Written by Mike Taber
Throughout the sales process, every interaction you have with a prospective customer is influenced by the response to your most recent interaction. During a meeting or a demo, you listen to the prospect and decide how to respond, directing the conversation as needed based on their concerns, commentary, the data you have available and your interpretation of their needs.
This back and forth happens naturally in person and are a direct result of the synchronous nature of conversations. You are able to close the feedback loop immediately, allowing you to move the prospect forward in a shorter timeframe.
However, getting on a phone call or meeting in person isn’t always feasible and conversations are often transitioned to email when there’s a need for someone to gather more information. If you’re like most SaaS businesses, you rely on email as one of the tools in your arsenal to help close the feedback loop with your prospects and customers.
One of the downsides of using email for this purpose is that it is asynchronous. There’s no guarantee you’re going to receive a response at all, let alone receive a response within a given timeframe.
Your response time threshold will vary, based on how important or time-sensitive the response is to you. When the response time exceeds a certain threshold, you need to follow-up to gather the information you need to close the feedback loop. Until you receive a response, you don’t know where they stand or exactly how to proceed. Examples of these situations in SaaS companies are so common that it’s hard to miss them:
- A customer signs up for your software but hasn’t set up their account yet.
- A sales call ended with the prospective customer saying they would meet with their team and get back to you.
- A customer praises your company on social media, and you decide it’s a good time to ask for a testimonial
In each case, the likely answer is to send an email to make your request or ask for an update. Then you wait for a response. Here’s the question: If you don’t receive a response, what happens next?
If you’re like most companies, usually nothing. The most common number of email follow-ups sent is between zero and two.
Why don’t we follow-up more often?
The specific reasons why we don’t follow-up may vary from one situation to another, but there are some common threads between them.
For instance, look at the case of a two-step registration process. First, an event is triggered (the sign up) and if a corresponding event (credit card information) is not triggered within a certain amount of time, then an email is sent.
This is an area of the sales funnel that tends to be quickly identified as underperforming. It’s very close to the point where a prospect is converted into a customer and receives more attention as a result. The obvious solution for a software company is to send an automated email to bring the customer back to the website to complete their registration.
Strictly speaking, this is simply an automated reminder. However, you can take this one step further and if the prospect still hasn’t signed up after several days have passed, send another reminder.
Most companies don’t take this additional step. This may be due to technical limitations in trying to detect when the follow-up should be sent, lack of time to implement it, fear of angering prospective users or even a fundamental failure to realize how valuable those lost prospects are.
In the case of sales demos, there are often multiple conversations happening in parallel with different prospects and each conversation will be at a different stage of the sales process. It’s common sense to use software for tracking the sales process, but less so for other external-facing processes (such as obtaining testimonials).
Both processes will likely require email follow-ups, but the sales process will receive more attention because it’s closer to the revenue stream. It’s easier to correlate revenue to sales follow-ups than to correlate the effect of a testimonial to the follow-ups you needed to send to gather them. The importance is viewed as fundamentally different, yet the mental overhead of managing either set of follow-ups is virtually the same.
Lack of processes and tools
The common thread among these is that managing parallel conversations is extremely difficult to do without the right processes or tools. This is especially true if your focus is divided between managing those follow-ups and the rest of your primary job responsibilities. Managing these conversations out of your mailbox is notoriously painful and time-consuming, but that’s exactly what most people do. For each follow-up, there are at least five questions to consider before sending the next email:
- What was said in their most recent response?
- How long ago was the previous follow-up email sent?
- Who sent that follow-up & what was said?
- How many follow-ups have been sent without response?
- What should I say in the next follow-up — or should I just move on?
None of these questions take very long to answer for a single conversation. But what about five conversations? Or twenty-five?
Here is another common thread among unsent follow-ups. The more conversations you’re trying to keep going in parallel, the faster you will encounter follow-up fatigue. Follow-up fatigue has occurred when you stop executing your follow-up process prior to receiving a response and without an objective reason for stopping the process. The overriding factor is whether the decision to stop sending follow-up emails was made objectively.
In theory, it sounds like it should be easy to simply execute the follow-up process. In practice, it is not, and the symptoms vary from one person to the next. One person may feel as though they’re repeating themselves after sending two or three similar follow-ups. However, to the person receiving the email, you are almost certainly not. Another may feel as though sending follow-ups isn’t working. This feeling can persist, even in the face of hard data showing that itis working as expected. This happens because the satisfaction feedback loop, we’re conditioned to achieve when receiving a reply is absent.
The fact is that the reason you’re sending follow-up emails is because you haven’t received a response. By definition, the dopamine rush is delayed. A third person may feel as though they’re bothering people and that’s contributing to the lack of response. This leads to questions about whether there are better ways to spend time. Regardless of the cause, the end result is a drop-off in follow-ups as focus is shifted to other activities that feel more meaningful. The underlying problem is rooted in human psychology. Negative feelings associated with any activity will disproportionately outweigh positive emotions. In these situations, it’s common to attribute reasons to the lack of response without any evidence to support those assumptions. Most of these assumptions are wrong.
The ‘Email Black Hole’
Here are the three most common reasons why someone hasn’t responded yet to your email:
First, they never received it. This isn’t often a technical problem where the email was truly lost. That almost never happens. But emails are incorrectly flagged as spam every day. Email filters automatically move emails from the main Inbox into a folder, thus causing the user to miss them. And if the person is out of the office, on vacation or traveling, emails will stack up.
