Hi, it’s Ian Altman. Welcome to the Same Side Selling podcast, I am joined by the talented, brilliant Meridith Elliott Powell. We are talking today about the notion of follow-up in sales. Something that is often the scene of epic failures. Before we get into that, Meridith, can you give people a little bit of your background, so they have a sense of just how brilliant you are?
Yeah, I don’t know, you set me up really well. I’m a business growth and sales strategist, and my passion is helping my clients turn all of this uncertainty into their competitive advantage.
And most people know that I’m probably best recognized for this book I co-wrote with Jack Quarles, called Same Side Selling. It’s all about how we turn those adversarial traps where buyer and seller are butting heads together, and how we get people on the same side, working together, kind of putting a puzzle together.
So Meridith, we’re talking about this idea of sales follow-up. I know this is a topic that you’re passionate about and teach a lot about. So, kick us off. What are the biggest mistakes that you see people make when it comes to sales follow-up?
Let’s just start with a simple one. They don’t. They don’t follow up. I mean, they might once or twice, but they don’t stay in it for the long game. I am just a passionate believer that the sale happens in the follow-up. It always happens in the follow-up.
What do you mean by that when you say that people don’t follow up? I often say that the way people follow up today often sounds like this, “Hey I’m just calling to check in and see if you made a decision yet?” And you’re basically a tin cup and a cardboard sign away from begging at that point. It’s like, just start investing in Sharpies and cardboard. It’s like, “Just checking in. God bless.” I mean, we need a better way to follow up. So, when you say people don’t follow-up, what do you mean?
Well, let’s just say, “Just checking in,” and “God bless,” are probably two statements that shouldn’t be used in follow-up.
But I guess what I mean is the fact that, first of all, we’ve all heard the research that the average salesperson gives up after two to three times. It takes a person eight to 10 touches or messages to make a decision. I don’t know where that research comes from. I can’t cite it at this point.
But, let’s get into it this way, what do you think the chances are that you’re going to interact with a customer at the exact moment they are ready to buy? Like they got up this morning, looked in the mirror and said, “Please God, if nothing else happens to me today, please let a sales rep call me.” The chances of that are like slim to none.
Even if you have a really great conversation, even if I call on you, and boy, you are just hot to buy, by the time I get off that zoom call, I walk out of your office, what happens is, all of a sudden, your best customer just brought a really big deal into your office, your top employee just fell and broke her leg, and she’s going to be out for the next couple of weeks, and your kid got a D on his report card. All of a sudden, the conversation you had with me is no longer a priority.
So then I reached out once or twice, you don’t respond, and I assume that hot conversation was a figment of my imagination, you went somewhere else, or you’re no longer interested. None of which is true.
Yeah, you know, it’s a great perspective that I think is lost on a lot of people. I’ll ask reps, “So right after you left the office, what do you think happened?” And people will guess, and all sorts of things. And I say, “Look, it’s simpler than that: life happened”. Someone got in a car accident, or like you said, their child had a D. Somebody is pregnant. It could be good news; it could be bad. It doesn’t matter. The point is that something happened that took their attention away from whatever it is that you were hoping to sell. It doesn’t mean that what you were hoping to help them solve isn’t important anymore. It’s just no longer top of mind. And that notion of follow-up then can’t be just what we’re trying to sell. But instead, it’s a perspective of what are we helping them solve?
I often say that, in the world of sales, you can either show up as someone who’s there to sell something, or someone who is there to solve something. We want to make sure we’re always showing up as someone who’s there to solve, not sell. Because, when I’m following up with somebody, if I’m following up from my reasons, they don’t care. If I’m following up for their reasons, now, I might actually have their attention.
I think it needs to be balanced between two things. I used to just think that follow-up was about helping this issue get back to the top of their priority list. Which, I still think it is. That’s where you’re adding value and making it priority.
I think it needs to be balanced with making it even easier to buy from you. Making it so simple. Think about how many things you would buy if it was easy to do so. I think about things all the time. Like, the other day, I told you, I put my cell phone in a lake. I can’t tell you how complicated it was to get another cell phone. It sucked two days out of my life. If some other carrier would have shown up and said, “We’re going to bring the phone to your house. You keep doing what you’re doing, and we’ll get all your contacts uploaded, and it’s an extra 100 bucks to do it.” I’d have done it without blinking.
