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Cold Leads: When to Cut and Run

It was such a promising prospect. You made contact. You may have even gotten some interest. But then your lead sat and sat and sat in your pipeline. You put a lot of effort into the lead, but you’re not getting anything back.

There could still be hope, however.

How do you know it’s time to cut bait?

When should you give up on a lead?

Giving up on a lead is a decision that should be made on a case-by-case basis, according to Art Sobczak of Business By Phone.

How much time has a rep invested in the prospect? If the rep is investing lots of time in trying to get a decision from someone who isn’t going to buy, there’s no point in continuing to chase that lead, he said.

Deb Calvert, author of DISCOVER Questions Get You Connected, concurred: “You should give up when there is no longer any opportunity. Your time is valuable, so why waste it on fruitless activity? I'd add, however, that sellers shouldn't be hasty in classifying a lead as ‘cold.’”

Many reps jump the gun when it comes to classifying a lead as “cold.” Giving up too soon is a mistake, however disheartening it may be when your prospect puts you off for the second or third time.

“Most studies show that many reps give up after three or four attempts to reach a prospect,” Suzanne Paling of Sales Management Services said. “In reality, sometimes it takes up to seven times or more, many more times than that.”

Making a decision about whether a lead truly is cold is about more than how many times a rep has called the prospect. Calvert said it’s about weighing the effort a salesperson has put into the prospect against the size of the opportunity the prospect represents.

Simply put, if a rep has a chance to close a big deal if he just manages to connect with his prospect, he should keep calling.

“The amount of time you put into any prospect should be commensurate with the opportunity, Calvert said. “Bigger opportunities get more time and stay on the list longer. It really is that simple.”

Of course, even big opportunities might not pan out, and could cost a rep time that he or she does not have, and the one thing a sales rep can’t afford to waste is time; every minute spent on someone who won’t buy is a minute the rep isn’t spending on someone who will.

“Time is more important than money,” Sobczak said. “We can make more money, not time.”

Giving up on a cold lead

So when do you kiss a prospect goodbye? Calvert recommends giving up on a prospect when one or more of the following occurs:

  • The expiration date the rep has attached to a proposal is more than four weeks past and calls aren't being returned
  • The rep has made at least two connection attempts per week for four consecutive weeks with no response
  • A decision maker (not gatekeeper) has told the salesperson "no" and has given a good reason for that no.

Sobczak suggests that reps try to get that “no” by confronting the prospect to get an answer one way or the other.

“Leave a voicemail reinforced with an email that says, ‘I've attempted to reach you multiple times, and I'm a bit puzzled since I thought that we were in agreement that (x-solution) would help you to (benefit). There's just a few letters difference between "persistence" and "pest" and I don't want to cross that line. If this is something that is no longer a priority, I understand. Could you please simply hit reply in the email I'm sending to let me know how I should proceed?’” he said.

Sobczak said salespeople should make it a habit to ask prospects for answers at each step of the sales process.

“This minimizes leads that go cold. A ‘no’ today is better than following up repeatedly on a black hole,” he said.

When a qualified prospect doesn’t buy

It can feel like a kick in the slats when a qualified prospect refuses to buy, or worse, buys from your competitor, but don’t take it personally. After all, a prospect’s decision not to buy often has nothing to do with the seller. It’s about the potential buyer’s needs.

“The prospect wasn't ready, able or willing to move forward at this time,” Calvert said. “Nothing less, nothing more. It's not a rejection. There's no offense intended. They aren't judging you, and you have no cause to judge them. It's just business. Imagining it's anything else is a total waste of time and energy.”

There’s a benefit to seeing a refusal to buy in this way; if the prospect isn’t ready to buy right now, they could be interested in buying from you in the future.

People decide not to buy for many reasons, Paling said. Every refusal to buy is an opportunity for a rep to learn what went wrong — with the prospect or with the sales process itself.

“Sometimes it’s been taken from the budget. Sometimes they have other priorities. They have changed their mind, or sometimes someone else is advocating for another product or service. To the best of your ability, try to find out,” she said. “And then I would definitely follow up: Did they go through with the purchase? Did they like what they purchased? How do they feel about it? Do they know of anyone else who might be interested? It can be pretty valuable to call someone even after they haven't purchased your product or service.”

Cutting bait doesn’t mean closing the door

No salesperson should ever give up on any qualified prospect completely. In fact, salespeople should check back in with their leads on a regular basis, even if they are cold.

“Leads are usually very hard to come by,” Paling said. “Provided that a lead is somewhat qualified, and has potential to purchase your product or service at some point, I would try reaching out in six-week/two-month cycles.”

You don’t have to cut them loose completely, but it’s in everyone’s best interest if you let that prospect go for a little while.

“Prospects' needs change,” Calvert said. “Letting a prospect know you'll be there when they need a resource is smart business. One way to keep the door open is to ask for a referral by saying ‘I understand that what I'm offering isn't of interest for you at this time. Of course, I'll be here if anything changes. In the meantime, who do you know that does have an immediate need? I appreciate any connections you can help make if there's someone I could be helping.’”

Cold leads can also be a source of unexpected revenue. For example, Paling uses her company’s cold leads to train new members of her sales team.

“Whenever I hire a brand new rep, I have them call all the cold leads from former customers for a few weeks,” Paling said. “They get to practice introducing themselves, speaking to customers, answering questions; they have nothing to lose. In all the years I've been doing this, I've never seen a rep that didn't set a few appointments and ultimately close a sale from those cold leads. Never.”

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