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A Hands-On Guide to Staying in Touch

Deciding how much follow-up a salesperson should pursue with prospective customers is like choosing what kind of coffee to order at Starbucks (SBUX) -- there is no one right answer.

The follow-up plan for some successful sales reps is like a regular cup of coffee: They believe that one good sales push is enough, and that continuous follow-up is a waste of time. Others have a plan more similar to a white chocolate mocha frappuccino light blended coffee -- very detailed and complex.

TWO APPROACHES. For example, I've heard Alan Weiss, a consulting guru and speaker, say that he doesn't believe in following up on speaking opportunities. After he talks to a prospect, if there's a good match, he sends them an expensive folder with lots of information and moves on.

Bear in mind that Weiss has tremendous credibility in his field. He runs a seven-figure consulting practice with no staff. He has published more than a dozen books, and his Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional's Guide to Growing a Practice is a classic. Unless you have similar credibility and a comparable track record, I don't recommend this path.

On the other end of the follow-up spectrum, Catherine Turner, owner of Success Concepts Online, has devised a 13-point follow-up plan for her qualified prospects. Her plan includes phone calls, e-mails, greeting cards, pop-up cards, articles of value, book summaries, industry-specific information, and more. You could also send prospects electronic cards, promotional products, an informative postcard -- even invite them to parties and free seminars.

DIFFERENT STROKES. In addition to choosing the quantity of follow-up, you should also choose the type of follow-up and your desired frequency. For example, after your first interaction with a live prospect, you may want to send a quick e-mail followed by a direct mail piece to arrive a week later.

What I like about Turner's plan is the variety of follow-up. I am the chairwoman of the Sales Experts special interest group for the National Speakers Assn., and our goal is to "touch" our members once a month, with a newsletter, tele-seminar, or conference. That way, we eventually reach all our members, no matter if they are auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners.

Relying on just the Internet can be a mistake. Although it's powerful and inexpensive, the prevalence of spam filters and common fear of computer viruses make using the telephone and mail more effective than sending out a steady diet of e-mails. Besides, when you offer a variety of connecting tools, it increases your chances of striking the sort of chord that resonates, and it also keeps your relationship fresh. Customers start wondering how you are going to follow-up next.

HAPPY MEDIUM. I once had a vendor who called to check in with me on the second Tuesday of every month. I was not in a position to buy from him and after a while, I began to feel guilty for wasting his time. I promised to refer him to those who could use his services, made some small talk, and hung up. I needed to use my own phone time to go sell something.

OK, so you need a follow-up plan, probably something between the two examples of Weiss and Turner. I can hear your collective roar now, "Michelle, we would love to follow up more, but we just don't have the time!" Here are two tools to consider that don't require more of your time -- lead management software, also known as CRM (customer relationship management), and electronic auto-responders.

Popular CRM products, such as ACT!, Goldmine, and (CRM) can help you remember who to follow up with, when, and regarding what. It is also very versatile -- it can help you generate electronic mail, produce labels to mail physical letters, or dial your phone to call your customers. It does just about everything except take your customers to lunch!

BURIED BY LEADS. A word of warning, though: Whether or not you use CRM, before you go overboard developing a plan similar to Turner's, remember to follow her advice and establish qualifying criteria, so you don't waste time on low-yield prospects.

I have seen too many salespeople with thousands of prospective customers in their CRM systems -- so many, in fact, that they are simply can't tell which 50 or so are worth following up with, at what frequency, and with how much intensity. This illustrates Weiss' wisdom of letting prospects qualify themselves, vs. spending too much time trying to close a prospect that can't -- or won't -- buy from you right now.

If your customers are content to let you communicate with them solely over the Internet, electronic auto-responders are worth a consideration. They let you create a series of sales letters and then, when they are triggered, they send them as e-mails at a frequency you predetermine. There are also companies, like Turner's, that perform the same function by sending old-fashioned greeting cards via snail mail.

STICK TO IT. Ongoing follow-up with qualified customers increases trust, which improves the likelihood that they will buy or refer you to others. Don't forget, when you receive a referral, remember to follow up with the person who gave it to you, and let them know what happened. Sometimes, they can even help close the sale -- or refer you again.

There's a fortune in following up. No matter whether your plan is similar to a plain cup of java from a vending machine or one worthy of the most experienced barista, having a well thought-out follow-up plan and sticking to it will surely bring you more money and success. Happy selling!


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