During some of the many training workshops I have facilitated recently, the question of how to contact people – whether initiating a dialogue or following up – has arisen. Some people feel uncomfortable about making “cold calls” (and this is not recommended). And some aren’t sure about how to follow up and how long to keep trying. And Covid – with the advent of remote working – has added to the challenges. So here are some practical sales tips: reach out and follow up.
Let marketing help you!
Where people have a list of target individuals and organisations that they need to contact (whether as potential clients or referrers), they have to consider how to make first contact. There’s advice on targeting, for example:
Don’t make things harder for yourself – get your marketing team to support you. Their role is to help with planning, analysis, goal setting and targeting. And then to prepare marketing communication campaigns to act as a backdrop to your sales efforts.
Marketing helps to generate awareness (so they know who you are when you call) and leads (so you are responding to their expression of interest or enquiry).
There’s more about integrating marketing and selling (i.e. business development overall) in this article Four themes in the art of selling – Integrating marketing and sales (kimtasso.com)
But if you don’t have marketing campaign to help you, and the person hasn’t responded in some way you’ll have to find a way to reach out to them. Even if you aren’t a member of the Four Tops!
You need to find a way that feels comfortable to you and appropriate to the situation. Remain authentic. So here are some practical ideas to inspire you
Send an email or pick up the phone to ask about their needs or make your request for a meeting (being clear in explaining what’s in it for them). The Americans and other cultures don’t seem to have a problem with this direct approach – but we Brits shy away from it. Cold calling isn’t ideal but sometimes it is an option.
Mention someone that you both know. Ideally, you should ask the person to facilitate the introduction for you. But failing that you could say something along the lines of “We both know (name) and I thought it would be helpful for us to connect…”.
If the mutual acquaintance is someone they know well or value highly then you will benefit from the halo effect of their positive reputation. Or perhaps the mutual acquaintance is someone they admire or who influences them and they will be keen to preserve or enhance their relationship with them.
Mention that you are members of the same community or association. Not only will this add credibility to the reason why you are connecting but it provides an opportunity for you to agree to meet at one of the forthcoming events of that organisation. A low commitment way for them to agree to see you without taking additional time out of their schedule.
You are also showing that you are part of the same “in group” as them. Humans are still rather tribal!
Mention that you have a similar background or interest. Commonality and things in common are important at the start of any relationship. Particularly if it is a personal interest or hobby which they will might be keen to talk about.
Follow their social media accounts and like and comment on their posts – this will put you on their radar. And – when appropriate – use direct messaging in response to something they have posted when the opportunity arises.
Send information that offers real value or insight. Obviously, this needs to be tailored to their needs, role, organisation or sector rather than a blanket mailshot. But by demonstrating that you are aware of what interests them and having taken time to send them something of value should at least elicit a “Thank you”.
Or perhaps offer to introduce them to someone that they would find useful. This is the true value of having a wide network of contacts. And as well as allowing you to benefit from “giver’s gain” you will also trigger their need to reciprocate in some way (see Cialdini’s principles of influence and persuasion).
Appeal to their good nature
A little genuine flattery goes a long way. Mention that you were impressed when you saw them speak or read something they wrote. Explain that you see them as an expert. Ask if they are willing to provide their views on something. Or share their insights.
But avoid the “Can I pick your brains?”. Personally, I always bristle at that – why should I help you?
Continue a conversation
If you have been fortunate to have met someone previously, you can pick up on a discussion started at, for example, at a networking event. Or mention that you were at the same event but didn’t get a chance to say “Hello”. Or perhaps mention that you were talking to a third party when they mentioned your name and you thought you’d try to contact them as a result.
Invite them to attend a business or social event – obviously the more exclusive the better. Make them feel special. Attending an event with other people present is a lower commitment than them having to agree to meet you one-to-one.
You might extend an invite for them to write something for, to speak at an event or to appear on a panel. Or possibly to participate in a round table or research project. This is especially valuable if they are trying to build their profile or reputation in a particular market or community.
Another approach is what I call a proactive pitch. You do everything that you might do if they had asked you to pitch for their work – but without them asking. So you conduct extensive research and submit a tailored proposal to secure an initial meeting.
I have spoken to many general counsel, finance directors and property managers who confirmed that if they received an unsolicited pitch of this kind – that demonstrated a clear understanding of an issue they faced with initial ideas on how to address it, they would agree to a meeting to discuss it.
However, this approach takes a lot of time so you would need to be confident that your investment would be worth it.
There is a lot of guidance on writing a persuasive pitch, for example:
- Perfect pitches – Five key points (Video) Kim Tasso
- Selling – research in the pitch process (kimtasso.com)
- Winning pitch presentations – tips for competitive tendering (kimtasso.com)
- Pitching and Tenders – Nine top tips and client feedback (June 2019) (kimtasso.com)
And there are some great tips on how to get people to help you in Heidi Grant’s great book.
Once you have established contact, the question then is how to follow up.
Have a (sales) plan
You should have the end in mind when you initiate the contact. You should know what you want the ideal outcome to be and when. Then you can set goals and work out each of the preceding stages. Having a clear vision of how you want things to develop will keep you focused on what you want to happen and when and why.
