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“How to Follow-Up on a Prospect”

A comprehensive follow-up plan not only requires strategic planning but a complete understanding of your target market and the entire sales process as well. You will also need to know how to implement various communication tools in your follow-up effort, such as sales brochures, sales letters, and public relation vehicles.


WHAT TO EXPECT

Follow-up is a critical component of the sales process, as well as an important element of on-going customer development. The information in this Business Builder will explain how to create and execute an effective follow-up plan that will increase your sales as well as maintain and expand your client base.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE GETTING STARTED [top]

Follow-up is an on-going aspect of most sales efforts. It specifically refers to each step taken beyond the initial contact with the prospect, or potential client. Whether initial contact was made by mail, phone, or in-person, any subsequent contact is follow-up.

For What Types of Business Should Follow-Up be Employed?

Most prospects need little time to consider the merits of an inexpensive purchase since little money is involved. The risk for the buyer is minimal and therefore, little, if any, follow-up will be required to close a sale. Certain types of sales, however, will require extensive follow-up efforts since prospects will take more time to consider them:

High Priced Items: It’s almost unheard of for a person to buy a new car quickly. Most consumers will conduct extensive research, visit several dealers, and agonize greatly over choosing a new car. That’s because it’s a major expenditure. Smart businesses are like smart consumers. They will shop around to try to get the best price and service possible before committing to any significant expenditure.

Luxury Items: Vacation homes and gold watches, while desirable and appealing to everyone, can be a tough sell. A sales person has to not only overcome objections to the high prices of such items, but they have to overcome the obstacle that they represent unnecessary purchases.

New Technology: New computers and machinery that employ new technologies often employ high price tags. They’re also perceived as risky purchases because the track record for their use is not well established. Plus, people rarely make quick decisions about things they don’t understand.

Services: Since services are less tangible than physical products, they are often harder to sell. It can take a lot of convincing and follow-up on the part of a consulting company to make a sale. A product can be seen, touched, and judged on the spot, but a service can only be explained or imagined. That’s why prospects may delay the decision to buy.

How Much Time is Involved in Sales Follow-Up?

Follow-up isn’t a scientific process that can be measured. Sometimes it can involve several mailings, phone calls, and business meetings to close just one sale. Other times, one phone call and one office visit is sufficient follow-up for making a deal.

Some sales people work on getting accounts for months and even longer. It will depend on how tough your product or services is to sell. The length of follow-up will also depend on how much of a commitment you’re willing to make to developing and maintaining your client base.

PROCESS OF PREPARING A FOLLOW-UP PLAN [top]

  • Establish Objectives
  • Develop a Sales Follow-Up Plan
  • Execute Your Plan
  • Develop an On-Going Follow-Up Plan

A. Establish Your Objectives

Before you begin you must answer two important questions:

  1. Who is my prospect and how badly do I want their business?

    Understanding your target market is the most basic ingredient to effective follow-up. During all of your contact with your prospect, you will have to convince them your product offers them a benefit they want and need. You will also have to anticipate what their objections will be to your product or service and be prepared to overcome them.

    For example: You’re a new printer, Alex Printing Company, targeting small book publishing companies. You’re competition is foreign printers. You’ve established that your target market cares mostly about cost, but they also care a great deal about getting a quick turn-around for their orders — book publishers may have a run-away bestseller and need to get more copies fast. You can’t compete with foreign pricing, but you can beat your competition’s turn-around by three months.

    Alex Printing’s Benefit: The benefit your target market wants and needs is the ability to produce books quickly. This will be the heart of your sales effort.

    Your Prospect’s Main Objection: Your service is too expensive.

    Your Counterpoint: Not if you consider that your inventory will be on a boat from Asia for at least six weeks. If I was your printer, your books would be in the stores right now. Your shipping costs from Asia must be extraordinary as well.

    Write down your product’s or service’s main benefits:



    Anticipate your prospect’s main objection and overcome it.



    You must determine how badly you want a prospect’s business because you must decide exactly what you’re willing to do to get it. Special offers, price discounts, anything you do to provide incentive for your prospect to make a decision to buy will become a strategic consideration of your follow-up.

