First time e-mails to potential customers must be short and make it easy to move to the next step.
A couple of weeks ago, I explained How to Write a Convincing E-mail. That method works when you're asking somebody whom you already know (boss, co-worker, existing customer) to make a decision.
Sales e-mails--the kind you send to prospects to see if they're interesting in a dialog--are quite different. Because you don't have a relationship with the recipients, you don't have the right to put much demand on their attention.
My readers have sent me over a hundred real-life sales e-mails, usually with a complaint that they're not getting much of a response (as in less than 1 percent). I'm never surprised, because most sales e-mails are way too complicated.
What Doesn't Work and Why
Based on my experience, almost every sales e-mail reads as follows: (Note: I've numbered each section to make it easier to critique; the numbers wouldn't be in the actually e-mail, of course.)
Hi [prospect name]! Hope you are well.
Acme is the industry leader...[a paragraph about how wonderful Acme is.]
Acme has the following products and services... [a bulleted "spray and pray" list.]
Acme has served the following customers... [some big companies.]
I would like to set up a 20 minute phone call to discuss how we can help you.
If you need any further information, don't hesitate to call me at [number] or browse our website [website.]
Sincerely, [sender's name and contact info]
To understand why this type of letter doesn't get a response, let's look at it from the perspective of the potential customer:
The subject line means nothing to me, so I probably won't open it.
I don't know you, so the greeting rings false and the concern for my health is bogus.
Why should I care about your company?
What does any of this have to do with me?
I'm an SMB; if you work with large enterprises then you're probably going to treat me like small potatoes.
Are you effing kidding me? Like I have 20 minutes in my crazy schedule to hear some dumb-*ss sales pitch.
Apparently, you think I'm so stupid that I can't find your phone number and website under your signature. Also, you apparently live in some cloud cuckoo land where I'm desperate to have a conversation with somebody who has already wasted three minutes of my time with this confusing e-mail.
A final lie, since there's nothing sincere about anything in this e-mail.
It's amazing that salespeople get any response at all from this kind of dreadful communique. It's practically begging to be deleted.
A Method that Actually Works
Here's the structure for a sales e-mail that's more likely to get a response:
Subject: [something relevant to the prospect]
Dear [Mr.|Ms. prospect's last name]:
I'm contacting you because I may be able to [potential benefit to the prospect.]
Companies like yours ([list]) hire us to do [something quantifiable that leads to that potential benefit.]
Reply to this e-mail and I'll e-mail you some details so that you can quickly evaluate whether it's worth your time to pursue this.
[sender's name and contact info]
Here's why this structure works.
The subject line engages the recipient to open the e-mail. Examples of "something relevant" would be a mutual contact, a recent change in the prospect's business, a factoid about a prospect's competitor, etc.
While many industries and companies are informal, when you're contacting somebody for the first time, it's best to err on the side of formality. Nobody is ever insulted by formality.
People always appreciate it when you get to the point quickly. From the prospect's perspective the "point" is "what's in it for me." So tell them.
This is your sales message, but stated from the customer's perspective. The customers in the list should be of similar size and shape to the prospect. If you don't have this list, just use "Our customers hire us to."
It's unrealistic to expect an initial e-mail to convince a prospect to commit time to meeting to you. Instead, you make the "next step" something trivial that indicates the prospect's receptiveness.
The prospect is smart enough to figure out how to call you or access your website if required.
Here's an Example
Subject: Inventory Cost Overruns Dear Mr. Jones:
I'm contacting you because I might be able to help you reduce your inventory costs.
Our customers hire us to restructure their supply chain to ensure just-in-time component delivery. This typically reduces their inventory storage expense by 40 to 50 percent.
Reply to this e-mail and I'll e-mail you some details so you can quickly evaluate whether it would be worth your time to look into this.
John Smith, Acme 1-212-555-1212 www.AcmeSupplyChain.com
What Happens Then
If you get a "nibble," then research that prospect in detail. Craft a follow-up e-mail that describes what you're offering in a way that's likely to match what that individual prospect may need.
GEOFFREY JAMES writes "Sales Source on Inc.com," the world's most-read sales-oriented blog. His new book, Business Without the Bullsh*t, will be published in early 2014. To get weekly blog updates, sign up for his free "Insider" newsletter. @Sales_Source