Why persistence pays off

Paul Clapham looks at the statistics behind the sales to uncover a shocking secret - and a reseller's secret weapon

All the most successful football teams keep on battling to the final whistle. In their pomp, Liverpool were famous for scoring winners in injury time. Manchester United won the European Cup with two goals after the ninetieth minute. Keep on keeping on until the final whistle is a sporting mantra, although it often doesn’t happen as much as it should. But it should be the same in business and there it happens far less.

In business, keeping on keeping on is about good selling and the final whistle is when a prospect says, “No I really don’t want your product or service so please stop contacting me,” (plenty of far ruder versions also apply). Until then the door is still open. One of the classic mistakes made in every business sector is giving up too early.

Here are some oft-quoted statistics which should make everyone responsible for sales – and sales and marketing managers in particular – find their hair standing on end.

  • 48% of sales people never follow up with a prospect after the first business meeting;
  • 25% of sales people never make a second contact;
  • 12% of sales people only make up to three contacts and then stop;
  • 10% of sales people make more than three contacts.

To put it mildly, this is evidence of a huge waste of time, money and effort. If you’ve targeted potential customers properly and then the reseller has spent half an hour (or quite likely a lot more) with them, failure to follow through is like throwing away money.

Let’s contrast that with figures on sales success from the same source:

  • 2% of sales are achieved on the first contact;
  • 3% of sales are achieved on the second contact;
  • 5% of sales are achieved on the third contact;
  • 10% of sales are achieved on the fourth contact;
  • 80% of sales are achieved on the fifth to twelfth contact.

“Contact” covers meetings, letters, emails, phone calls – the works. The statistics are mainly based on sales to businesses but also include sales to the consumer market.

The reasons why people stop buying are equally instructive:

  • 1% die;
  • 3% relocate;
  • 5% follow recommendations;
  • 9% find an alternative supplier whose products or services they perceive as better quality or value;
  • 14% are dissatisfied with the product or service;
  • 68% stop buying because of their supplier’s indifference: they take their business elsewhere because they feel undervalued.

In one sense those figures are scary.

In another sense they represent a fantastic opportunity. Putting this right is not difficult. Indeed, a big part of the reason why follow-up is done so poorly is because people don’t realise they are doing it poorly.

Every single person I have quoted those figures to – all in the sales and marketing world – has been amazed. So, message one: making lots of contacts delivers the goods – it does not look pushy or, worse, desperate. In some business sectors, such as the channel, from first contact to first contract can take a year and often more. But still, people stop making those contacts.

Follow-up failure

Let’s dig into those statistics a little more. The very first is the worst: 48% never follow up. In fairness, this may hide a large number of outright rejections: “You haven’t got what I want,” or “I don’t like your price” as obvious examples where you believe that you just can’t square the circle.

That could apply to the reactions later in the process. But I doubt it is the key.

It could be that the customer’s expectations are out of kilter with the market. The user might think they can get Rolls Royce product at Ford prices. When they discover they can’t, the reseller who has stayed in touch is at the front of the queue.

Let’s assume that those statistics are right. Assume, too, that you can get results by keeping on keeping on. The really good news is that anyone who does so will progressively – and pretty quickly - see their competition fall by the wayside. To be the last man standing may not be in your business plan, but it definitely helps deliver results.

If 68% of buyers move to a new supplier because they feel undervalued, you can reasonably suppose that a similar proportion don’t buy in the first place for the same reason. Staying on the case is tough, but it produces the bankable stuff.

A key element in this is not being wasteful. Staff will always target the low-hanging fruit. The perceived easy sale goes to the top of the pile regardless of overall potential value of other and better contacts.

The result is that opportunities are wasted. Most sales managers – in all sectors – spend half their days convincing the troops to bleed dry every contact rather than chasing down the road to the next guy who might just well have a budget with lots of zeros.

From first contact to order

About 20 years ago, Manchester Business School researched corporate purchasing and discovered that many corporate projects simply drop down the agenda. The initially enthusiastic meeting, which doesn’t turn into an order, doesn’t necessarily mean “no”; it could mean “not now”.

An important point is how long it usually takes you to go from initial contact to first order. You should know and, if you’re not sure, it could be worth discussing this with suppliers who have statistics of their own or at least some anecdotal evidence.

One client told me: “I never switch to a new supplier unless they’ve been chasing me for six months – I want to know that they’re really serious.” Some of your contacts may be adopting a similar approach.

But how do you do the follow-up without turning yourself into a variant of the annoying call-centre nerk? This is very important because it’s where most of the problem lies. You can’t think of anything fresh to say by phone or email so you don’t bother. As above, the word is “contact”. Because they’re cheap and easy, that often gets distilled down to phone calls and much more to emails. Fine, they are part of the process. But this is where people go wrong.

To rework the football analogy, the best teams have lots of different ways to get the ball over the line and so should a business. Try using good, old-fashioned letters and indeed post cards as part of your communication. Meet them at industry events; invite them to demonstrations at your premises. Offer to take them out for a beer and a bun. Invite them to a corporate event if you spend on that. Giving variety to your contacts with clients helps keep them fresh and improves the hearing you get.

Record what works

Do you record faithfully what process of contacts works for you? If not I strongly recommend that you start to do so. One of the best pieces of business advice I ever heard was this: ask why you got the order; then you can replicate that process every time (it could be a very simple reason). If you’ve done that faithful recording as well, you have a ready-made business structure which you can use time and time again.

One of the benefits of knowing these figures is that it helps justify your persistence. Some contacts are going to be surprised, since so few people follow up properly; there may well be an element of hostility. So you can tell them that 80% of sales are made between the fifth and twelfth contact which is why you go on making contact.

There may well be a further opportunity here. If you look back through your database it is extremely likely that you will come across a number of prospective clients whom you didn’t follow up properly.

Contact them and apologise for that. You might quote some of the statistics to justify re-starting the conversation. More – as per Manchester Business School – you could find that they are now ready to buy. The best salesmen say there is no such thing as a dead lead.

I would also suggest that a properly researched contact is rarely a dead lead. The customer buys your service and products regularly or from time to time and the needs of a business very often change. You may have pigeon- holed someone as buying cheap or not being interested in your speciality. But that could be last year’s information. If you don’t maintain contact, you won’t know and could miss a valuable client.

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