The classic approach to placing follow-up calls comes with some challenges. The usual image of a follow-up call is to pick up the phone and ask your prospects, "Are you ready to hire me?" When you're calling potential referral sources, the question may become, "Got any referrals for me? For most independent professionals, this process isn't much fun. In fact, it's disagreeable enough that we may avoid it entirely.
On the other end of the line, our prospects and referral sources don't like this approach very much either. While on some occasions, calls like these can be welcome reminders to take care of something that had slipped their mind, more often, they are considered somewhat annoying interruptions in a busy day.
Is there a different approach to follow-up calls that might make both the callers and the recipients happier? I think the answer is yes.
When I first started marketing my own business, one of the first things I noticed was how difficult it was for me to call people and ask if they were ready to hire me. But I'm no recluse; I enjoy interacting with people. In fact, I even enjoy talking on the phone. So what was it about these particular calls I found so distasteful?
Being the analytical sort, I decided to identify exactly what it was about these calls that I disliked and avoided. Here are the elements I identified:
1. Asking for a sale or referral.
2. Calling just to "say hello."
3. Making small talk about generic topics.
4. Fearing rejection.
5. Telling people how great I was.
6. Calling back someone who had already said no.
7. Feeling as if my call was an imposition.
Reviewing this list, it seemed to me that the secret to enjoyable follow-up (that would actually get done) was to eliminate these elements that I didn't like and replace them with ones I did. This reverse engineering didn't happen overnight, but over time, I began to find more and more ways to follow up agreeably. Here are the alternative approaches I discovered to make follow-up a pleasure instead of a chore:
1. Offering something instead of asking for anything.
Like many professional service providers, giving advice, making connections, and sharing resources comes naturally to me. Instead of focusing on what I wanted to get from the person I was calling, I switched my emphasis to what I could give them.
2. Calling with a specific, helpful purpose.
I've had many salespeople call me just to "stay in touch," and it always feels like a waste of my time. Instead of calling people just to chat, I would call to invite them to a networking event, introduce them to a new contact, or let them know about a book, article, or workshop they might find valuable.
3. Having meaningful conversations about what's going on in peoples' lives.
Making small talk about weather, sports, or entertainment news has never been one of my favorite pastimes. But hearing what's going on in someone's life, career, or business fascinates me. Those were the topics I began introducing in my follow-up calls.
4. Avoiding rejection by staying away from selling.
Phoning someone to ask whether they're ready to hire me feels awkward and pushy, and I'm sure my prospects often feel the same. I'd much rather help people than sell to them. Unless I was calling someone to follow up on a specific deal already in progress, I stopped asking for business and focused on having helpful, meaningful exchanges.
5. Telling people how great my clients were.
While talking myself up feels uncomfortable, talking about my clients' successes comes easily. I began describing my work by sharing my clients' accomplishments instead of my own (honoring client confidentiality, of course). These success stories turned out to be much more effective than simply telling prospects what I could do.
6. Letting go of sales that were too hard to close.
It's important to be persistent and follow up multiple times with prospects who don't respond or say they're not ready, but calling back someone who has actually said no can be pretty confronting. I realized that if I had a long enough follow-up list, I didn't really need to call those prospects at all. I could spend my time instead with people who were more likely to be interested.
7. Designing a call that anyone would welcome.
If making a call just to push for business isn't a good experience for me OR to the person I'm calling, why make it? I'd much rather spend my time having conversations both sides can enjoy. I discovered that if I contacted people in a spirit of friendliness and generosity, instead of acting like a salesperson, plenty of sales and referrals resulted without asking for them directly.
Now, I'm not talking about using these principles as a way to avoid answering direct questions or provide needed clarity, when those are called for. If prospects ask about your ability to do the job, by all means, you should tell them about your skills and experience. If you've submitted a proposal, and are waiting for the prospect to tell you whether he or she has accepted it, asking whether you got the order is completely appropriate and usually necessary.
But what I am suggesting is that you can design much more pleasurable, helpful, and relationship-oriented reasons to pick up the phone and call your prospects and referral sources, just once or many times throughout the year. And THAT can transform making follow-up calls from a dreaded task into a welcome activity – for both you and the people you call.
Copyright © 2009, C.J. Hayden
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