Five years ago, writing pithy emails to business contacts was a relatively little-used tool by salespeople to get their feet in the door of an organization. Back then you could write an email to a CEO and say, "I know you are not the right person for me to approach but could you send me in the direction of the person who makes buying decisions about accounting systems at your organization?" And the CEO actually might facilitate an introduction.

However, over the past few years the practice of sending unsolicited emails by salespeople to business contacts has exploded. The consequences of this is that if you are in a decision-making position at your organization the chances are that you have to wade through a sea of irrelevant email every morning. What this means is that you likely almost never respond to a salesperson who just sends you a fairly cookie-cutter email and doesn't follow-up with a phone call.

This said, I am not advocating the elimination of email as a sales communication channel. Indeed I still think it is a highly relevant aspect of a prospecting contact strategy. However, as a salesperson today, the content of your emails needs to be far tighter and the cadence of your outreach much more sophisticated if you hope to engage with your prospects.

Mass Email Has Become an Epidemic

When Aaron Ross wrote Predictable Revenue in 2011, mass email outreach was still a fairly new technique. The calculated, volume-driven approach it brought to sales was an effective way to heighten a company's impact quickly. Yet in the five years since then, consumer expectations have changed. With average click-through rates hovering around 3 percent, the attention people are willing to pay to marketing and sales emails are quickly dropping.

Salespeople should be paying attention to the shift in people's preferences, because their prospects' receptiveness to outreach will be colored by the channel it comes through. That means being strategic about when to send an email and when to take another route.

The temptation to rely on email essentially boils down to efficiency. Salespeople have quotas to reach and want to cast as broad a net as possible. Email makes that tantalizingly easy. But sales isn't just about reaching as many potential buyers as possible--it's also about nurturing those opportunities into something more. When salespeople use email, it should serve a specific purpose. If reps are thoughtful and strategic about the way they email prospects, they stand better chances of meeting with a receptive audience.

How to Make Email a Useful Tool Instead of a Burden

  1. Get personal: Personalized emails improve click-through rates by 14 percent and conversions by 10 percent, according to Aberdeen Group. I recommend as a salesperson that you never send another email that doesn't have something that is personally relevant and specific in the first line of the email. Look your prospect up on LinkedIn and Twitter, and research their company before you start writing your email. Use what you learn to create a really succinct and personal introduction to your email. Even better if you have someone in common in your social network who you can cite in the email. Here's an example:

    "Kellie,

    We both know Max Sharpe at ABC Company; he's been using our accounting software for over a year now with great results. I heard that you have recently expanded your accounting team, Paul seems like a great addition by the way, and thought that probably meant you would be planning an upgrade from 123Suite..."

  2. DON'T be a cliche: Personalized does not mean simply dropping someone's name into the subject line. Businesspeople in 2016 have become all too familiar with templated email marketing for an emphasis on their name to draw attention. In fact, it's likely that they'll associate names in the subject line with spam and ignore the email entirely. Similarly, "cute" email marketing techniques (like asking people if they've been eaten by an alligator when they've been unresponsive) have become overplayed and hackneyed. Business audiences in particularly are far more likely to be put off than charmed by a generic or hokey email that they've seen multiple times before.
  3. Take a multi-channel approach: The most effective way to progress a deal quickly and reliably is simply to use more than one channel. Send emails, but also don't forget to pick up the phone. Buyers can't miss or ignore phone calls the way they can email, and it's easier to create relationships with prospects when there's an actual conversation. Working the two channels together establishes to the prospect that there is a real person behind the communication, not just a bot. In fact research shows that prospects who receive emails have a 16 percent higher chance of being reachable by phone.
  4. Strike the right cadence: the optimal number of times to email a prospect for a first connection is usually five. Those emails should be strategically spaced out and timed to keep your company fresh in buyers' minds without overwhelming them. Buyers are busy and need reminders, but they don't want to feel hounded. Sticking to five well-thought-out and timely emails creates a good balance between being persistent and being respectful.

For the foreseeable future, email will be an integral part of business communication, but using it effectively is a dynamic art. Keeping these four rules in mind during outreach will ensure that email remains a useful tool for developing relationships, not an annoying encumbrance for your buyers.