SHOULDN'T WE KEEP IN TOUCH?

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Neil Warren
Neil Warren: Keep In Touch.

Is it one rule for the large corporates and another for the rest of us when it comes to prospecting, asks ModernSelling.com publisher Neil Warren?

When I first started selling in the 1970s (Haymarket Publishing – Lithoprinter Magazine – classified sales executive – fabulous!), I inherited a bunch of contact cards that frequently noted the objection of the prospect with a hopeful summary coded ‘KIT’. I learned it meant Keep In Touch.

Cold calling

Most businesses need to undertake some kind of prospecting and cold-calling activity:  quite often this turns up potential customers who are not immediately ready to buy our product or service, so, indeed, we do have to keep in touch. Lithoprinter, in common with the majority of small enterprises, did not have much else supporting its sales activity – certainly not a limitless and sophisticated marketing budget with numerous channels – so it was down to me to make those repeat calls and grow the business as and when it was opportune for our customers. That mostly produced successful advertising – and over time the section was built up and regular accounts established.

Marketing

For the bigger boys though – think What Car? in Haymarket terms – there were additional lead-generation systems and a wider marketing presence to keep the title familiar to both readers and potential advertisers. TV ads, exhibition and other live events, retail distribution support and point-of-sale promotions, and probably a load of other goodies to give away that would have made me jealous had I known about them. Similar but varying mixes of sales and marketing activity support most enterprises, up to the exotic and dizzying heights of the Microsofts and Coca-Colas of this world – who seem to come at us from every conceivable angle – including on Simon Cowell’s mug!

Communications explosion

Of course, since then, the range of available marketing channels has exploded out of all recognition, with the Internet, semi- or fully automated call centres, and networking organisations being amongst the most obvious newcomers of the last couple of decades. Yet, despite this increasing sophistication and evolving marketing communications activity (traditional media down – digital/online up), is the cumulative effect of all these new techniques so very different from the good old ‘message from our sponsor’?

Clearly, it’s a bonus from the seller’s or marketer’s point of view that there is now a plethora of affordable alternatives to a six-monthly telephone call, as a way of keeping the potential customer informed. Properly deployed, this increasing sophistication should allow marketers to segment their customers and deploy the right message via the appropriate channel to each segment. Instead of which, all too often we see a ‘scatter gun’ mentality, whereby unscrupulous businesses exploit cheap communications channels on what can seem like a random basis. Surely, we can’t all be potential customers for genital enlargement aids, an instant degree from a bogus university, or fantastic new consultancy role on behalf of a spurious Nigerian export company? (Well yes, in your case Neil, you’re probably right for all three! – Ed)

Unwanted intrusion

These days, it’s not just good old Lithoprinter on the phone once every six months to that small print works in Shrewsbury; it’s a steady stream of telephone calls, faxes, emails, and junk mail, from all and sundry, keeping them from their work. And, of course, the recipients are fighting back: recent years have seen a corresponding increase in the methods available for potential customers – in both consumer and business circles – to protect themselves from unwanted intrusions. Mailing, fax and telephone preference services have been complemented by the increasing use of ‘no names’ policies in business while whole neighbourhoods now opt to be ‘no cold calling’ zones.

The thinking, for those opting for the quieter life as they throw the baby (Lithoprinter call) out with the bath water (Viagra spam), is presumably that their organisation’s current state of knowledge of the spectrum of potential suppliers is complete, or can be updated with an occasional, quick reconnaissance exercise. In reality though, I suspect most actually do Keep In Touch – informally and despite the company policy – but only through a minority of approved channels and most definitely at the expense of complete market knowledge. So they’ll give out their (direct/private) number to the guy from Printing World – where they have already run the occasional ad – and miss the fabulous opportunity that would have arisen had they taken that call from the bright new sales exec at Lithoprinter.

Hypocrisy

The real hypocrisy, for most of us in sales at least, is that this kind of corporate don’t-contact-us thinking is rarely applied in reverse. In other words, I think you’d be hard put to find any sales director – even those working for the biggest ‘we-don’t-accept-incoming-sales-calls’ blue-chip – who would agree that all his staff can sensibly be barred entry into any new/cold markets.

There are some very unappealing double standards in play whereby those ‘hiding’ are often also those making the most commercial noise themselves. I have come across numerous examples from household-name companies, for example, promoting the use of email marketing for the rest of us whilst withholding their own addresses, telecoms providers refusing to provide names and numbers, or big telesales operations whose own executives, and entire company in fact, hide behind a Corporate Telephone Preference Service listing! And yet they are household names because they continue to pump millions into all sorts of sales and marketing activity, with the assumption that we will all be happy to hear about what they have to offer – even if they most certainly don’t (think they) want anything from us.

Impasse

The result is an impasse and a marketplace that suffers from a seeming surfeit of communication, yet is actually impoverished in terms of real, useful information. Both sides share the blame – the random marketers for hijacking cheap widely available communications techniques and the buyers (particularly in the large corporates) whose complacency is sometimes beyond breathtaking.

Open communications policies

So, may I propose we abandon for now these hide-away experimenters and see what happens to them in the longer term? Instead, I suggest that the rest of us crack on with open communications policies firing on as many cylinders as possible. By all means, let’s hone our communications skills, network, research our markets, craft our letters and emails, plan our phone calls, and target the recipients professionally and sensitively – but, let’s Keep In Touch.

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