So, when people go dark on you, I think it’s partly that it’s no longer a priority. But, I also think it’s complicated. They just don’t have time and it’s not on fire right now.
I think that’s valuable insight for people to take away. Too often we make it too difficult. Or, we have a meeting, and we might ask all the right questions. We asked them, “What is it that piqued your interest? What were you hoping to solve? What happens if you don’t solve that? How important is this compared to other things? What does success look like? Who else who else should we include in this process?” We ask all these great questions. And then, we keep it all to ourselves.
We don’t send a follow-up note that says, “Meridith, in our conversation, I took some detailed notes. I hope you don’t mind. This is kind of a long read, but I’ve summarized everything. Let me know what I got wrong.” Now, we have this detailed document that provides, in essence, a business case for them that says, here’s what you told me you’re trying to solve, here’s why you told me it was important to solve it, here’s what success is going to look like, and here’s who else would need to get involved.
Now that I have that information, if I don’t hear back from them, I’m not calling up saying, “Hey, just calling to check in. Want to see if you want to buy our stuff.” Instead, I get to call up and say, “So Meridith, I’m looking through my notes. You mentioned that if you didn’t solve this it was going to cost your organization $3 million a year. I haven’t heard back. I want to make sure I hadn’t dropped the ball.”
Now what happens is you’re following up for their reasons. The client or prospect says, “Yeah, that’s a really good point. Yeah, you know, we forgot about that. See, my kid got a D on their report card, I dropped my cell phone in the lake, the dog ate my homework, my kid got in a car accident. I forgot how pressing this was. Thanks for sending me this reminder.”
Exactly. And, you know, sometimes even things as hot as that, they go cold. My favorite follow up email to send, assuming again we had a great conversation and I know I could really do some phenomenal things for your business and that it’s an urgent problem for you. Then, you go dark on me. I send my business case out…nothing.
My next email out to you is going to be, “Ian, I know you’re busy. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate. I don’t want you to worry about following up with me, I am going to take the burden and I’m going to follow up with you. Every now and then you’ll get an email or phone call from me, just sending some things that I think would be of value that are going to help to continue to solve this problem. Don’t worry about responding. When you are ready, I want to be there, and I want to be visible to help you out.”
What I just did with that email is, number one, I bought myself permission to continue to be persistent. The second is, I got the buyer off the hook of going, “Oh my god, Meridith, do you not understand I’m getting 150 emails every 10 minutes, I want to buy from you. But I can’t handle you right now.” So, I took the burden off that they have to respond. But, when they’re ready to buy, I don’t want them to have to remember who I am, what my contact information is, or how to get ahold of me. Because what’s going to happen is my competitor is going to slip in there. And you’re going to be too embarrassed to call me back because you never responded to any of my stuff.
I think there’s so much great insight there. Here’s what I want you to share with people, because I think that some people could go down a scary path with this. When you’re now sending that additional information, every week or two — I want people to pay attention, listen to what Meridith is going to tell you and what type of information she’s going to be sending. Because it’s not every couple of weeks or every week, “Hey, have you made a decision yet? You need a copy of the PO?” What type of follow up are you sending them?
Yeah, well, I’m going back to the interview, like you said where I took copious notes and I understand their primary, their secondary and even their tertiary issues, problems, and challenges. And so now I’m sending follow-up information that is value-add. I am sending them an article that I think is of interest for them. I might be inviting them to a presentation that either I’m doing or some of my peers are doing that address the exact issue. I may connect them with somebody that would be a good colleague or peer that I think that they could do business with. I go into 70% value-add mode, where it is all about them. 30% of the time, during that follow up, I ask for the business. It’s got to be a combination of both.
I’ve made the mistake where somebody said “I want to buy from you, but things are crazy right now,” and I just nurtured it. I never went back and directly asked for the business. By the time I did that they’d moved on. But it is that balance I’ve perfected of 70/30. You make such a great point, please never send a follow-up that says “I’m just checking in.” The moment that’s in there, take it out. You might as well be putting four letter words in the follow-up title.
Exactly. And we don’t just mean sell, sell, sell. I think that what I want to make sure that people get out of this is the notion that we’re following up in their interest.
