Permission Follow-Up

This is a guest post by Jarie Bolander, author of Frustration Free Technical Management and a moderator at Answers OnStartups.


the_deal_puzzleIt’d be wonderful if you could run a business without interacting with anyone else — never relying on others to deliver quality work on time and never having to “be salesy” on the phone.

Yeah, but unfortunately you do have to rely on others to respond to emails and phone calls. This reliance can be a constant source of heartburn. So you can either take some Tagamet or learn how to get permission to follow-up with people.

Or both.

You Are Not Alone

Most people dread following up with customers, vendors and even employees. It sounds weird to extroverts, but many of us have performance anxiety that prevents us from following-up even when it’s in our own best interest. You would think that, as social creatures, we would love to interact with our fellow humans, but alas no.

[Editor's Note: I have an irrational fear of the phone. When it rings I'm overcome with a sense of dread. I have to work myself up to placing an out-bound call. It's not anti-social — I love personal and electronic interactions equally — it's something specific and bizarre and, I've since learned, fairly common.]

Our irrational dread stems from the following fears:

  • Fear of rejection: The real reason people don’t follow-up. It’s hard to get rejected by a customer or partner, or even a stranger. If you get permission to follow-up, this rejection is less likely.
  • Don’t want to be annoying: This is the most common excuse people give for not following up. This is why it’s important to set natural follow-up points so you can get permission to call, email or meet.
  • Conflict avoidance: A reason that people don’t call you back. If you set up the interactions so that any potential conflict is reduced, then they will want to talk to you.
  • Awkwardness in asking for something: Asking for the sale or clarification produces a lot of anxiety. The trick to asking for something is to make it the natural next step to your series of follow-ups. That way, it builds up gradually.
  • Trust that what you say will happen: A common problem when someone works with you. No matter who you interact with, you need to follow-up with them if they committed to get something done for you. They might have forgotten or gotten busy.
  • Too busy to worry about it: This is common for the overworked entrepreneur. You should never be too busy to follow-up on things you want done. Think about it. If it’s important, then you need to ensure it gets done. Otherwise why did you start it?

Permission Follow-Up

The most powerful technique to get others to help you achieve your objectives is to create natural follow-up points that make it easy for you to contact someone. Think of this as permission marketing applied to following-up. Permission Follow-up allows you to contact your customer, vendor or employee because you have a pre-established agreement on when it’s appropriate for you to communicate with them. The power of this technique is that you make them want to receive your email, call or meeting.

Or at least expect it. When the other person expects you to contact them, and you do, none of the excuses above are applicable.

Natural Ways to Follow-Up

Okay, I am sure most of you are feeling that Italian veggie sub you had for lunch starting to bubble up in your throat. Relax. There are tons of ways to create natural follow-up points that will make getting that customer meeting, dealing with that difficult vendor or making sure your team releases it’s products on time.

Here’s a bunch of specific methods. Next we’ll apply them in a scenario.

  • Take responsibility to do the follow-up: This is most direct way to get permission to follow-up since you actively took responsibility to contact them. When they agree, then you are set. It’s on your calendar, not theirs.
  • Set mutual deadlines: Deadlines are a great way to set expectations and points of reengagement. This will make whomever you are interacting with expect your next communications especially if the deadline is to give them something.
  • Additional information: Committing to and delivering additional information will setup a natural way for you to interact. When you do follow-up, your contact will expect your call.
  • Specific actions you are responsible for: When you take and complete actions it shows that you value follow-up and that makes others expect this from you.
  • Status updates: Anytime your situation changes or you release a new revision, is a perfect time to give a quick reminder or update.
  • Relevant books and articles: A good way to reengage with people is to send them relevant posts or articles. When you do this, it reminds people who you are and allows you to dialog about other opportunities.
  • In town: Face to face meetings are the most effective ways to follow-up on cold leads or to accelerate a deal. Just being in town makes it easier for your contact to meet you and that might be the one thing that pushes your interactions to the next level.

