Q: I know I need to stay in touch with my prospects to close more sales, but how can I do that without becoming a pest?

A: When it comes to increasing sales for your business, it's all about building relationships between your company or brand and your customers. And since no relationship is based on hit-and-run tactics, you need a program that combines marketing with sales and "touches" your prospects repeatedly throughout the sales cycle.

On average, it takes about eight contacts or more with a prospect before a sale is closed. The trick is to create a blended program of marketing and sales tactics that incrementally moves your prospects closer to a buying decision. Think about your prospect database as if it were split into three groups-cold, warm and hot prospects. Cold prospects are qualified businesses or individuals that presently know little or nothing about your company. Warm prospects have previously been exposed to your message and are familiar with your firm, but aren't ready to make a purchase. The last group, hot prospects, have moved through your sales cycle or have come to you by referral and are the closest to making a buying decision. A well-rounded program must employ a range of tactics that reach out to prospects in all three stages, from cold to hot, on a continuing basis.

Open New Doors
The marketing tactics that you select to reach cold, qualified prospects should excel at opening doors and exposing new prospects to your message in a motivational way. Advertising, public relations and direct mail are good tools for introducing new prospects to your company or product message. Print advertising, for example, allows sufficient space to educate prospects, and direct mail, with its multiple inserts and emphasis on detailed information, can help move cold prospects into the warm category. Online marketing, including e-mail and opt-in lists, a strong company Web site, and advertising on related sites and in e-newsletters provide excellent opportunities for reaching out to cold prospects. Select the marketing tactics that will work best for your company and combine them with sales activities, such as networking and cold calls to in-house lists.

Warm up Prospects
Many of the marketing tactics used to reach cold prospects are excellent at moving warm prospects further along in the sales cycle. Multiple direct mailings to the same list, for example, are known to produce higher response rates, and a warm prospect may be converted into a hot one when he or she reads an article about your company in the trade press. To reach warm prospects online, send personalized e-mail to your in-house prospect database. This can be in the form of an electronic newsletter alternated with product or service messages. Combine your marketing with sales tactics, including warm calls to prospect lists, meetings and presentations where appropriate, as well as individual e-mails and sales letters to select prospects.

Add Heat to Close
Personal selling is often necessary to add the final heat to close sales. In some cases, e-mail marketing, direct mail or direct response advertising alone can sell a product or fill seats at a seminar, for instance. But many types of businesses, particularly those that provide a product or service through ongoing customer interaction, can't rely on marketing alone at this stage. So the final step in building a relationship with a prospect that goes far beyond the initial sale generally involves combining effective marketing with one-on-one interpersonal interaction to turn a hot prospect into a happy customer or client.