So, what Meridith pointed to here is this notion of saying, “Hey, you mentioned that you had this challenge. Here’s a case study on someone who had that same type of challenge. Here’s an article I ran across the other day, that is someone else facing the same thing that you’re facing. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we sell; I just want you to know that you’re not alone.” And if you’re connecting the dots, what happens is, they feel like, you understand the situation better than anybody else.
There’s some research that shows that people, especially when they’re buying services, are most highly influenced by how well they feel the vendor understands and connects with their situation. The best way we do that is by sharing information that shows that we understand what they’re going through.
So, it always cracks me up when companies will go to present to a small to mid-market company, and they give three case studies of how they help Fortune 500 companies. And, I’m thinking, what do you think is going through the buyer’s mind at that point? What’s going through their mind at that point is, “We’re too small for these people, they’re not going to give us any attention because they just help bigger companies.”
So, in my prior business we had a software company, and we sold to large enterprise customers and smaller businesses. When a smaller business would say, “Well, we see how you helped Blue Cross, Blue Shield, and we see how you help this major pharmaceutical company.” I would say, “You know, we did and the interesting thing is their challenge is very similar to yours. In fact, let me give you an example of this other organization that I think is roughly the same size as you guys there.” So, they had the same problem, in essence, that this big pharmaceutical company had and here’s the way we address that. “How similar do you think that is to your situation?” I’m not saying to them that it’s same as their company. Instead, I share all the attributes, and then I let them decide how similar is that to them? And they say, “Oh, that’s just like us.” Then I ask, “Okay, that’s great. What do you think some of the differences might be?” Then they may say, “I don’t think there’ll be any differences.” And then, what they’ve just told you is, well, if it worked for them, it’s going to work for us. But it was their conclusion. Not us imposing that conclusion on them.
Yeah, you know, you said something so important, which is that people buy from you because you understand them, not because they understand you. I think that is a fatal mistake we make as salespeople, but it’s a big one we make in follow-up. We keep trying to convince the buyer why we’re the best person to buy from and the best product to buy. When somebody goes dark on you, the first skill you need in sales, at that point, is empathy. You need to do the old Stephen Covey, seek first to understand what’s going on.
Because there’s two reasons, I think, we don’t follow up. Number one is we worry we’re going to be annoying. Well, if you reach out to me every couple of days and you’re just checking in or asking me if I ready to buy, you’re not only annoying, but you are so annoying that even if I want the product and even if I liked you in the initial sale, I’m not going to buy from you because you have irritated the fire out of me. And remember, I control the buying cycle. I can buy the product from somebody else. The other is we assume people aren’t interested. We’re back to where we started. The moment you walk out of that sales call, virtually or live and in-person, other things happened in their lives. I hope that you are calling on incredibly busy people, because if not, they don’t have any money to buy from you anyway. So, you need to understand that they’ve got a lot going on. Don’t take that, personally. This has nothing to do with you. In fact, the sale starts when you get into the follow-up.
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So many things to unpack there. That idea of the sale starts when you get in the follow-up is something that I think is too often lost. People go meet with somebody, and they assume that they didn’t get the sale? So now what? I just move on? It’s like, no. You’ve said this in prior episodes — this idea of look, you’re not trying to get married at the first meeting, you’re dating. So, you’re trying to build some rapport and getting gain comfort.
The other interesting thing that I’ve noticed is this is that when you’re asking a lot of questions about their situation, and when you take a sincere interest in whether or not there’s a fit, the client or prospect actually asks fewer questions about your qualifications, because somebody has to be in the position to evaluate whether or not your skills and services and products are a fit for their needs. If you come in and present everything about you, subconsciously, what happens is they say, “Well, they don’t know enough about us. So, I better vet them to see if they’re a good fit.” If we ask a ton of questions about their situation, then what happens is the client or prospect says, “Well, they’re still talking to us so they must have a good solution because they understand everything about us.”
They feel like it’s now your responsibility, not theirs, to evaluate the opportunity. And it’s fascinating, because for my clients who get this down really well, their comment is that the sales cycles happening a whole lot faster, but we’re not telling them anything about what we do. And that’s because they don’t care. They just want to know that they’re in good hands.
