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Become a Follow-Up Fanatic

Far too many startups lose valuable sales through a lack of consistent follow-up. Here's how to do it better.
March 3, 2010
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/205324

Prime Time has finally arrived. After all the planning and plotting, your startup is ready for launch. The shingle bearing your company's name has been hung. The website is live. Like a bull in the chute, your sales team is clawing the ground, frothing at the mouth, hungry to corner and close prospects. Time for one last pep talk."OK, everybody," you say, your voice rising to a crescendo,"let's get out there and.nurture!"

Not exactly the words Patton would have used to rally his troops before battle. But given the prevailing mindset of B2B and B2C prospects today, it's just the kind of tactical advice a fire-breathing sales force needs to hear to set the tone for a successful sales campaign, asserts Sam Eidson, a founding partner at 90 Octane, a Denver marketing firm. "There's a perception--and, I think, often a valid one--that salespeople tend to be hunters, not nurturers. But in our experience, if you go through a nurturing process with your prospects, you will have a competitive advantage over the hunters, and your margins will improve."

A gung-ho attitude is great, as long as that energy is properly channeled during the sales process, Eidson explains. What plagues many lead-conversion efforts is an overemphasis on low-hanging fruit--"sales they can close today." That takes focus away from where it should be, on differentiating oneself in the eyes of prospects through a more studied sales approach that relies as much on old-school tactics like timely response, consistent communication, person-to-person contact and a deeper understanding of a prospect's business needs as it does on leading-edge tech tools.

"I don't think companies are doing enough to change that focus," Eidson says.

Findings from a recent study by lead-generation firm Resource Nation support his contention. The study finds a direct correlation between the speed at which a company's sales force follows up with leads and the company's lead-conversation rate; yet, it also reveals that many companies are surprisingly weak in their follow-up with prospects. For example, only 33 percent of companies followed up with prospects within an hour of prospects submitting a request online for more information about products or services; a larger portion--47 percent--followed up within the second hour after contact by prospects; 14 percent didn't follow up at all. What's more, 37 percent of companies failed to follow up with a second phone call if their first call to a prospect went unanswered, while 33 percent didn't even bother to leave a message if they couldn't reach the prospect.

Lurking between the lines of those findings is a compelling, encouraging message for startups: If they stress responsiveness, resourcefulness and relationship-nurturing during the sales process, they'll put themselves in position to beat their competitors--even the most entrenched ones--to the deal.

It's follow up or die in today's competitive landscape. As a startup, what you lack in track record, resources and experience you can make up for in other ways. Here's how.

 

More Follow-up Tips

Here are four more follow-up tactics to help startups close the deal: 1. Be an information source
Find an article you think would interest prospects? Send it to them. It's a non-salesy way to keep yourself on the radar screen and "shows them what it would be like to partner with you," says Sam Eidson of marketing firm 90 Octane.

2. Shoot straight
"Stay away from wishy-washy language," advises Marc Leach of Jetcrafters Worldwide. "You want to drive a clear future, where you tell prospects exactly how you plan to go about following up with them. It works better than randomly and occasionally following up with them."

3. Give prospects space
Whether it's B2B or B2C, "you want to let them feel like they're dictating the pace of the process, and that you're there to help them make a decision," Eidson says.

4. Don't fear mistakes
"We've learned more about sales from our failures than our successes," says Mirza Baig of Legal Advantage.

Be first to respond. There's no substitute for timeliness. "The first person to [respond to] the client typically is the person who's going to close the client," says Alicia Taylor, founder of Mortgage Solutions LLC in Las Vegas.

Waiting even several hours to respond to an Internet or phone lead leaves too much room for competitors to gain traction. "Time is of the essence," says Mirza Baig, president of Legal Advantage, a legal support services firm in Bethesda, Md. "No matter what business you're in, people appreciate responsiveness. If we don't follow up within one or two hours, there's a good chance we won't close the prospect."

Prospects who make the effort to contact you likely do so with some sense of urgency, says Baig, so they expect a similar urgency with your response. "This is a very directed behavior. They're looking for something very specific from you, and most likely they are looking to make a decision quickly, even if a long sales cycle is involved."

"You want to talk to people when they're still in decision-making mode," adds Marc Leach, head of Jetcrafters Worldwide, an aircraft finish company in Safford, Ariz. His assistant has standing orders to send him a text message immediately after hearing from a prospect, so he can respond promptly.

Timely response also keeps prospects focused on the positives that led them to contact you in the first place. The less time you allow a prospect to drift, the better, says Ed Delia, principal at Delia Associates, a marketing and branding firm in Whitehouse, N.J. "In the absence of a response [to a prospect's inquiry], the person is left to draw conclusions about you--that you're not responsive, that you didn't want their business, that you're too busy to bother with them."

Similarly, a lag in response also gives prospects time to overthink their intentions. "Almost all purchase decisions are emotionally initiated and then backfilled with logic," explains Mike Michalowicz, author of The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur. "The problem is, the logic never really stops flowing. Given time, people will find reasons not to make that purchase. But if you get [back] to them fast, you have an opportunity to backfill with your logic, and usually they'll go for it."

Take it personally. While Web-based vehicles certainly can play an integral role in advancing prospects through the sales process, there's no substitute for person-to-person contact, either by phone or face-to-face.

"People are still into warm and fuzzy--actually speaking with whomever they're considering doing business with," Taylor says. "The salespeople who are least successful are those who settle for just sending an e-mail when they should follow up with a phone call."

Salespeople can gain critical insight talking directly with prospects, Delia notes. "Only through human-to-human contact can you detect emotion--caring, concern, responsiveness, those kinds of things."

However large or small the potential deal, adds Baig, "every prospect deserves a phone call. If you're not a well-known brand, you have to establish a personal connection and uncover need through that process. Marketing using the Web and e-mail are great for generating interest and opening a conversation, but having meaningful personal conversations is what closes sales."

Use e-mail touches to augment P2P communication. As a speedy way to traffic documents, confirm appointments and deliver information during the sales process, e-mail is hard to beat. Successful salespeople are also using it as a relationship-building tool with prospects. For example, Delia says, it's often worthwhile to invest in e-mail communication software that helps salespeople create and send prospects e-bulletins that include relevant information, advice and commentary. "It positions you as an information source, an expert and a thought leader. It's a very effective way to stay in the prospect's consideration set, without breaking in on their day."

Track your touches. As vital as timely follow-up is in the sales process, it's critical for salespeople to track their touches with prospects during the process. And while CRM software can be a huge help in that regard, it may be a luxury a startup can forego, at least initially, in favor of a good old-fashioned notebook or Excel spreadsheet.

"You need to keep good, detailed notes--how the prospect found you, what they did when they visited your website, who the decision-maker or decision-makers are, and the contact you had with them," Eidson says. "You're closing the loop between marketing and sales, and you don't need a huge, expensive CRM system to do that."

Be the prospect. Salespeople gain a distinct advantage by making the extra effort to understand their clients' businesses and the problems clients are trying to solve, or the need they're trying to fill, with the product or service you offer. "It's not enough to understand what somebody is looking for," Leach says. "You have to understand why. If you don't, you'll be treated like every other vendor."

"It's about asking questions and listening--you're playing Columbo," Baig says, referring to the 1970s television detective played by Peter Falk.

Nurture your prospects like Columbo did his suspects, and your startup is destined to close deals like the detective closed cases.