People with experience in selling know that they never finish one call, meeting or interaction without agreeing what the next steps might be. That makes following up so much easier for all concerned – there’s a shared expectation of what will happen next.
So the minimum you need is a plan for what follow-up conversations you want to have – to move you along to progress the sale. Ask your business development professionals to help you build a plan. There are various introductory sales books to help you structure your overall approach and develop your value proposition:
- Hope is not a strategy – the 6 keys to winning the complex sale (kimtasso.com)
- Insight selling – building on consultative selling models (kimtasso.com)
- Selling Skills for the Professions – Kim Tasso
- Malcolm McDonald on value propositions – How to develop them (kimtasso.com)
Always add value
You need to add value at every interaction – that way people are more likely to accept future appointments from you. Because they know that you will always make it worth their while – they will learn new things, obtain valuable (perhaps thought leadership or bench marking) information or have an opportunity to pick your brains on something that is of interest or worrying them
It also helps if – at the end of the previous call or meeting – you send a short summary. This does two things. First, it reminds the person of the value they obtained from the interaction and what was agreed as a follow up. Second, it enables them to easily share your ideas with others in their organisation. So it can help them to engage other members of the decision-making unit (DMU) in their organisation who need to be party to future decisions in the area.
Long sales cycles – be prepared for the long haul
Let’s remember that in B2B and professional services sales situations, the sales cycles can be long.
There is an often-quoted statistic that it takes on average, nine contacts over nine months to convert a B2B sale. Another study found that clients need six to eight meetings before being ready to buy yet advisers often gave up after two or three conversations. You need to keep going and be persistent. Too many professionals will fear that they are appearing too pushy if they keep calling.
It will help if they know why you want to talk to them further or meet – so be clear on the purpose and outcome of another conversation. Ideally, you will have sent a note after the last contact where this is clear. But it won’t hurt to remind them of what you discussed previously and what is next to talk about.
Your reason for the meeting has to answer “What’s in it for me?”. You know what you want to get out of a further meeting: more information about them, their organisation or their issue or an introduction to someone else in their organisation. But they need to know what they will get out of the meeting – they won’t give up their valuable time to help you sell! So here you need empathy to know what is likely to be of interest and value to them. Consider your request from their point of view.
You might mention that you will be in their location on a few future dates and ask if they might have time for a quick catch up. Emphasise the quick – perhaps by indicating a 15 or 30 minute coffee together. Even if they can’t make any of the suggested dates you might enter into a conversation about which other dates might suit them.
Telephone follow up
Remember that people are 34 times more likely to accept a request that is made face to face.
If you can’t get face to face (for example, meeting at a networking event or bumping into them in the street) you’ll have to use the telephone.
Check out too the six principles of influence and persuasion (there’s a video on Cialdini’s six principles) that you can harness in your conversation.
Social media follow up
Another way to follow up is through the use of social media. No doubt you will already be connected to the person or following their account.
If telephone contact has failed, then maybe trying reminding them of your presence by liking or commenting on their posts. You might also try tagging them in a post – along with others – on a topic that is relevant (obviously not on the confidential or specific nature of your sales contact with them).
After doing this a few times, you might use the private messaging or direct mail facilities to send a short message. People are more likely to respond to social media contacts if their email inbox is receiving a lot of traffic already.
Email follow up
I saw a recent article in by Rebecca Zucker in Harvard Business Review on some of the intricacies of following up with emails:
- Have a compelling subject line
- 47% of emails are opened or discarded based on their subject line alone
- Research shows that shorter subject lines (four words) have highest open rates
- Avoid generic phrases like “Following up” or “Checking in”
- Be mindful of your tone of voice
- Avoid appearing to be demanding
- Be more upbeat and positive (even use subtle flattery)
- Keep it short and use simple language
- Research shows that between 75 and 100 words is ideal, yielding the highest response rate at 51%
- The same research shows using simple language results in the highest response rate (53%)
- Make a clear ask
- You are 50% more likely to get a response if you ask up to three questions than no questions at all
- Give them an out
- If they are unable to help themselves, maybe ask who might be another person that you should contact
- Be judiciously persistent
- Research shows that asking for what we need reduces anxiety and improves our self-esteem, sense of agency and the quality of relationships
- Use judgement to decide when to remain assertive and when to cut your losses and move on
- As a general rule, a week after your initial email is a good time to reach out again as a first follow up. Each successive follow up should be spaced a bit further apart – adding another week in between until you have followed up three times
I also saw advice once that you can be quite direct. And that statements like “If you are no longer interested in discussing this, please let me know and I’ll stop calling”. This might prompt people to confirm that they do want to proceed but that there are other, more pressing, issues at the moment. And if they don’t respond you will feel better because you have given them an “opt out” which they didn’t take – so you feel you have implicit agreement to continue.
There’s more useful information about conveying personality and warmth and being effective in digital communications – whether using emails, WhatsApp or other messaging systems – in the fab book on Digital Body Language by Erica Dhawan.