    [Editor's Note: I have found this to be an especially effective tool. My technique: Whenever you're going to be in a city, call everyone and say "I'm going to be in town anyway, could I just swing by for 15 minutes? Or longer if you want to go over something?" Almost everyone will agree, and there is nothing like real face-to-face interactions, especially in the age of digital arms-length relationships.]
  • Mutual friends: An introduction (or reintroduction) by a mutual friend can be a powerful follow-up method if your interactions have stalled. Your mutual friend can also be an excuse to reconnect.
  • Ask for clarification: When you ask for clarification, it shows that you are striving for understanding and if done after an interaction, reminds your contact of what you talked about.
  • Time has passed: Sometimes the passage of time can be used to your advantage as long as you have another entry point (like a status update or a mutual friend). In some cases, just sending a “checking in” email or note, can be all that is needed to follow up with other interactions.

These natural follow-up points must be injected into an interaction at the appropriate time — when the interaction needs an inflection point or as a way to tie up some loose ends. Sometimes, it may take several different methods since people respond differently to following-up. (Most have the same anxieties as you do!)

Scenario: A Customer Interaction

Let’s put this into action.

Perhaps the most important customer interaction is your first meeting. It sets the tone for everything to come and is ripe for planting those follow-up seeds. Here’s how it might go:

You: Beth, thanks for meeting with us. We were introduced to you via Matt over at KoolTech. Matt uses our Wizbang SaaS client and thought you guys might find it useful too.

Beth: Yeah, Matt told me about you guys. It sounds like you might have something that will work for us.

You: Excellent. Matt’s a great guy and we were excited to have Matt recommend we get together. Did you get the information I sent you about Wizbang?

Beth: Actually, no I didn’t. However, I did read you site and think I have a good idea what you do.

You: Why don’t I reconfirm your email and send it on to you?

Beth: Sure, it’s ….

You: I will send this out when I get back to the office. Does that work for you?

Beth: Yeah.

You: Excellent. How about we show you our demo?

Beth: Thought you’d never ask.

Demo Ensues. Ooo’s, ahh’s

Beth: Great demo. It looks like just what we need. Can you send me a quote? Budgets are tight.

You: Sure. We can also set up a guest account for you and your team to try it out.

Beth: That will work.

You: Why don’t you give me their contact info and I will set them up

You: Beth, thanks for your time. We really enjoyed meeting you.

Beth: As did I.

You: I captured a couple of next-actions for me. They are …. Do you agree?

Beth: That’s great, just so long as I don’t have to do anything else.

You: Wonderful. I will get back to you in a week with that quote. Will that work for you?

Beth: Yeah, that works.

You: In the mean time, I will setup some guest accounts and follow-up with you to see how it’s going.

Beth: Sounds good. Talk to you soon.

The above interaction had several follow-up seeds planted (in bold) that are ready to be harvested. All of the responsibilities are on your shoulders, and your customer gave you permission to follow-up. This means that they will be expecting your call or email.

So what happens when they don’t return your calls or email? Permission follow-up handles this as well. Not only are you planting follow-up actions with your direct contact, but with others they work with, like what happened above (setting up a guest account for other team members). Doing this allows you to have several entry points. Taken in combination, these entry points give you a better shot at getting your call or email returned.

Go Ahead, Give it a Shot

Practicing permission follow-up does feel awkward. Just stick with it. Over time, permission follow-up will produce results and you will get more comfortable with it. The simple fact is that other people usually don’t place as high a priority on these things as you do, and you have to lean on them to get things done.

It’s not about leaning hard or being an asshole. It’s just about getting permission to follow up.

What tips do you have for following up with customers or vendors? Would any of the techniques here bother you? Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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  • Will

    1. Wow, you now have a lot of reasons to poke Beth

    2. Having your follow up points be bold has the fun implication that having follow up points is bold

    3. I’d need someone following me around with a notebook to keep track of all the shit I just signed myself up to do

  • http://www.ruicurado.com Rui Curado

    “I have an irrational fear of the phone. When it rings I’m overcome with a sense of dread. I have to work myself up to placing an out-bound call.”

