudia Dail

  • http://www.download-database-software.com Database Software

    This is a great post and reminder. It cracks me up when I hear sales people claim they are “too senior” to prospect any more. True, seasoned veterans think exactly as you have outlined here.

  • http://www.digitaldeltamedia.com Akweli

    Wise words, and ones that bear repeating often. Reminds me of an interview I did years ago with Harvey Mackay when he was promoting his book titled … Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty (!) Some things never do change :)

    Anthony, you use some key and important words in your post such as *nurturing*, *discipline*, and *deciding .* With the exception maybe of discipline, which anyone can develop to run on autopilot, these are conscious, deliberate behaviors that we must adopt.

    Thanks for sharing those wonderfully illustrative stories from your personal experience.


  • http://meetingtowin.com/ Jill Myrick

    Amen! Many don’t want to believe this. I joined a sales team and asked the guy who had been #1 or #2 every year for 10 years how he did it (the only time he wasn’t #1 was when someone else landed a one year, monster deal – the next year they dropped to last). He said no matter how busy he was – and he was really busy – he made 5 prospecting calls every day. You used the right word – discipline. He was always smooth-sailing while others were scrambling. Great post and great reminder!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/wisconsinbuilt Greg Lerdahl

    Our company is in the position you describe; a couple of major clients (we are retail and restaurant store fixture manufacturers), who could decide at any time to stop building new stores, or “try out” a new fixture partner. We have other customers, sure, but in this economy can’t afford to lose either of these. One thing our two owners don’t understand is the increasingly critical nature of a solid, content-rich website. You may have noticed I put my LinkedIn profile under website above. Any advice for me? I know you aren’t “Ann Landers”, but you clearly have accumulated wisdom and insight.

    • http://www.santhonyiannarino.com S. Anthony Iannarino

      Hi Greg,

      I am not sure that what you need is a content-rich website. It depends on whether or not your dream clients are going to be moved to action based on that content. I am doubtful, but only because I believe that the difference in selecting one firm over another comes down to salespeople being able to create value by solving their client’s business challenges. Do you think you can tell that story on a web page? I have always believed that your written proposal (or website) could contain an entire middle section on the sex life of a Bolivian bull frog and that your clients would never see it or mention it.