By Michelle Nichols Judging by the letters that poured in after my last column, it seems successful sales follow-up is a bit like world peace -- everyone thinks it's a good thing, but nobody can agree how to go about it (see BW Online, 6/18/04, "Don't Think I'm Being Pushy, but..."). Today, I'll pass along readers' ideas and strategies from all over the U.S., as well as Asia and Europe. Their insights make a mixed bag, with writers sharing the expertise they have gained in industries ranging from pet products to financial services. Readers, take it away:
When it comes to persistence, the numbers tell the story, according to Bill D., who pointed to a 1988 study that, on average, closing a sale required 4.75 calls. Problem is, the typical salesperson makes only two calls before giving up. Forty-year sales veteran Tom F. says he makes a point to follow up five times and, so far as he can tell from client reactions, has never "crossed the line from persistent to obnoxious."
TOP 20. Carl T. leaves three messages (assuming they don't get returned), each three days apart. If there is still no response, he sets the prospects aside in a special file for 60 days, then tries again. Then, when he does get to speak with a potential customer, he always gets an agreement on when it would be best to place the follow-up call.
David B. manages just two, very big accounts, and with so much riding on so few customers, he recognizes the importance of making sure that his follow-ups never rub anyone the wrong way. These are his rules, and and it's hard to fault them: Leave only one short voice message per day (no matter how often you call). Send only one e-mail per day, per issue. Treat your customers as if they have a busier schedule than you. And most important of all, never lose your cool or become impatient.
Janet H. calls clients regularly to say she is planning her route for their area on a certain day. Can she bring them anything, she asks, or do they need her to pick something up? Janet also offers a very solid tip about preparing for vacation: Before leaving the office, contact your top 20 clients to make sure they have enough stock to see them through while you're away. Failing to take this simple step, she notes, simply creates an opportunity for competitors.
THE RIGHT WORDS. When Wally L. follows up, he always opens by asking if it's a good time to talk. He finds that 90% of the time, customers are receptive. He also recommends saying you will "check back with" clients because it's easier on the ear than "call back" and reinforces the customer's impression of being in control.
Several days before the agreed upon "check back" date, Wally sends a short letter and marks the envelope "Personal." Then he calls on schedule. He does this as many times as it takes to make the sale. It works, evidently, because Wally just closed a large client he has been working on for 18 months -- a client who postponed placing the order on five different occasions!
From Ron K. came a letter arguing the case for "drop-ins." He lets customers and prospects know that he is in their neighborhood, and asks if it would be convenient to drop by for five minutes. Those visits often become 20 minutes, and sometimes, a sale.
INFORMATION CONNECTION. Mike V. wrote that he follows up with information germane to his product, not to push the customer into buying, but to keep in contact, know when his contacts move to other companies, and so that he and his products are always the first to come to mind. Mike lists another advantage: Being the source of product information and updates means that his name and contact details are passed around, bringing additional prospects into his network.
A similar tack suits Ron K., who is careful not to send too much information at any one time. Not only does this avoid overloading customers, it also gives him an opportunity to send more info later and maintain contact.
From Holland, David D. writes to blame "buyers who are not honest enough -- or too timid -- to give a definitive, 'I'm not interested,' but rather give the seller a glimmer of hope." When the district office of a large prospective client called sales manager Jake K. to report that one of his subordinates was making a nuisance of himself, he took the overzealous employee aside for a quick education in the the difference between "helpful" and "pushy." Yes, the aggrieved prospect was a potentially huge sale, Jake told the erring rep, but don't be like Captain Ahab and lose sight of all the other opportunities. There are more fish in the sea than a single "great white whale."
WHEN TO PUSH. Knowing when to back off and return to sell another day was a recurrent theme. Tom F. gently nudges prospects until he senses that resistance is stiffening, then he backs off to try again later. In China, Wei urged patience rather than run the risk of alienating prospects, also reminding us that the level of follow-up needs to be gauged in the context of the customer's situation. If a prospect is in growth mode, it's probably safe to be a little more aggressive.
It's easy to talk yourself out of those third, fourth, and fifth follow-up calls, but that would be a mistake. But don't take it from me, see what readers say by clicking her and reading all their letters in .pdf format. Happy selling! Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her web site at www.verysavvyselling.biz, where you can order her new CD, 72 Ways to Overcome the Price Objection. She can be contacted at Michelle.email@example.com