SALES

How to Nudge an Unresponsive Customer

When a prospect suddenly won't talk to you, there's only one way to save the relationship.
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Here's a frustrating but common situation: you're developing a relationship with a big client and you're pretty certain that the opportunity is moving forward, but then, boom! For no apparent reason the prospect suddenly won't communicate with you.

I recently got an email from a reader who encountered this very problem:

I have been working with a Fortune 20 client since October of 2012 and made it through several different channels, finally to the company's Procurement Council Officer (PCO).

The PCO and I were communicating extremely well for about 2 months, with the product making its way to the CIO's office.

They continued to show interest, and asked many questions concerning this product, and those questions were promptly answered by our manufacturer engineers.

Then all communications stopped about 2 weeks ago. I have left several emails and voicemails asking for a few minutes to get an update on the progress on the project.

The correspondence was going extremely well... until it just stopped. What is your advice on how to be persistent, yet not too aggressive?

What's Going On?

Because it would be easy for the prospect to send you an email saying "we're no longer interested," there are four possibilities, in decreasing order of likelihood:

  1. You've been played.  The customer was already working a different vendor and used you as a straw-man to extract a concession from your competitor. Once this happened, they no longer needed you, so they're blowing you off.
  2. They're in crisis.  Sometimes companies (and the organizations in them) get into "crisis mode," where everybody focuses on getting one thing done, like surviving a merger or a restructuring.  You may have simply slipped off the radar.
  3. Personal issues. The person with whom you've been corresponding with has been fired, gotten sick, gone on vacation, changed jobs, entered rehab, or whatever.  In this case, your emails and voice mails are falling into a black hole.
  4. Bureaucratic inertia. Since you're dealing with a big company, they may just have a purchasing rhythm that's very slow. In this case, your emails and voice mails may have identified you as impatient pest.

The Real Problem

While it's important to find out what's really going on (I'll get to that in a second), it's more important to realize that it's the salesperson, not the customer, who has created the problem.

In the example above, the salesperson made sure that the customer's questions were answered.  However, I see no sign that the salesperson was getting HIS questions answered.  Specifically, he should have been asking:

  • Who else are you talking with?
  • What other alternatives are you considering?
  • How do you usually purchase products like this?
  • What are the steps in that process?
  • How big a priority is this?
  • What might cause it to become less of a priority?
  • Who are the influencers and stakeholders?
  • Can I have an opportunity to present our solution to them?

In other words, the only reason that there's uncertainty is because the salesperson wasn't really developing the relationship.  If he'd been more assertive in finding out what's going on, he wouldn't be wondering why the customer suddenly went incommunicado.

How to Fix It

The long term fix, of course, is to start asking the difficult questions early in the sales cycle so that you don't get caught in this mysterious limbo.  Short term, there's really only one approach, and it's a bit of a "hail Mary."

Wait about week (so that you're not being a pest), then leave the following voice mail:

Jim, this is Joe from Acme. I've left a couple of voice mail messages and emails and you haven't responded.  That's fine; I know how crazy things can get.

However, I'm starting to get worried that something awful happened to you, because you don't seem like the kind of person who'd just cut somebody off. 

It would be great if you could respond to this email so I don't keep worrying.

What you're doing here is appealing to the customer's sense of identity as a "good person."  In most cases, you'll get a callback and find out the real situation.  If not, then start contacting other people at the customer's firm.

 

**UPDATE**

I just got this email from the person who sent me the original problem:


****
Geoffrey, I wanted to get back to you after I tried your suggested tip concerning how to get a reply back from a client who just stopped communicating with you. Your suggestion is in below email. Well, I tried it yesterday on the person that I have been needing to speak to, and he answered back within an hour. 
*****

I'll give more details--and the email that got the response--in next week's newseltter.

 

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IMAGE: Salim Fadhley /Flickr
Last updated: Jul 2, 2013

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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