Cold calls are the worst.
It’s the same formula every time: An unsolicited call from a breathless sales person just praying you spare him 10 or 15 seconds to spill out his canned pitch. Nothing worse than that. Well, other than being the unfortunate soul making the cold call.
No-call lists haven’t killed the cold call yet. But with any luck, the trend towards warm call marketing to web generated leads will finish the job. The marketing automation software provider, Marketo, recently reported that 93% of B2B buyers now begin their purchasing process with a web search.
The irony is that many of the same issues that haunted cold calling still apply to warm lead phone follow-up. Even with an open invitation, it can be tough to get contacts on the phone. And, the pressure to quickly and effectively communicate the value of your services is still very real.
If you’re struggling to connect with web lead contacts, you’re not alone. On average, 80% of B2B sales calls end up in voicemail and over 90% of voicemails go unreturned.
What can you do to be more effective at reaching web submission contacts? Quite a bit as it turns out.
Cold calling is a grind-it-out, quantity-based approach. Call volume matters with web leads too, but calling warmer web prospects offers some smarter-not-harder shortcuts.
Recently, we gathered interesting data about web lead follow-up. Having parsed over 60 000 calls worth of data, poked and prodded it, and implemented the best practices it pointed toward, our key findings include the following:
- Waiting to call web leads ruins contact and qualification rates. Delaying follow-up will minimise sales prospects and inflate cost-per-conversion.
- Most sales people give up far too quickly. Doubling your per lead qualification rate requires 10 calls on average.
- Mornings are slightly more effective for making follow-up calls to web contacts.
- If you have to choose certain days for follow-up, the middle of the week is best.
There’s no shortage of dubious articles proclaiming they’ve found the silver bullet for lead calling success. Perhaps you’re wondering if this is one.
We get it. We like to see the maths too. What follows is our best attempt to “show the work.” We think it’s an equation that shows how any business can multiply its web lead follow-up success.
Laying the groundwork for improved contact rates
In May of 2014, we introduced a new piece of internal software. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much, but it serves a critical purpose: It alerts our interview team the second a visitor to our website submits a request, allowing us to immediately reach
out to them.
While we’ve always been pretty quick with our follow-up, it turns out that a flashing red siren has a certain way of really kicking things into gear.
Before we implemented our alert system, we knew the industry average of 46 hours to contact online inquiries was way too slow. But once we had the notification software in place, we were able to see exactly how wasteful that delay is.
How does the speed of follow-up affect the results?
When we launched our alert system, we started with a simple premise: The best way to get in touch with someone who has submitted a web request is to reach out to them right away.
Here’s why we felt this was a reasonable assumption: By submitting a web request, the prospect, lead, or prospective buyer is communicating their interest. Once they’ve requested follow-up, what better time to contact them than when their request is still fresh in their mind? And when they are most likely to be available to take a call?
We also reasoned that the more time that elapses, the larger the chance the prospect might find an alternate source to meet their needs or focus on other priorities.
Working through the logic in favour of quick follow-up isn’t rocket science. There is published research that independently verifies the value of quick outreach and suggests that modern business buyers expect fast follow-up.
A study by the research firm Zogby Analytics revealed that “60% of buyers said they would begin to question a company’s attentiveness if they did not hear back from the company within 24 hours after submitting an online form.”
It’s one thing for a prospect to “question attentiveness,” but does speed of follow-up truly affect vendor preference? B2B buyers say it does. 72% of business buyers from the same study said that the first company to contact them had “an advantage over the competition.”
Based on the research and common sense, we expected to see a positive correlation between quick outreach and improved contact rates. But we were still surprised by how profound the impact of tightening outreach times was.
Our numbers showed that following up within a minute doubled the number of contacts we were able to reach, compared to those we waited a day to follow up with. When we saw this data, it was one of those, “Holy smokes, we’re going to have to make some changes,” moments that really good BI data occasionally serves up.
Exciting as the data was, we had one concern. Was it possible that speeding up outreach might mean we could talk to a larger amount of people, but qualify a smaller number of them? Would some people be turned off by the quick follow up?
The data again gave us a clear answer. Calling contacts quicker was definitely not a turn-off. In fact, the quicker we called, the better our qualification rate. We qualified nearly twice as many prospects (39,6% versus 20,9%), just by picking up the phone immediately versus waiting an hour.
Perhaps the easiest way to visualise the efficiency impact of calling web prospects quickly is to look at the difference in the number of calls required to qualify a lead based on when we made the first call. In terms of calling efficiency, reaching out right away provides a huge win.
How many follow up calls should be made?
Here’s a potentially sticky situation: You’ve tried reaching out a couple of times to a prospect, but you haven’t been able to get in touch. Do you continue to call?
Everybody wants to succeed at their jobs. Nobody wants to be a pest. But there you are caught in the classic salesman’s dilemma.
Let’s flesh out this scenario a little bit. Assume the following:
- The contact initiated the communication, shared their contact info, and requested your follow-up.
- Your website or lead source states that you’ll reach out by phone.
- Any follow-up emails you’ve sent offered an easy opt-out or unsubscribe option.
- You’ve already invested time preparing yourself by reviewing any info the contact has provided about their needs.
- And, not least of all, you’re a reasonable human being.
- If your contact isn’t interested, that’s fine you’d just like to know.
If you’ve checked off each of these boxes, I have a hard time concluding anything other than that you’ve approached the situation with courtesy and reasonable expectations.
The more important question at this point is, “Is it worth it to make another call?”
It’s a tricky one. “Worth” is a relative thing and contexts change. One day, you’re flush with opportunities to follow-up on and the next day, not so much.
