Persistence: How Long Should I Keep Calling on a Sales Prospect Before Giving Up?
Consider this scenario: You bang on the door of a prospect. The door opens and, before you can say anything, the prospect throws a glass of water in your face. The next day, you bang on the door of the same prospect. Again, the door opens and, again, the prospect drenches you. Would you go back a third time? A fourth time? Of course not! This prospect is rude and mean and is demonstrating it by their actions. But what if I told you it was a wicked big account and bagging it would be life-changing? What if you really, really, REALLY wanted to work with that company? How much waterworks would you endure?
This is the dilemma sales reps face when pursuing new business.
Let’s say, instead of visiting that prospect, you call and leave a voicemail. Your message is polite. You leave a strong message and speak your phone number clearly, but do not expect the prospect to call you back. Not surprisingly, they don’t. You call again. You leave another valuable, well thought-out message, your phone number, and once again hear nothing back from them. You make a third call and then a fourth before sitting back and pondering your choices: Keep calling or quit?
The question: “How long should I call on a prospect before giving up?” is complicated. There are two sides to that coin. On the one side, you cannot land the account without putting in the effort (even if it means enduring more than your fair share of rejection). But at some point you need to take the hint and move on. It’s where to draw that line and when to make exceptions that we need to discuss.
The Case for Calling
Owners and managers tell me nine out of 10 first-time voice mail messages they receive go without a follow-up. That means 90% of your competition gives up after one try. By making a second call, you have instantly differentiated yourself from your competition. You are in the top 10th percentile. Assuming that 90% statistic holds true for the next call, phoning a third time is done by only one in 100.
Persistence is the single most important characteristic a sales rep can have. Making call after call to the same prospect is one of the few factors completely within your control, and it demonstrates our strong desire to work with a customer. Heck, you could even leave a message, “Bill, this is my third phone call. How many people call you three times? Can you imagine how hard I am going to work for you if you’re my customer?”
As a sales coach and trainer, my customer base comes and goes. Training engagements can go on for several months and, as people rotate out of my coaching, I always ask one question: “What one piece of advice would you have me give the salesperson looking to be successful in the graphic arts?” 100% of the people I have asked have answered with some version of, “Tell them to be diligent. Make the calls. Make the calls. Make the calls. I owe my success to a lot of things but mostly it came down to being persistent.”
These are the people who answer the question, “How long should I call on a prospect before giving up?” with, “Well, how badly do you want to work with this company?” That is their single measuring stick. The more they want it, the longer they call.
The Case for Quitting
I once had a gentleman put a business card in my hand at a conference out in Arizona. He told me I had trained two of his best salespeople and wanted me to do some additional work. He requested that I call him the following week. I did. I got voicemail. I tried again. I got voicemail. That pattern repeated over the next couple of weeks.
And then I remembered something: Every time I have chased someone like this, I’ve ended up regretting it. Eventually, I would track the customer down and we would do some work together. However, something would happen along the way that brought me regret. Maybe they took a long time to pay my bill, for example. Or perhaps they would take my idea and give it to another vendor.
Anyway, when I looked back on the origin of that relationship and recalled how difficult they were to reach, I would think, “There were clues to the way this guy does business and I ignored them.” So, I found the business card the man gave me in Arizona, flipped it over, and wrote “You are not my customer” on the back, before sticking it in an envelope and sending it back to him.
There has to be a limit on the number of attempts a rep puts in — where that number is for you is for you to decide. Quit calling when you have completed your full prospecting process (Um, you do have one of those, right?). Quit calling if you believe it to be a common courtesy to get a call back and you feel you’ve earned the right. Quit calling when pursuit of an account is no longer the best use of your time. Oh, and quit calling after one attempt when following up on a quote. My experience in this area tells me more harm than good comes from anything further than that.
Persistence must also appear in a positive light and not drift into stalking. You want a customer’s admiration, not their restraining order. My wife and I left a KIA dealership south of Boston after checking out a car. Within five minutes of our driving off the lot, my cell phone rang. Our first thought was, “What did we leave behind?” Turns out the answer to that question was, our phone number. Despite the fact we told them we were not buying for six months when the twins would get their permits, they made follow-up calls as if a purchase was imminent. It got to be incredibly annoying. Such extreme examples of persistence kill a sale before it could even begin.
Advice From a Sales Coach
Look, I get it: Our priorities are not the customer’s priorities. There are lots of other shiny objects both in front of them and in their peripheral vision competing for their attention. That said, overall I encourage you to err on the side of persistence. Make one more call than you think you should. When in doubt, call again. You are far more likely to be rewarded than rebuked. On numerous occasions I have heard of a salesperson’s years-long pursuit end up with a new account. In fact, the average amount of time it takes to land a big account, by my own inquiries, is 18 months.
There really isn’t a steadfast answer to the “when do I quit?” question. That next call to an account might be the one or it might have you reaching once again for a dry towel. It’s a good idea to remain persistent ...
... Except when it isn’t.
Bill Farquharson is a respected industry expert and highly sought after speaker known for his energetic and entertaining presentations. Bill engages his audiences with wit and wisdom earned as a 40-year print sales veteran while teaching new ideas for solving classic sales challenges. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (781) 934-7036. Bill’s two books, The 25 Best Print Sales Tips Ever and Who’s Making Money at Digital/Inkjet Printing…and How? as well as information on his new subscription-based website, The Sales Vault, are available at salesvault.pro.