Monday, May 18, 2009

Getting Your Phone Calls Returned

There's a good reason you don't like making cold calls: You've been on the other end of those calls. Americans are united in their dislike of unsolicited sales calls, hence the Do Not Call Registry. So how are you supposed to initiate a conversation with a prospective new client?

In this economy, I can imagine that clients are more tired than ever of hearing from A/E firms who "just want to introduce" themselves. That's all the more reason not to answer the phone. Of course, even before the current recession, it was getting increasingly difficult to reach prospects (or even some of our own clients!). Most seem to rarely answer the phone. Then we're left to leave the oft-neglected voice mail message, hoping against hope that the prospect might return our call.

It's a persistent aggravation for those of us trying to generate some new business in tough times. How can we get more of our phone calls returned, not only from prospects but from busy clients who might be able to use more of our help? A few suggestions:

Give the client a good reason to call you back. It's pretty simple, when you think about it. If the client sees a clear benefit in returning your call, he or she most likely will. The reason most of our sales calls aren't returned is we haven't defined the benefit to the client. When the initial message is essentially, "I'd like to introduce you to our firm," let me ask you, would you return that call? Probably not. You have to do better, and explain why there's value for the client in calling you back. Which leads to my next point...

Never call completely cold. A cold call is purely driven by the seller's needs. The seller doesn't know what the potential customer needs, but he knows he needs to make a sale. So he calls on prospects that hold some vague promise of having a use for his product or services. That self-serving motive, devoid of any connection to our real needs, is probably the main reason we hate getting such calls. So do clients.

That means you need to make a preliminary determination of the prospect's needs before calling. That's called "warming the call." Networking and internet research are the two best ways to learn what needs a prospect has. As a general rule, I avoid calling a prospect when I lack either information about needs or a referral. I advise my clients to do the same.

Be as specific as possible. It's hardly compelling to leave a message simply stating, "I understand you might be needing some help designing a new automated control system for your plant." That only describes a benefit if the client doesn't know any firms that do that kind of work, and what are the chances of that? A better message: "We recently worked for a client that added an automated control system for a plant very similar to yours. They were able to reduce costs by 45% from the original estimate by doing some innovative things. If you'd like to hear more about that, please give me a call."

Yeah, coming up with a good reason for the client to return your call (what I call your "entree") isn't easy. But it works. It requires more work up front. So you can make 20 shotgun calls to prospects and maybe get 3-4 to return your call. Or you can offer your entree to 5 prospects and get 3-4 to return your call. Which seems the better strategy? By the way, your chances of eventually making a sale are substantially increased when you take the more client-focused approach, starting with that initial contact.

Make it easy to return your call. Think of the things that frustrate you when someone leaves you a voice message, and make sure you don't repeat any of the same mistakes. These include not speaking clearly, making it hard for the prospect to catch your name. Or saying your phone number too quickly to write it down. And then the prospect can't get through should he or she call. Here are some suggestions to avoid such frustrations:
  • State your name and phone number at both the start and end of your message. That means the prospect doesn't have to listen to your whole message again to get the phone number. Give this information slowly and clearly, spelling your name if there's a chance of confusion.
  • Tell the prospect how best to reach you. You don't want to play phone tag with someone you don't know well. If you offer your cell phone number and invite a call after hours if this is more convenient for the prospect, then you're hinting that you consider the call important.

  • Let the prospect know that the call will be brief. For example: "I can explain in 10 minutes and then you can decide if there's value in our meeting to discuss the matter further."

If you were referred, state up front why the referral was made. I would advise that you still offer your entree and not simply drop a name. The real value of the referral is when the prospect trusts the one who referred you as having the prospect's interest at heart. So don't let the referring party down; explain why he or she thought the prospect would benefit from talking to you.

Always try to schedule the next meeting or communication. One of the simplest ways to minimize this problem of unreturned calls is, when you're meeting or talking with the client, (1) establish the basis for the next conversation and (2), if possible, schedule it. Otherwise, you may well find yourself in the same predicament--competing for the client's time and attention--when the next contact comes around. If the client won't commit to a next time, that probably tells you something about the likelihood of the relationship developing much further. It could be a sign that your next call won't be returned either.

1 comment:

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