    Yep… count me in.

  • http://OnStartups.com Dharmesh Shah

    Man, that’s creepy. That’s *exactly* how I feel about the phone.

    I’ve always had this pathologic aversion to phone conversations (both inbound and outbound). Never figured out what it is. I’m fine in-person and great over email, but just hate phone conversations.

    Thanks for making me feel a tad more normal.
    .-= Dharmesh Shah’s latest blog post: Y Combinator Finally Gets Some Kick-Butt Competition With Y Permutator =-.

  • http://blog.therisetothetop.com/ David Siteman Garland

    Damn it, Dharmesh. That is what I was going to talk about.

    I have similar issues with the phone…especially if it is sales, bothering me, or other stuff.

    From my experience, the best thing to do in terms of following up with people is simply ask the best way to do so. Do you prefer email? A tweet? Phone call? Pony express letter?

    Making people feel comfortable should be the number #1 priority.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      I prefer carrier-pigeon-over-SSH.

      It’s particular interesting that you of all people hate the phone, considering your video interviews! Do you hate videophones too?

    • http://www.thedailymba.com Jarie Bolander

      I like the idea of asking for the best way to follow up with someone since that should put them at ease. Great idea and thanks for the comments.
      .-= Jarie Bolander’s latest blog post: Celebration Of Knowledge #6 =-.

    • http://writingblog.ventajamarketing.com John White

      Maybe somebody locked you in a phone booth when you were very young…

      “The more you push something away, the more it has you.” I’m not that crazy about talking in general, but that line convinced me I’d better get over my phone-thingee. Frankly, knowing that a lot of people are averse to phoning gave me the courage to embrace it more myself.

      If phoning isn’t part of your nature, then you probably need to apply trickery, incentive or deception to get yourself to do it. Don’t stress about it, though; if you still pay your taxes, floss and say nice things to children, you’ll probably go to heaven anyway, or someplace kinda like it. I’m planning to.
      .-= John White’s latest blog post: Good White Paper, Lousy Title – 3 Ways to Fix It =-.

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  • http://getyourbizsavvy.com Alex Monroe

    I think we all feel that sense of awkwardness and fright when making that phone call. I never thought about including it in the conversation like that. It is a really good idea and it just naturally helps you feel better. I actually feel better about it just thinking about it.
    .-= Alex Monroe’s latest blog post: Keep On Hustling! =-.

  • http://www.johnstonsearch.com Brian Kevin Johnston

    Wow, I agree, whatever way you contact someone, always ask for permission… Our world would be better without the sneaky, snake oil used care sales mentality….

    Really what this is about is “serving others” vs “serving ourselves”…

    Best, Brian-

  • http://macromental.blogspot.com Jeffrey Fry

    Seth Godin is the master of permission marketing! It is funny how many people dread interacting with people when it is in their best interests. Good points all around!
    .-= Jeffrey Fry’s latest blog post: Behaviorally Targeted Ads Yield Twice The Revenue and Twice [Digg] =-.

  • http://www.looknglas.net Ed Personius

    The key to your whole method is “permission”. You’ve got to ask if that’s ok, if it works, is that a good time, etc.

    Totally pegged me with the irrational anxieties. I even get anxiety when someone wants to buy! Weird. I am an entrepreneur trapped in a drone’s psyche. I don’t want to have to deal with people, but part of me likes it. Part of my anxiety is there is no higher authority I can fall back on; whatever I say I have to live with and live up to. So I’m always worrying about not painting myself into a corner. Wretched existence.

