In sales, there's a fine line between perseverance and pestering. In my experience, with the exception of prospects that are already in the sales cycle (Your “A” prospects), that line is usually drawn at once every four weeks. So given that you only have once every four weeks to make a direct impression on your "B" and "C" list prospects, how can you make sure those follow-up calls have the greatest possible impact?

Let’s go back to sales basics and dissect a typical follow-up call that I hear 80 percent of the time when I’m coaching:

"Hi Mary, this is Colleen from Engage Selling. How are you today? Great. I'm just calling to check in and see if anything has changed since the last time we spoke?"

Do you see what’s wrong with this approach? I spot at least three big problems—any one of which will cost you a sale.

Problem #1: "How are you today?"

Please, please, please never use an opening statement that starts with, "How are you today!" Why? Because all it does is remind your customers of all those dinnertime calls they receive from telemarketers. Are you a telemarketer? I didn't think so. So don't act like one!

Besides, do you really believe that your customers actually think you’re even listening to the answer? Are you listening to the answer? Of course not. So remember: your prospects see through this opening question just as easily as you do whenever a telemarketer (or less professional salesperson) calls you.

Instead, try this rapport-winning phrase: "Did I catch you at a bad time?" This works well because it points out the obvious, and that makes the customer laugh. Of course it's a bad time! Any non-scheduled call is an interruption, and no interruption ever comes at a "good" time. After all, if all your customers spent their days just waiting at their desk for you to call then sales would be too easy!

Problem #2: "I'm just calling to check in and…"

Are you their mother or their sales rep? Seriously, are you really calling just to check in? If so, either you've got a lot more time on your hands than I do, or else it's time to seriously consider a career change!

First, start by removing the word "just."  It makes you sound unimportant and that your call seems like an afterthought. Instead, replace it with something such as, "The last time we spoke, you…." By taking the customer back to the last time you spoke, you remind them of your relationship, and prove that you’re carrying through on what you were asked or promised to do. Nothing builds rapport better than a promise kept. And as we know, rapport leads to trust, and trust leads to loyal customers.

Problem #3: "…to see if anything has changed since the last time we spoke."

Don't be vague. These days, your prospects don't have the time to decipher why you're calling and neither do you.

According to a study conducted by the American Association of Professional Organizers, the average executive has more than 52 hours of unfinished work on their desk every day. Experience in today's market shows that if a prospect doesn't understand the purpose of your call within the first 30 seconds, 99 times out of 100 they will simply lose interest, stop listening, and start looking for a way to get you off the phone. (Does the phrase, "Please send me some information," sound familiar?)

State up front exactly why you’re calling. Your prospects will appreciate your openness. To complete what we started in the response to Problem #2, try tying your opening statement back to something specific the client requested on your last interaction, such as, "The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you wanted me to call before we had a price increase…," or, "The last time we spoke, you mentioned you were looking for consultants with experience in the banking industry."

Break the four-week rule

There are ways you can stay in touch with your prospects more often than once every four weeks. And you still won’t come across as a pest! It requires using a combination of direct contacts (the phone) and indirect contacts (e-mail or mail.)

Mix up a phone call with an email, and then later send the prospect an individualized hard-copy mail piece—not a generic corporate brochure, but something that's relevant to them such as an article you clipped from a magazine with a personal note, a celebration card recognizing their company anniversary, or an invitation to your open house. To get you started, try the following schedule:

  • Week 1: Follow-up call with action items noted for the next direct contact.

  • Week 2: Connect on LinkedIn if you’re not already connected.

  • Week 3: E-mail a newsletter, announcement or article. It doesn't really matter what you send provided it is content-rich and NOT an advertisement. After all, this contact is intended to increase your credibility, not weaken it.

  • Week 4: Follow up with a phone call.

  • Week 5: E-mail to see what the next step should be. Offer to meet the prospect in person or continue the dialogue by e-mail if that’s easier for them.

  • Week 6-7: Follow up again with another direct phone call.

Finally, a last piece of advice: when making a follow-up call, make sure you're never in a position where you're still thinking about what you're going to say while the phone is ringing. Even if you're a veteran salesperson, pick up a pen and write out the 45-second "opener" of your next call right now. Then, look in a mirror and say it out loud. Would you listen to you? If not, try something else!


Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is the President of Engage Selling Solutions, and an award sales consultant, speaker and best-selling author, including the recent Nonstop Sales Boom. Business leaders trust Colleen to deliver immediate and lasting results with strategies proven to work in today’s competitive market. To follow Colleen and her latest sales insights, visit her blog, connect on LinkedIn and join the conversation on Twitter: @engagecolleen.