    Because this publisher could become a major account, Alex Printing Company may decide to offer them free freight for the first 10,000 books they print, or offer a special price break on printing 5,000 copies instead of the usual 10,000. Putting a limit on this offer will help move the follow-up process along by establishing a sense of urgency in the book publisher’s mind. That’s why you must always put a specific limit on the life of any offer or incentive — "Offer good to January 1."

  2. How much time will you devote to following-up with any one prospect?

    Again, you must decide how important a potential client is to your business and determine how much time you will invest to try to get it. You will be taking time away from other prospects to ardently pursue one account.

    Making this determination will depend on:

    • How much prestige the account will generate for you. Someone established and respected in their field can be a valuable referral and help you generate new accounts.
    • How much business volume the client offers. Is this book publisher going to give Alex Printing 10% or 50% of their printing business? The answer will help dictate how much effort should be made to close the sale.
    • Where the prospect is located. If you can visit a client’s office easily for meetings, your follow-up won’t be as burdensome as it would be if the prospect is located in a different city.

B. Develop a Sales Follow-Up Plan

What’s the most effective way for you to communicate with a prospect on an on-going basis? Though it varies from company to company, three factors are common in developing any follow-up plan:

Decide on Your Sales Approach. It’s standard operating procedure to first generate sales leads, then to cold call or telephone the prospect. It’s also typical for many companies to mail the prospect information first before telephoning, in which case the phone call becomes the follow-up. Which is better? Again, there’s no fixed rule. Whatever the system, if it works it’s a good system. If you’re not certain about which method is best, mailing a sales letter with supporting material first can help your follow-up efforts by:

    …building credibility. If a prospect has never heard of you, they may not take your call. If they do take your call, they may think, "Who is this guy promising to print my books in four weeks?" Mailed material helps bridge this gap. It conveys your image to the prospect. Your letterhead and logo, your writing style, your sales materials all communicate who you are to the prospect.

    …overcoming a prospect’s objection. If you mailed a sales letter, the follow-up call is likely to last longer than if you didn’t mail anything first. That’s because the person is likely to tell a sales rep, "I’m very busy. Why don’t you send me something in the mail?" You can counter by saying that you already have sent something in the mail. It helps buy you time on those tricky first phone calls.

    …getting you noticed. If your sales letter gets lost on a prospect’s desk, you can tell them on your follow-up that you’ve sent a sales letter or informational material. It increases the chances that they will seek out your material and read it.

Identify Your Prospect. How you should make initial contact and how much time you should plan to spend on follow-up will depend on the potential customer.

    …personal contact. If you’ve met your potential client at a trade show or cocktail party, it will be easier for you to get an appointment with them. Any positive, personal contact helps establish relationships and moves follow-up along. If your initial contact is in-person, following-up with a phone call is highly appropriate.

    …referral. If one of your existing clients recommends you to a another client or associate, moving to close a sale will take less follow-up because you’ve already overcome a sense of risk on the prospect’s part. Your initial contact is likely to be a telephone call and your follow-up will be in the form of meetings.

    …existing customer. If you are trying to get an existing customer to increase his business, your follow-up will be highly personal since you already have an established relationship.

    …former customer. If you’re trying to win back a former customer, especially if there were problems with the account, you should plan on spending a lot of time on follow-up. Building trust is one of the key elements of a good sales relationship and one of the goals of any follow-up campaign.

    …new prospect. Even if the lead is a qualified one, new prospects require the most effort and take the most time for follow-up. If there’s no relationship, one will have to be developed over time.

Think about your approach — how you will make your initial client contact, then how you will follow-up.

    For example, suppose you’re a company called Party Planners, and you provide corporate catering and party planning services.

    You have two potential clients: Client A is a referral, client B a new prospect. You telephone the referral and mail a sales letter and brochure to the new prospect.

    Your approach for Company A: Telephoned September 2; follow-up meeting on September 12.

    Your approach for Company B: Mailed sales information September 1. Will follow-up by telephone on September 9. Will offer free hors d’ oeuvres for ten people if they sign by October 1.

