Don't Think I'm Being Pushy, but...

More art than science, knowing how frequently to contact prospective customers -- and how hard to nudge them -- is a key sales skill

By Michelle Nichols

When I was speaking in Washington D.C. recently, someone asked me the difference between "good follow-up" and "being pushy." This distinction is a tough one because you don't want to be seen as obnoxious -- but you also want to make sales quota. The real issue, as I explained, is how much follow-up, as Goldilocks would say, is "Juuuuust right"

This is the first column in a two-part series. Today, I will outline the basic question and both sides of the problem. Then, for the second installment, please e-mail me your successful follow-up ideas and strategies, which I will consolidate them into a second column. I may be wrong, but I don't think the follow-up issue is industry-specific, or that it has anything to do with the city, region, state, or even country where you are based. There are universal truths associated with the art of following up, I suspect, so no matter where you live, let me know your thoughts and experiences. After I've digested THOSE responses, I'll present your responses in Part II.


  Following up is especially important in the early stages of the sales process, before you have had a chance to develop a connection with your prospective customer. Let's say Bob is a client, and he recommends you call Sue to sell her some more of what you sold him. Like all good sales reps, you'll call Sue, probably a couple of times, maybe e-mail her, and perhaps send along an information package. Now, the big question: At what point does Sue stop regarding you as a professional salesperson and begin dismissing you as an aggressive, hounding, stereotypical nag, perhaps even a borderline-stalker?

First, we have one camp of salespeople who heed Winston Churchill's famous advice to the pupils at Harrow school in 1941, when the U.S. had yet to enter the war and Britain stood largely alone against Hitler: "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense." There's no doubt that persistence has turned the tide and won the battle many times throughout history, both for armies and sales reps.

Sales professionals who follow this game plan tend to be a tenacious lot. We have all heard the story of a salesperson who called a customer once a month for many years and finally won the account. So, even after leaving our hypothetical Sue scores of unanswered messages, the Churchill spirit will inspire many of us to pick up the phone and place one more call. I've heard it said that you know you've followed up a lot when a prospect says, "Gee, I sure wish you worked for us!"


  Famous children's author Dr. Seuss based his classic Green Eggs and Ham on this idea of excessive follow-up. As you may recall, the character Sam was trying to sell the main character on eating this noxious meal. At the climax, the main character tells salesman Sam, "I could not, would not, on a boat. I will not, will not, with a goat. I will not eat them in the rain. I will not eat them on a train." He goes on to say he won't eat them in the dark, in a tree, in a car, in a box, with a fox, in a house with a mouse, here or there, or anywhere.

Then, finally, the prospect gives in and tries the green eggs and ham -- and likes them! In the end, Sam's persistence is rewarded.

I've actually met a salesperson who claimed he phoned a prospect so many times that the president of the target company called and asked him to stop calling. Guess what? The salesman kept calling -- and eventually won an order. To me, that sort of determination goes well beyond appropriate follow-up. Sure, the guy made his sale. But also consider what lower-hanging fruit he may have missed by devoting so much time to such a reluctant prospect.


  At the other end of the sale follow-up spectrum, are those sales reps who don't follow-up enough. They believe their offering is so terrific and the pricing so fair, customers will flock to place orders -- someday. These weak-willed sales reps say things like, "Well, I don't want to bother them. It might turn them off," or, "If they're serious, they'll call me. If they aren't, well, I'd just be wasting my time."

Rejection is part and parcel of a salesperson's job description, but these folks take it way too personally. They need to buck up and call that client one more time, maybe at a different time of day or day of week. They could send something truly interesting in the mail, have a happy customer call, or work their network to find someone -- a mutual friend, a common associate -- who can help move the sale along.

By the way, once you finally get to talk to prospective customers, I recommend asking when they would like you to follow up. This will set you apart from the majority of sales reps, and often, you'll learn something they might not have shared with you before -- perhaps they'll soon be taking a month off for surgery and recovery or that a Portugal vacation is in the offing, intelligence that can help to establish that all-important human connection (see BW Online, 4/23/04, "Taking Aim with the Perfect Pitch").


  Don't forget to add, "Obviously, if there are any important changes to what we discussed today, I'll let you know right away. If there are any changes to your situation, will you let me know that too?" Then, as there are changes in the product, services, pricing, articles, even laws or regulations, contact the prospect to keep them fully informed and always up-to-date.

There is no easy answer to the question of how much follow-up is enough to minimize your time and effort but at the same time, maximize your sales results. Please e-mail me your stories, insights, and wisdom. The resulting column should be, as those Mastercard ads say, priceless. 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 or contact her at

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