Most email marketing campaigns struggle to get a high enough open rate to justify the effort. I've seen email marketing programs so concerned with open rates that they don't even touch on response rates.

I've explained in the past how to increase open rates and response rates (cover this frequently in my free weekly newsletter) and I've even explained how to handle a positive response by seguing into a telephone or face-to-face meeting.

What I haven't explained, though, is how to handle responses other than "Yes." This is an important skill because (as you'll see) with email marketing any response, even a negative one, is actually an opportunity to sell.

For a quick summary, there are three ways to get a high response rate:

  1. A high open rate (because if they don't open they won't respond).
  2. A crisply-written relevant message (because if they don't read, they won't respond).
  3. A single YES/NO call-to-action. (Multiple calls-to-action create inaction.)

Note that the YES/NO question is not an attempt to close a sale but only to elicit a simple response via email. You're fishing for the "three thump taps" (<reply><Y><send>)--the lowest barrier to entering into an online conversation.

When I've explained this YES/NO concept to clients, I've occasionally had them quote the old adage that salespeople should only ask questions that can only be answered with YES. (Example: "you always expect the best quality, right?")

This issue behind the adage is that by asking a question that could hone be answered "NO" could result in a "NO," thereby ending the discussion. However, that's really old-style, obsolete sales thinking:


With email marketing, a "NO" response is a good thing because the prospect must reply to the email in order to say "NO," which implies that the prospect has considered saying "YES." Otherwise the prospect would bother to respond.

Therefore, when a sales email gets a "NO" response, your best tactic is to immediately email back a single line: "Just out of curiosity, why did you say 'no'?" One of two things will happen: either 1) your email will be ignored or 2) you'll get a response.

If it's ignored, no big deal. If you get a response, however, you're suddenly in a conversation that might lead to an opportunity. Once you know the "WHY" behind the "NO," you can reposition your product so that the "NO" no longer applies.

That's the simplest (and most common) example of a "NO" response. What's a bit trickier is a "YES" response that implies "NO" such as when the prospect expresses interest in what you've got to say but states he has no interest in buying from you.

One of my clients ran into this situation earlier this week. As a quick background, his marketing email ended with the following call-to-action:

"I track and analyze these trends and have prepared a top-line executive summary. Would you be interested in seeing this summary?"

As you can see, he's fishing for the "three thumb taps" in order to start a conversation. This technique got him a 25% response rate (which as anyone in email marketing will tell you is astronomically high.)

However, one of the responses he received wasn't exactly encouraging:

"I would be very interested in seeing this research but just to manage expectations we have no plans to adjust our current roster of vendors."

My client wasn't sure how to react to this "Yes But No" response. Here's what I told him:

  1. Don't panic. Far from being a negative, the "we buy elsewhere" prospect response is actually an invitation to sell.
  2. Celebrate. People don't say "I'm not going to buy anything" if they aren't already thinking of buying from you.
  3. Understand the reason. The reason they take that position is that they're leery of being "sold at," which is like "talked at" only worse.
  4. Reply to his email. Tell him that you understand completely that they aren't currently (important word) planning to add to their roster of recruiters.
  5. Don't try to sell. As you converse with him online, adds value to his business from the start and impress him that you're an expert.
  6. Segue to a phone conversation. Offer to explain the research to him more fully. Once you've landed the telephone appointment, proceed as follows:
  7. Probe for competitive weakness. Ask "just out of curiosity, in an ideal world what would your recruiters be doing for you that they're not doing now."
  8. Listen to the answer. The prospect will then tell you exactly how to position yourself (gently, gently... no overt selling) so that you're the best alternative.
  9. Damn with faint praise. If a competitor comes up by name, say "They're really good at what they do." (Implication: they're not doing enough.)
  10. Consider the worst case. You now have a business contact that might be useful in the future. Put him on your list of contacts to continue to cultivate.
  11. Consider the best case. If all goes well, the prospect will decide to "adjust" the plans so that you're included in the list.
  12. Don't stress out. Mostly you just want have a conversation so that you can network, learn about the company, learn about prospect.

I provided that coaching yesterday. This morning, my client emailed me a single word:


By following my advice, he'd landed a meeting with the prospect. In other words, he turned "Yes But No" into "Yes And Maybe"!

Pretty cool, eh?