Organize Yourself. Establish specific dates for follow-up and then stick to them. It’s tempting to tell yourself: "I’ll get to that next week." You might have the best intentions of following through, but you might get caught up in other business matters. Giving yourself a specific day to telephone a client or mail information will give you a short-term goal to meet.

Pick a time of day for each aspect of follow-up. Block off time for yourself that you will dedicate to making phone calls, meeting with clients, and mailing information. Phone calls are often best in the morning before your prospect’s day has a chance to get hectic. Many business people often come to the office early and stay late, so off-hours are good times to phone. It’s during off-hours that many key buyers and decision-makers answer their own phones; assistants and secretaries may not be in the office yet.

If you favor lunch meetings, it’s important to remember that it’s not always the most productive time to meet. If you have a complicated product or service to explain, a lunch meeting won’t be the best atmosphere for a serious, focused discussion. Lunch meetings, because they lend a social aspect, are best in the beginning to help establish the relationship or later to maintain good client relations.

If you find writing a sales letter requires an enormous effort on your part, you may want to schedule time in the morning for that task, while you’re still fresh.

You know when you work best and are the most productive, but you need to consider the time that is best for your client. A good time for Alex Printing to contact a book publisher isn’t right before their biggest trade show. The sales manager for Party Planners might like to phone first thing in the morning, but if the prospect has a morning meeting everyday, she will have to adapt her schedule to fit the prospects.

Consider purchasing a daily planner to keep yourself organized. There are many computer programs available to help manage busy schedules. Develop a system for profiling and tracking your progress with all of your prospects. It doesn’t have to be elaborate to be effective.

Suggestion: Create a customer sheet with space to record initial contact, follow-up efforts, special offers, and objections. Buy an inexpensive three-ring binder to store the profiles. At the end of the day, update entries and use it to plan for upcoming follow-up efforts.

Use this to supplement your traditional filing system. You can’t keep all of your files on your desk, but a three-ring binder is a convenient method to summarize your files and to keep them at your fingertips.

C. Execute Your Plan

Whether you choose to phone your client, write a letter, or meet in-person, make sure each client contact yields the maximum advantage.

Sales Letters

The purpose of a sales letter is…to communicate your product or service’s benefit.

    For example, Party Planners will emphasize cost effectiveness and time savings in their sales letters…to overcome your prospect’s objections. If, when speaking with a prospect, Party Planners met with the objection, "Why should I pay you to plan our office Christmas party when my secretary can do it for free," their sales letter would overcome this objection. For example:

    "When we spoke, you mentioned that your secretary usually plans your office parties. Planning an office party takes a lot of concentrated effort. That means instead of tending to her daily work load she must call restaurants and caterers…."

Move the closing process forward by making a limited special offer. For example:

    "If you agree to let Alex Printing print your next book, we’ll give you free freight from our plant to your warehouse. This offer is available only to new customers who contract with us by November 15."

Follow these general guidelines for creating effective sales letters:

  • If your initial contact was a face-to-face meeting, don’t use a headline. A headline on your sales letter will depersonalize your communication. Remember, follow-up builds a personal relationship.
  • State your strongest benefit in your lead paragraph. Your potential clients want to know what you can do for them. Your lead paragraph should be compelling. You need to grab your reader’s attention. Asking a question, creating a scenario, telling your reader important information they may not know are all effective ways to start your sales letter.

    Wrong: "Alex Printing Company is founded on the principle that quality comes first. Established in 1999, we’ve doubled our sales in the last year alone."

    Right: "Your new author just appeared on Oprah. Now, her book is selling like hotcakes. Your phone is ringing off the hook, your customers want more copies. Unfortunately, you have to wait three months to fill your back orders because this book is printed in Hong Kong. Maybe you should consider a local printer who can get your book to you in three weeks."

    Right: "Would you like greater control over your inventory? Alex Printing can help you do this and save you thousands of dollars a year in overseas shipping expenses."

  • Offer proof of what you’re saying to eliminate risk. Testimonials, product reviews, and endorsements should be used in your sales letter whenever possible.
  • Tell the reader what your next follow-up move will be. For instance, will you be sending a product sample or calling next week to schedule an appointment? Don’t leave your subsequent client contact up to the prospect. Prospects rarely follow-up with sales people, especially in the beginning of the follow-up process.