What we found out when we studied our own data was that there is a steep price to pay for cutting short follow-up. Qualified prospects will be lost in significant numbers.
Earlier, we documented how decreasing the wait time between submission and follow-up created a positive effect on our contact and qualification rates. But regardless of how fast or slow follow-up is, statistically the first call is your best bet to get someone on the line.
Double your qualification rate by making more calls
We spoke to almost twice as many contacts on our first call as on our second (42,% versus 22,2%). From there, the per call contact rates drop off. By the time we reached the 10th call, we were down to less than 1 in 20 calls resulting in conversations.
It is hard to get excited about a per call contact rate under 5%. But the cost of making an additional call is cheap (maybe 30-60 seconds). More importantly, over time the contact numbers add up. We discovered that continuing through the 10th call increased our overall contact rate to nearly 80% — almost doubling the contact rate resulting from calling just a single time.
Of course, trying to find a sales person who’d admit they make only one call to leads, is not productive and research shows that the average number of calls sales reps make before giving up is only 1,3. That’s far too few calls if you want to make effective use of your web leads.
By not giving up, we were able to increase our contact rates, and our qualification rates. Similar to our experience with contact rates, we nearly doubled our qualification rate by continuing to reach out through the 10th call attempt. By this point in our follow-up, we’ve essentially flattened the parabola that represents the increase in overall qualification rate. Having done so, we can move on without wondering what kind of opportunity cost we sacrificed by doing so.
What effect does time of day have on contact rates?
There are times of the day when it is easier to reach leads. That’s the headline most articles on the topic start with. We found the same thing, with a couple of caveats.
First, the difference in the effect of time of day for calls is minimal. Second, if you don’t correct for some variables, the data can be a bit misleading.
Let’s start first with contact rates broken down by the hour of the day, relative to the average contact rate.
There’s a clear pattern visible in the data. Morning hours come out ahead.
But there’s an important variable in play that might be a bit misleading.
The fact is, we generally don’t call leads outside of standard 8am – 5pm hours. What happens when a visitor to our site submits a web inquiry during ‘off hours’? We call it as soon as we can the following morning. By maintaining standard office hours, we end up making a disproportionate number of first call attempts in the morning. Since first calls result in high contact rates, the morning numbers get a boost.
What we’re really interested in finding out is when contacts are most receptive. To normalise data, we excluded leads submitted outside of standard business hours:
In this adjusted data set, call outcomes did vary by time of the day, but the variance was relatively mild.
Related: Sell in Plain English
Mornings still emerged as the most effective time for us to make contact — with the notable exception of 8am to 9am calls. And, the 4pm hour at the end of the business day also yields above average contact rates.
But looking at the effect of time of the day, it doesn’t appear there’s that much meat on this particular analytical bone. How quickly you call leads and how many attempts you make will have a far greater effect on your follow-up success, than when you call leads.
Which days of the week are the best for follow-up?
As a software matching service, qualifying prospects and matching appropriate solutions is an everyday proposition. That won’t change.
But many sales people reserve particular days for contact follow-up and others for other sales and account management activity. In these cases, it’s beneficial to have an understanding of which days yield better contact rates.
Our data points to the middle of the week as the best time to contact leads, with Thursday as the strongest individual day and Friday as the weakest. But again the variance is fairly mild. Over thousands of leads, the trend is visible, but over a smaller number, it’s unlikely to be a trend pronounced enough to arrange a schedule around.
Adapting to the data
Optimising lead outreach is part art and part science. The ability to quickly establish rapport with leads, identify the most compelling value proposition for each unique contact, and communicate persuasively with selective buyers requires tact and expertise.
But amid the more subjective factors involved in making the most of your prospect follow-up, there are some objective steps you can take: Following up immediately and sticking with leads despite early failures to connect allows us to qualify a considerably larger number of prospects than we otherwise would be able to.
We’ve enacted a number of process changes — starting with our internal lead alert software — to increase the effectiveness of our outreach. One meaasure of progress can be seen in our follow-up times. Over the past year, we’ve been able to get our average follow-up time down to within three minutes. More than half the prospects who request follow-up on our site will hear from us within one minute.
Additionally, we’ve extended our commitment to decreasing the delay that prospects experience beyond ourselves. Recently, we halved the time it takes to make software matches between buyers and sellers by updating our system to conduct software matching twice daily instead of once. With the assistance of our faster-acting software provider partners, we’re now able to refer some buyers to their top software recommendation within minutes.
How does the speed of follow-up affect the results?
The quicker we called contacts the more likely we were to speak with them and successfully qualify their interest. Calling within one minute of lead submission doubled our first call successful contact and qualification rates.
1. How many calls should be attempted?
Calling contacts a full 10 attempts led to nearly twice as many qualified leads versus calling only once. Research shows the average number of call attempts sales people make to inbound leads is 1,3 — far too few to maximise contact.
2. What is the best time of the day to call leads?
We generally experienced the most success calling leads in the morning hours. However, the time of the day of call attempts had a relatively minor influence on lead contact. The difference in contact rates for the best and worst hours of the day was less than 5%.
3. What is the best day of the week to call leads?
The middle of the week (T-Th) is a slightly more effective time to reach out to lead contacts. Calls on Thursday had the highest contact rate. But day of the week is even less of a factor than time of the day on lead follow-up success. The difference in contact rate between the best day (Thursday) and the worst (Friday), was less than 3%.
Looking for more ideas on optimising your lead follow-up?
Check out study author Adam Bluemner’s recent visit with host Jim Obermayer on the Sales Lead Management Association (SLMA) Radio Program: “Listen While You Work: A study on the Most Effective Lead Follow-Up Strategies.”