Yeah, it’s kind of like a death by proposal if you put too much information in there, and you talk too much about yourself. And again, it’s back to that notion of follow-up, because follow-up is not about you, it is about them. And it is about saying what can I do to help them understand that what we uncovered was a really significant problem, and what can I do to help them understand our solution can actually make their lives easier? And then, how can I help them understand that we can make this efficient and effective, and not something that’s laborsome and time consuming. That it’s something we can put into effect and it is actually going to benefit the company in the long run.
That’s how you need to think about follow-up. You know Ian, I’m so passionate about follow-up. I feel like it is the lost part of the sales cycle. You can take so much training on identifying your ideal customer profile, on how to prospect, on how to have the right sales conversation, and then the art of the close. But rarely do you go into a company and see that they have a strong follow-up strategy that is methodically thought out about how they’ll follow up, what kinds of things they’re going to do to add value, how they, kind of, grade their follow-ups into A, B’s and C’s. There’s very little of that. And if you’re looking for competitive advantage, it happens in that follow-up.
I love that. I think there’s just so much value in that. I want to recap all this and try and give a 30-second recap. I’m going to leave ample time for you to fill in the blanks because I know I’m going to miss some of this because there’s so much brilliance that you shared, I want to make sure it isn’t lost.
So that first notion is that the biggest mistake people make with follow-up is they just don’t do it. They fail to follow-up. Then the second biggest mistake is that when they follow-up, they follow up all about themselves as the seller, instead of having that empathy about what the client’s situation is. We didn’t recognize that as soon as we’re done with the meeting, no matter how well it went, that probably life happened for the client or prospect. Which means we need to follow up in a way that is something that is 70% adding value to your point and 30% remembering to ask for the business. Meaning saying something like “Hey, I’ve shared this. Does it make sense for us to take a closer look at how we might be able to help you?” That is not a bad way to ask that question to see on the follow-up, and make sure that we’re always focusing on where we’re adding value for them, and not just talking about ourselves. So, I’m sure there’s some stuff that overlooked, Meridith.
I think you did a great job. I think you summed it up with so many of the key points. The only other things that I would add is that, number one, people do business with you, because they understand that you understand them, not because they understand you. You need a strategy. You need to take the time to sit down as a team, and really define how you’re going to follow up, and what those value-add pieces are going to be.
I want to throw in one more, just because we didn’t talk about it. I’m a big follow-upper with the 11th hour letter. Let’s just assume I lost a nice big fat piece of business from you. I don’t let the relationship go at that point. I’ll reach out and I say, “Ian that was a fabulous choice. You made a good decision. I know you’re really going to be happy. If at any point you find you need other services, something additional, or things just don’t work out, please feel free to reach back out to me.” And then, t I’m going to stay in touch as well. The reason I do that is that I want to make sure that, at any moment, if the relationship with a vendor doesn’t work, they feel comfortable reaching back out to me. Or if there’s some other service I could provide I always leave that door open. Just because you lose doesn’t mean you’re going to lose forever.
That that is such great advice. It’s something that I haven’t heard you share in the past. I love that notion of making sure that, in essence, we don’t want to leave on bad terms. So they chose somebody else. That’s totally fine. I’m sure you’re in great hands. And, if I can be of any service in the future, reach out. I’d love to be able to help. That way they know you’re not bitter about this at all. And then if something doesn’t happen, which we know, unfortunately, statistically, is pretty frequent, they feel comfortable coming back to you. They don’t feel like they have to come back with their tail between their legs or hat in hand. They can come back with a smile and say, “Yeah, maybe we didn’t make the best choice there. We’d love to talk to you again.” That’s a brilliant idea.
So Meridith, what’s the best way for people to connect with you and to learn more about how you help different businesses?
Well, I’m a big believer that if you build your network, it will change your life. You can reach me at my website, ValueSpeaker.com or connect with me on the LinkedIn platform. I tend to hang out there more than any other social media channel.
Excellent. Likewise, for me, LinkedIn is the best place to connect with me. Just mention the Same Side Selling podcast, or be transparent and say, “Hey, I’m just trying to sell you something.” But hopefully, it’s someone who’s trying to connect with the podcast. And of course, if you visit SameSideSelling.com, you can learn all about the different resources we have available. Meridith thank you again and to our listeners, we will see you on the next episode.