Telephone Calls.

Whether it’s your second call to a client or your tenth, the principles of good phone follow-up always apply.

  • Always ask the prospect if it’s a convenient time to talk. If the prospect is rushed, on deadline, or late for a meeting, don’t try to keep him on the phone. Ask when a better time to phone them would be. Again, don’t leave it up to them to call you back.
  • Never stop reinforcing benefits and meeting objections. Once you have a good rapport with a prospect, it’s easy to forget that you need to constantly remind them of your product’s benefits.
  • If your first follow-up attempt is a telephone call don’t say: "This is Bob Alex from Alex Printing. I sent you a letter and a sales brochure last week, did you get it?" Nothing is more irritating to a potential customer than this question. Chances are, your prospect’s desk is loaded with similar letters. You’ve made a bad and ineffective first impression. A better way to start a follow-up conversation would be, "This is Bob Alex from Alex Printing. I’d like to briefly tell you how our company can help you get books in the store when you need them there. Do you have a minute?"
  • If the prospect says "no," don’t force it. Ask when a better time to phone is, and let them know you sent them information last week in the mail.

Face-to-face meetings.

If you’re following-up in person, even if you can’t close the sale, you have an opportunity to gather information that will help you build the relationship.

Listen. Many sales people make the mistake of talking too much. Your prospect is the single greatest source of information to move you towards a successful close.

Be patient. Don’t try to get the prospect to sign on the dotted line after one meeting. That simply may not be possible in all sales situations. Even if you can’t close, an in-person meeting is an excellent opportunity to gather ammunition for a subsequent follow-up:

  • Find out what product or service the prospect is currently using. Ask them what they like and don’t like about it. This will help you identify which benefits are most important to them.
  • Ask them how their decision-making process works. This will point you to other people in the company who should receive information about your product or service.
  • Determine what your obstacles to closing will be in the future. This will give you more time to prepare your strategy for overcoming objections.

Some final thoughts about sales follow-up:

  • Be flexible. You might have to change your follow-up strategy as you go. Build on your successes. For example, if you’ve determined that your sales letter is more effective when it contains supplemental information, you should include a sales brochure in all your mailings. You may also find that some of your sales letters are effective and some aren’t. Study them and try to determine why. Some special offers work better than others. Identify the winners and use them whenever possible.
  • Be prepared to act quickly. Sometimes you think the follow-up process might take months, and then to your surprise the prospect decides to buy. If you were expecting to generate an order for 10,000 books in May, and you get the order in February, you might have a big problem. Always be prepared for the unexpected.
  • Don’t follow-up excessively. Don’t telephone your potential client twice a day, and don’t inundate them with literature about your company. You will become a pest. Give a prospect time to receive material, consider it, and go through their own company purchasing channels. Use your common sense as you establish a balance between calling too much and not calling enough. Think how you would feel about a sales person calling you frequently.
  • Know when to quit. You can’t follow-up forever, and you will not be able to close every sale. Trust your instincts. If they’re telling you, "this company is never going to make a decision," then chances are they won’t. The follow-up process in the next section of this Business Builder will advise you on how to maintain contact after you determine to end the sales follow-up process.

D. Develop an On-Going Follow-Up Plan

If you make a sale, follow-up continues. Once a prospect buys your product or service and becomes a customer, you will need to solve any problems that may arise to get them to continue to use your product and service on a regular basis.

But even if you don’t close a sale, you can still employ a follow-up plan to maintain contact with a prospect with the goal of someday turning them into a client. When you can no longer afford the time it takes to telephone, write sales letters, or visit a prospect, follow the guidelines outlined below for continuing the relationship.

  • Build Your Mailing List. When you determine that you will not be able to close a sale or if the prospect buys from your competitor, add that person’s name to your follow-up list. You might already have a system in place to execute mailings to your existing customers and new prospects. You might be sending them new sales literature, clips of articles about your company, or favorable product reviews. Why not send them to your prospects as well? Maintaining contact will keep your name and your product or service in their minds and at some point, if they become dissatisfied with your competitor, they might consider buying from you.