    Do you have a pill for anxiety about calling even when you have permission?
    Ed – http://www.looknglas.blogspot.com/

    • http://www.thedailymba.com Jarie Bolander

      Ed-
      I have the same problem. For me, it helps to think of follow up as a roll playing game. I know that sounds kind of corny but what that allows me to do is distance myself from that initial anxiety by taking on a different persona. This persona is not too different than myself but has the mind set of closing the deal or getting the next meeting. Once the anxiety passes, then the interactions go much smoother.
      To your higher authority point, that is an interesting problem. For me, I have always had a partner or board of directors that was perceived as the higher authority. That gave me a lot more flexibility when it comes to interactions and commitments.

      Thanks for the comment

      Jarie
      .-= Jarie Bolander’s latest blog post: Celebration Of Knowledge #6 =-.

  • http://www.relationshipselling.org Anita Kulik

    This was a great post. It is so true that permission marketing does take time to get used to basically because we have all been taught for years that you should persuade rather than build a relationship first, ask permission to contact your client/customer and then offer your product/service as a solution. By that time, they respect you and credibility has been gained resulting in a lasting relationship with that customer. I personally prefer physical cards for following up especially since only about 20% of all e-mails get opened. Cards are more personal and longer lasting.
    .-= Anita Kulik’s latest blog post: Relationship Selling Skills: Posture =-.

    • http://www.thedailymba.com Jarie Bolander

      Anita-
      Thanks for the kind words and comment.
      Crafting a personal note is a great way to show that you value a relationship more than just dropping someone an email. I do think it depends on the person. As David mentioned above, you can also ask someone how they prefer to be followed-up with. Doing that shows you respect their time. Your card idea is also a great way to be remembered rather than just another email in the inbox.

      Jarie
      .-= Jarie Bolander’s latest blog post: Celebration Of Knowledge #6 =-.

  • http://www.slaughterdevelopment.com/ Robby Slaughter

    People love to be indefinite. The answers “yes” or “no” might be comforting to you, but it’s much easier for other folks to offer a “maybe.”

    My approach is to always give the contact something. It was great meeting you at the [conference/event/celebrity parcheesi tournment]! I saw this article at [link] and thought of our conversation. Love to know what you think of it!

    Another great technique is to blame technology. It was great meeting you! I did want to touch base with you about [relevant topic], but before I do could you please REPLY to this email just so I can make sure it got through? Spam filters these days can be pretty aggressive!
    .-= Robby Slaughter’s latest blog post: Praise = Improvement =-.

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  • http://www.fusioncharts.com Sanket Nadhani

    Asking people what medium they prefer is definitely a good idea. Works great for me.

    When I was starting off, I was a little unsure of phone conversations myself. I wasn’t as averse to it as you guys are pointing out, but just a little unsure, a little under confident. So this is what I did when making outgoing calls to people I had been in touch with over email earlier:

    1. Make a list of what you need to tell him, or the concerns that he has that you need to address.
    2. Prioritize them, either according to his needs or what would be a more natural and sensible flow of conversation

    Keep that list right in front of you — that way if you are feeling unsure, you have something to fall back on to make you feel *safer*, and also makes sure that you are not missing out on any point.
    .-= Sanket Nadhani’s latest blog post: FusionMaps for Flex v1 Beta released =-.

  • http://www.fusioncharts.com Sanket Nadhani

    Great post Jason.

    I think something that might be of further benefit to readers could be follow up phrases that have proven to work well.

    I would be happy to contribute my bit to that :)
    .-= Sanket Nadhani’s latest blog post: FusionMaps for Flex v1 Beta released =-.

  • http://tb.contacterra.com Kirill Blazhko

    I confirm that this method works in practice. And I have got an interesting observation of myself following-up: it’s less easier to do if you work with a product/service that is in demand, i.e. if the customer needs this very product, there is no problem with phone talk. In the same time if you sell some useless crap, your irrational dread strengthens (not unreasonably though).

  • http://www.fg2.com Steve golab

    Jason,

    Dude you nailed it again! This is perhaps the most important skill that serious intoroverted-entrepreneurs should be inegrat.ing with their thought processes — sooner than later is the right idea.

    I tried to hide from this responsibility for years, but I’ve ultimately learned that I can master my fear through practice!