Contacting Prospective Customers
Our networking expert tells you how to make the most of your first communication with future customers.
Your referral source has done her job. Now it's time to contact the prospect. But be careful: The purpose of your first contact is not to make a sale or even ask the prospect if he has questions about your business. If--and only if--the prospect asks, should you present your products or services during this initial contact.
The purpose of the first contact with the prospect is:
- to begin to build the relationship;
- to get to know the prospect better;
- to help the prospect get to know you better;
- to position yourself to make your next contact; and
- to see if the prospect fits your source's description of her.
Before making contact, do your homework. If you don't have them, ask for copies of all correspondence your source sent the prospect on your behalf. Find out from your source the best way to make your initial contact--by telephone? Letter? E-mail?
Meet the Face
When your source gives you the green light, don't let the opportunity grow stale. Make your first contact with the prospect within 72 hours of getting the go-ahead. If your source can be present, the most advantageous contact is a face-to-face meeting at which your source can introduce you. This introduction should be more than just "Harry, this is Jerry. Jerry, this is Harry"; your source should give the prospect a more thorough briefing about you, your business and your products or services. For example:
"Harry Prospect, this is Vic Vendor, whom I was telling you about last week at our club meeting. Vic and I have known each other for more than five years. For the past two years, I've let him handle all my travel arrangements, and I can't count up all the dollars he's saved me, not to mention bench time in airport lounges. Vic's really active in the community; we're going to give him our service award at our next chamber meeting. He's also a good golfer, and he skis a lot in the winter, although I find it hard to believe because he's never broken a leg.
"Vic, Harry's been a very special customer of mine for at least fifteen years. His daughter and mine went to school together, and he let me cater her wedding three years ago...."
During this first contact, your prospect may likely have questions for you, but he typically won't ask them during this initial meeting unless he has an urgent need for the kind of products or services you provide.
Drop a Line
If your first meeting with your prospect can't be in person, your best bet is to write--a letter, a card, or email, for example--rather than to phone, as you did your prospective source. Writing gives you a better, more controlled opportunity to convey what you've learned about the prospect. It helps develop your relationship to let your prospect know you find him interesting enough to have taken the time to learn a few facts about him--not the fact that he needs your products or services, but the fact that he's a member of the Downtown Executive Society or that "Tom told me you're a great chess player." Express an interest in meeting him, and advise him you'll be calling to schedule a mutually convenient appointment.
When you start composing your note to him, keep in mind that he may not have read, or remembered, the materials your source sent him. So start by naming your referral source--a name he'll recognize:
Joan Irvine, whom I understand was one of your students, recommended I get in touch with you. Joan tells me you're an avid butterfly collector....
Don't send business literature or your business card with your first correspondence. Your stationary should have all the contact information your prospect needs to reach you. Avoid giving the impression that you're interested in him primarily as a prospective customer.
Give the prospect some time to receive your correspondence before you follow up with a phone call. When you do, and if your prospect agrees, try to schedule a face-to-face meeting. Even if your prospect isn't receptive to that, offer to send more information, and if the prospect indicates he'd like this, send it right away--and don't forget to send a copy of your correspondence to your referral source.
If your source recommends it and can guide you as to the best time to do so, you can make your initial contact with your prospect by phone:
"Hello, Ms. Clearchannel. I'm Dr. Mark Star, and I'm calling you at the recommendation of Trudy Grossman."
"Oh, hi, Mark. Trudy told me about you. She's quite impressed with your book, which she sent me a copy of. I'd like to have you on my show. Can you come to my studio two weeks from today?"
The above situation isn't just a fantasy--your prospect could decide immediately to do business with you. If you've prepared the ground well, and if you're lucky, your efforts may pay off on your very first call. Most often, though, the prospect--even a referral lead--will need more time or express an interest in talking later about your products or services. (And even if they put you off, you're almost certainly better off than if you'd made your first contact by cold call, mass advertising or direct-mail campaign.)
When building relationships, it's always important not to let much time lapse without following up the first contact. Within two to three days, you should send your prospect a note expressing your pleasure in communicating with him. It's still too early, though, to send business literature or make any move toward sales promotion.
So follow up early, but don't push beyond the prospect's comfort level. Once the prospect has expressed an interest in your products or services, you can provide information about them, but don't force it on him. Continue presenting your products or services, but avoid the hard sell. Focus on fulfilling his needs and interests. Your goal should be to keep your prospect aware of your business without annoying him.
Remember, to secure long-term loyalty of your prospect and convert her into a customer, you must first build a relationship. It may take a while, but if you've selected and briefed your sources well, and if you follow my recommendations, you'll speed up the process.
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