A career advice article in the Wall Street Journal ("Bosses Say 'Pick Up the Phone'") discussed the problem of declining sales at a company in Halifax called Metro Guide Publishing: “Ms. Baxter [the firm’s publisher] identified a reason: Her sales staff, all under age 35, were emailing clients with their pitches, not calling them on the phone.”
The article goes on to suggest that “phone phobia” is common among younger people who grew up with a very wide array of communication options. Phone calls are, by their nature, interruptive, and many young people see them as overly intrusive. I am sympathetic to this point of view. But if you sell, you need to pick up the phone.
There are three reasons that email is an inappropriate communication medium for sales.
1. It is easy to misinterpret. Email conveys neither body language nor tone of voice. Some people try to supply more nuance to it with emoticons, but even with little smiley faces, it is dreadfully easy to ignite misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even flame wars. This is not an environment in which to communicate a sales proposition.
2. Nobody reads long messages. Given our expectations of email and the inherent strain of reading on a screen, long messages get ignored. Since most selling propositions are too complex to get across briefly, email can’t convey an effective pitch.
3. It’s asynchronous. This is the number one reason you can’t sell by email. Sales requires a conversation and real-time dialogue. It’s about probing to find the customer’s need and then filling that need. That kind of probing isn’t just difficult to do asynchronously. It’s impossible.
That’s not to say there’s no place for email in the selling process. If you’re good at crafting brief, provocative messages, you may be able to use the medium to help you get an appointment for a meeting or a telephone call. Here’s a sample message.
Our company specializes in helping organizations reduce communications costs. We recently implemented a project for Acme Company that lowered their annual costs by 20%.
May I get 10 minutes on your calendar to discuss how such a project might work for your company?
If Acme Company is well-known to the prospect, a message like that has a much better chance of engaging the customer than a long, complex pitch – particularly if Acme Company is a competitor. Notice, however, that the only thing being “offered for sale” in this message is a conversation about something of interest to the prospect.
If you have sales people who are hesitant to call customers and prospects on the phone, don’t let them believe they can sell by email. Get them to put in phone time. One way to do that is to make the phone more attractive to them.
Teach them the skills they need for effective conversation. Selling skills can be learned. So can the skills of persuasive dialogue. It’s an interesting characteristic of a skill – any skill – that if you have it, you want to use it. At Communispond, we have found that if you train people to ask the right questions and to listen actively in order to guide the conversation, they are eager to get on the phone and exercise those skills.