    It’s likely that you’re already employing several key tools essential to an on-going follow-up effort for other purposes. This means you can increase the cost-effectiveness of producing each one by further employing it as a sales tool. The following are sales and promotional tools you can employ in your follow-up:

  • Press Releases. A press release is primarily sent to the media in hopes of getting them to write about or feature your company or product. Because a press release contains new or newsworthy information, it’s also appropriate to send to prospects.

    For example: Two years after a prospect turned down Alex Printings’ sales offer, the company developed a new printing press that doubled the amount of books they could print at once. When the old prospect reads the press release, they’ll get the message that not only is Alex Printing growing, but their technology and service is improving as well.

  • Company Newsletters and tip sheets. The purpose of a company newsletter or tip sheet is to provide information about a company or its products. When used most effectively, these communication vehicles contain information that a prospect may find helpful.

    For example: Party Planners publishes a two page tip sheet four times a year. It offers suggestions to corporations on how to save money when planning office parties. Not only is this a good public relations tool, it also establishes Party Planners as knowledgeable experts.

  • Sales Brochures. As your company grows, you will create new sales brochures. Sending a sales brochure will inform your old prospects about your new products, product improvements, and new features.
  • Publicity. Anytime your product is reviewed in a publication or an article is written about you or your company, you should mail your prospect a copy. Clip the review or article and paste neatly onto your letterhead and have it copied. Publicity is an excellent endorsement.
  • Holiday Cards. Add old prospects to your holiday mailing list. Cards that are preprinted don’t even require a signature, but lets the prospect know you’re still thinking of them.

    Personalize your follow-up when time allows.

  • Tell the prospect what’s new with your company or product. Consider generating a sales letter or telephoning an old prospect every six months or so. This is especially important if you have a new product, new feature, or are employing a new technology. Keeping the prospect informed may open up a new sales opportunity.
  • Ask the prospect what’s new with his/her company or product. Understanding the changes they’ve experienced recently might give you an idea on how to sell them your product or service.

    CHECKLIST [top]

    Establish Objectives

    ___ Understand your market.

    ___ Determine how much you want a prospect’s business.

    ___ Construct an offer.

    ___ Limit the offer

    ___ Determine how much time you can afford to spend pursuing a prospect.

    Develop a Sales Follow-Up Plan

    ___ Determine your initial contact.

    ___ Consider the advantages of mailing first.

    ___ Evaluate the type of prospect you’re dealing with.

    ___ Organize

    ___ Establish dates for follow-up.

    ___ Establish times for follow-up.

    ___ Create a system for tracking your follow-up progress.

    Implement Your Follow-Up Plan.

    ___ Write effective sales letters.

    ___ How to follow-up by phone.

    ___ Make the most of meetings.

    Develop a Plan for On-Going Follow-Up

    ___ Create a mailing list.

    ___ Employ sales and promotional material.

    ___ Personalize your effort when time permits.

    RESOURCES [top]

    Books

    Stop Telling, Start Selling: How to Use Customer-Focused Dialogue to Close Sales, revised ed. by Linda Richardson. (McGraw-Hill, 1998). Chapter 6: "Dialogue Element: Follow-Up."

    Guerrilla Trade Show Selling: New Unconventional Weapons and Tactics to Meet More People, Get More Leads, and Close More Sales by Jay Conrad Levinson, Mark S.A. Smith, and Orvel Ray Wilson. (Wiley, 1997). Chapter 11: "How to Make Your Show Really Pay Off Big."

    Selling Your Services: Proven Strategies for Getting Clients to Hire You (Or Your Firm) by Robert W. Bly. (H. Holt, 1991). Part 2: "Follow-Up: How to Get Appointments with Prospects."

    Business to Business Direct Marketing: Proven Direct Response Methods to Generate More Leads and Sales, 2nd ed. by Robert W. Bly. (NTC Business, 1998). Chapter 20: "Inquiry Fulfillment."

    Successful Business Writing: How to Write Effective Letters, Proposals, Resumes and Speeches by Lassor A. Blumenthal. (Perigee. 1985).

    Periodicals