I’m working with a team of sales people right now—good sales people—who have one teensy-weensy problem: follow up.

The sales process for all of us includes a large number of transactional communications. They may include coordinating a meeting, securing a key piece of information, getting approval from Procurement or Purchasing, sign-off from a superior, the review of the proposal, signing the contract and so on. Every one of these communications must be completed in order to land the deal. If you participate in the sales process, you understand that rarely have you suffered more indignity or unprofessionalism than in this cycle of unanswered, unreturned or ignored emails, voicemail messages and sent and unsigned documents.  And it’s done WILLINGLY.

I’ve watched frothy-mouthed-screaming-at-officials-soccer-moms, who when faced with following up with a prospect who agreed to an action and hasn’t done it, say “Well, I’ll just give it another week.  I don’t want to be too pushy.”

I’ve seen bar-pounding-get-me-my-beer-now-guys wait for weeks for a response on a proposal. Weeks!

What is the right amount of time to wait before following up with a prospect? Not just any prospect, but a big prospect.  I know that you don’t want to be pushy or desperate.  I get that.  But you also need to keep moving the process along. We are looking for the Goldilocks “just right” level. Here are some pointers before I give you the timing guidelines:

  • Ask. My favorite approach came from a guy in Ireland pitching me some commercial real-estate. He said, “Thomas, the line between persistence and annoyance is a fine one, and I wouldn’t want to be crossing it. When should I be getting back to you so I’ll know you’ll be picking up the phone.” In every direct communication, ask when they want to have you get back to them and be specific. “Early next week” is not specific. “Tuesday at 10am” is specific.
  • Set expectations. It starts with setting expectations. In voicemails, emails, face to face or by phone, never end the conversation without setting the next time. Tell them when you will be calling or sending an email, specifically.
  • Be impeccable. Never miss a time or date. Not by a minute. If you are going to set the time for follow up with precision in your email or voicemail, then you have to hit it. You are creating a perception of attention detail and reliability. Just because they are not impeccable does not give you a pass not to be.
  • Allow some leeway. Sometimes, my calls for appointments and follow ups are missed by the person whom I am calling. I leave this message, “I have us scheduled for a meeting today at 9am. I probably just missed you or one of your other meetings is running over. I will call back in 15 minutes to connect. I look forward to our conversation. Thanks.” Then I call back. If I don’t reach the person, my message sounds like this, “I’m sorry we didn’t get connected today, I was looking forward to our conversation. Your day may have just gotten away from you, I know that happens to me sometimes. I’ll call you back at end of day today, say 5:00pm, to reschedule this call. Thanks.”  Don’t wait for a call back or an email.  Keep pressing forward.
  • Drive, don’t ride. I don’t expect that people will be calling me back. I’m driving the process, so it’s my job to drive the communication. I am always willing to be surprised in a good way with a responsive person, but my control needs dictate that I can’t be waiting.  I have to drive. How about you?
  • Walk away. Like the movie title says, maybe “He’s Just Not That Into You.” At some point, continued follow up is groveling. Don’t grovel. (see Brando Don’t Audition)

If they are not responding, it means that they have moved on. I send an email or leave a voice message that sounds like this:  “I’ve been in this business a long time, and when I stop being able to connect with someone it usually means that the timing for us to work together is not good. This is my last call to you for 6 months. I’ll circle back around then to see if timing is better for us to work together. If something changes for you between now and then, please feel free to call me. “

Having said all of this, here are some guidelines for proper Hunt Big Sales Prospect Follow Up Etiquette:

Prospecting Calls

  • 1st Prospecting Call- You can call or email an unresponsive person within 48 hours.
  • 2nd Prospecting Call– Within 48 hours of last call
  • 3rd Prospecting Call– Within 48 hours of last call
  • 4th Prospecting Call– Within 72 hours of last call
  • Final Prospecting Call– Within 72 hours of last call

Trade Show Follow-Up – This gets trickier depending upon the volume of contacts.

  • Pre-Set Personal meeting – Within 48 hours of trade show closing.
  • Good conversation on floor – Within 48 hours of trade show closing
  • Passing conversation on floor – Within 72 hours of trade show closing
  • Fish bowl business card – Within 7 calendar days of trade show closing
  • Prospect listed in program – Do you really have time to chase someone who you never met at the show? Don’t be a psycho stalker. Let it go.

Proposals. Assuming that you are sending a requested proposal, rather than an unsolicited one, your follow-up cycle should be declared in the cover letter. It should be within 24 hours to confirm receipt and distribution if appropriate. The time should be set at that time for a full review of the proposal within 72 hours. The house goes on fire outside of 8 calendar days—you must get connection and confirmation of interest and progress within 8 calendar days or you are dead.

Contracts. Who is driving? You are. Contract cycles within clients are a misty and dark area of the sales process. Lawyers think of themselves in this process as the stewards of their company’s risk, which they probably are. Because of this, they are slow, methodical and indifferent to you. First, get an understanding from your champion how long the cycle usually takes. Cut this time by two-thirds and follow up at the one-third mark in the cycle. Work both the attorney and the champion. Your approach should always be helpful: “What areas are of the most concern in the agreement? Which parts of the agreement are we going to be able to leave the same? How can we help to work through this agreement?”

Getting the prospect’s team to move. Stuck. I hate being stuck. Usually it’s IT, but not always. The process gets tends to get bogged down while your champion of your new client is waiting for someone in his or her organization to do something. Now everybody is waiting. Your follow up here has to be vigorous and consistent but friendly. You are working within 4 hour cycles of commitments. Any time that a time or date has been missed on a commitment, you follow up within 4 hours. If they are not missing commitments, then your follow up is within 1 hour of commitment completion to thank them for completing the commitment. 20 commitments? 20 thank you’s.

Information requests. Use the same guidelines as “Getting the prospect’s team to move.”

Guidelines are not laws.  When in doubt, use your own judgment. Always remember though, YOU ARE DRIVING.

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