The lead has been in your organization’s sales pipeline too long. You know it. Your manager knows it. Maybe it was a hot lead at one point, but something happened. The holidays, maybe. Or maybe it was another person’s lead and you inherited it. Maybe the prospect has been putting you off. Or maybe you just went a little too long without contacting them.
Leads go cold for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean you ought to abandon them, according to Jim Obermayer, author of Managing Sales Leads: Turning Cold Prospects Into Hot Customers. Obermayer said 56% of the people who indicated they are looking to buy a product are typically still in the market within six months of contact; within one year, 35% of those potential buyers are still in the market.
“Leads do not go cold as much as it is not yet their time to buy in the one-year cycle,” Obermayer said. “A rep may approach them before they are ready.”
With an effective lead management process in place, you can reduce the likelihood of a lead going cold. According to Obermayer, leads often go cold because a sales rep fails to follow up with a prospect early enough in the sales cycle, and the prospect doesn’t remember inquiring about the product in the first place.
Keith Rosen, author of Coaching Salespeople Into Sales Champions, says reps should be careful not to check in with customers when they want something. Rosen gives the example of the salesperson who sells a subscription-based service, but only contacts his customer when it’s time to renew.
“If the salesperson has a comprehensive email 'drip campaign,' where they first get permission to stay in touch with the prospect, and then in defined intervals continue to stay in touch with that prospect — by delivering value to them in the form of articles their prospects may find valuable, inviting them to different events, delivering value-based webinars (rather than a pitch) or updates within your company through a newsletter — they are not only the first to know when changes are happening within the prospect’s business, but they are also insulating their prospect from the competition, while maintaining the integrity of that relationship,” Rosen said. “This way, the prospect doesn’t feel, ‘Well, the only time you call me is when you want something from me.’”
Of course, despite the best effort of salespeople, leads often do go cold. And that’s when reps have to spring into action.
“You should definitely review every lead again in the future,” Deb Calvert, author of DISCOVER Questions Get You Connected, said. “Think of it like a ‘cold case’ that gets reopened by a detective. With a fresh perspective plus new clues, new witnesses and new technology, there are often breakthroughs. The same is true with leads that were once cold.”
Not all cold leads are worth a second glance, however. If a lead wasn’t properly qualified in the first place, Art Sobczak of Business By Phone said, it’s not worth your time to follow it up. But if a lead was pre-qualified, you should definitely give it another look.
“I suggest the more time and the further you have gone into a process, the more emphasis should be placed on revisiting a lead,” he said. “You've already done a lot of heavy lifting, another attempt might break the logjam.”
Obermayer suggests that reps email a cold lead first, then call. That call should remind the prospect that the last time you spoke, they didn’t seem ready to buy, so you are following up now. If they still seem non-committal, ask them a simple question: “Should I close your file?”
“No one wants the rejection of a phone call,” he said. “But for a real lead that has contacted you in the past, the most courteous thing to do is call.”
It might not be easy, but not following up is the biggest mistake a rep can make. “Only 10% to 25% of all leads are followed up,” Obermayer said. “By following up, you stand a chance of standing out.”
Following up and being too aggressive is another common error. Reps should not follow up on a cold lead and immediately ask if that person’s ready to buy.
It should be a simple follow-up, reminding the prospect they contacted you first, and updating them on what’s changed since your last interaction — a new product, for example, or a price reduction, new terms, or new features.
You should always plan to discuss something with a lead, Sobczak said. It’s a mistake to say: “Uh, I’m checking back in with you.”
“Remind them of what they were interested in previously, and then bring some new possible value to the table to re-engage them,” he said.
Should you worry about annoying a prospect by reconnecting with them? Obermayer doesn’t think so.
“No pain, no gain,” Obermayer said. “Worrying about risking annoyance is a loser’s game and attitude. A rep with that attitude should go into marketing, as they will never make it in sales.”
Rosen, on the other hand, believes in a permission-based approach to prospecting.
“By actually getting permission to either have an initial exploration conversation with a prospect, and further, getting their permission to follow up with them at a defined time, it not only mitigates the salesperson’s fear of calling on that prospect either too early or too late, but it gives them the comfort that the prospect told them that it’s OK to continue to follow up, when to follow up and the best communication method to do so,” he said.
Of course, annoying your client a little isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to sales coach Manny Nowak, author of My Sales Follow Up Sucks.
“Let me put this a different way,” Nowak said. “Getting some reaction is a good sign, whether it's positive or negative. I've turned a lot of negatives into positives by just continuing to pursue them.”
"If a client tells you off, that’s an opportunity to learn why that client doesn’t want to work with you," he said. "A rep can then use that opening to ask what he has done wrong."
“People love to talk,” Nowak said, “If you can get someone to talk, they start looking at things differently.”
The only time Nowak stops calling a lead? When that lead tells him to stop calling. Even if they say they don’t want to buy, he says that reps should still call and check in.
“I think we've gotten a little weak. We don't want to be used-car salesmen,” Nowak said of sales reps. “I understand that, but ‘no’ is just ‘no right now.’ That means I have somehow not convinced you that I'm the person you need to deal with; it doesn't mean I should go away forever.”
It’s important to remember that reconnecting with a client — no matter how you do it — is an opportunity.
“Already this year, I've opened new business with three companies that I'd classified in years past as ‘cold,’” Calvert said. ”New year, new needs, new opportunities. For me, reconnecting is like having a shortcut — I’d made a good impression in the past and didn't have to start from scratch.”
Obermayer put it differently: “Never give up until the prospect buys or dies.”
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