Second, it may have been received but dismissed. Perhaps the subject line didn’t seem to indicate any action was required or they even skimmed it but missed the fact that you needed a reply. In any case, it was manually miscategorized as something that does not require a response.
The third is by far, the most common reason. Your email was received with the best of intentions to respond, but they simply haven’t had time to do so. Your prospects have a job to do at their own company, and chances are, responding to your exact email isn’t it.
There’s a popular misconception that says: “if it’s important to the other person, they’ll get back to me”. This is complete nonsense. Busy people are busy people. The overwhelmingly most common reason for non-response is not active disinterest or even passive disinterest; it is “didn’t organize affairs to have enough bandwidth to action the email.” - Patrick McKenzie (@Patio11), Stripe.
When communicating with prospects, the most accurate assumption to make if you don’t hear back right away is that they’re busy and haven’t had time to respond. No reply is not equivalent to “No thanks”. Unfortunately, even when armed with that knowledge, the most common number of follow-ups is zero to two. This begs the question:
How do we systemize our follow-ups?
To implement a successful follow-up strategy, you must:
- Identify the situations where a follow-up process will lead to higher conversions;
- Define the follow-up process; and
- Remove as much decision-making from the process as possible
You’ll want to initially focus on the fastest ROI follow-up situations. Once you’ve implemented those processes, you can expand to other areas of the business. These situations include:
- Two-step registration process: Have the user set up their account on the first page and add credit card information on the second. If they complete the first, but not the second, follow-up with them to find out how you can help or if there are questions that they need answered.
- Missed Demo: Sometimes prospects don’t show up to a demo. It happens. Follow-ups can help bring an interested client back to the table and potentially convert them into a customer
- Marketing Automation Lead Score exceeds threshold: If a prospect expresses clear interest in your product, personally ask if they’d like help getting set up.
- Testimonials: If you ask for a testimonial and don’t get a response, you should ask again. Either they were busy and didn’t respond, they’re not interested, or they may have an issue with the product.
- Cancellation Feedback: When someone cancels, it’s helpful to know why they canceled. You’re more likely to get an insightful response if you email them directly and follow-up if they don’t respond rather than using a generic and obviously automated marketing email to do that.
- Canceled Customer Re-Engagement: If a customer cancels and moves on, you may be able to bring them back if your follow-ups are sent far enough in the future. Give them time to either use a new tool or not solve the problem your software solves. Then try to re-engage with them to bring them back: mention new features, directly reference reasons they may have canceled and let them know what you’ve done to address those issues.
As an example, let’s work through what a follow-up for a two-step registration process would look like. We need to define how the process will be executed. This includes when you will initially reach out to the prospect, how many times you will follow-up and the delay between each follow-up.
Eliminate tell-tale signs of automation
Recall that many SaaS companies start with an automated reminder, but we want to take this to the next level. Automated reminders are easy to spot for three reasons. First, they’re usually sent within a 10-15minute window of the initial registration. Second, they often come from a generic mailbox or from an email service provider which includes unsubscribe links in the email. Finally, follow-up emails are independent of the previous emails. In the context of a mail client, this means that they’re not threaded conversations and the subject may or may not match the original. Anyone or more of these is a mental flag to the user that it was probably automated and can make them less likely to pay attention to these emails because they know it was automated. Nobody feels bad about ignoring a computer. But when it appears that a real person took the time to follow-up with them personally, there’s a guilt factor that kicks in and often helps prompt people to action.
Wait at least several hours before sending the first email. If you’re automating this, avoid sending the email at the top or midpoint of the hour. You get bonus points for this if you can also avoid 15-minute intervals. Odd send times like 7:12 am or 2:23 pm appear more natural. Make sure your emails are sent from a real person. When the “From” field says something generic like “Sales”, it will reduce your open rate. Similarly, unsubscribe links will reduce your response rate. This is a different metric but has the same net result: fewer responses.
Finally, you want your follow-up emails to be displayed as threaded responses in the mail client. This is simply a matter of replying to the previous email that you sent, which has the effect of embedding the previously sent email in the body of the text, as well as prefixing “Re:” to the subject line.
Define the scheduled follow-ups
The follow-up schedule itself needs to clearly indicate how many emails will be sent, what will be said in each follow-up and how the prospect should exit the sequence of emails. Continuing with our two-step registration follow-up process, here is an example of how we might define it:
Bear in mind that for each step, you should write an email template that will be used. If the response threshold time period passes without a response and without a sign-up, send the email template for that step to the prospect.
Using a pre-written email template at every step helps to avoid follow-up fatigue. You may feel like you should customize each email to provide additional personalization. Don’t. It’s rarely necessary and doing so will contribute to your follow-up fatigue, which will hurt you in the long run. Trust that the time crafting email template was well spent and use your decision-making capabilities elsewhere.
Results of following up
When you’ve run your follow-up process long enough for prospects to have exited the sequence, you should take a few measurements to establish the baseline performance. Key measurements to examine include the open and response rates, both for the follow-up sequence itself and for individual steps within that sequence. Baseline performance for a follow-up sequence will vary dramatically from one situation to the next. Much of this depends on the industry, the role of the people you’re emailing, your market vertical, how cold or warm the contacts are and specifically what you’re asking them to do.
To help give you an idea of what you can expect, we evaluated over 100,000 follow-up emails to both warm and cold prospects across a wide spectrum of customers who implemented a follow-up process. Here’s what we found:
It should be obvious that the best performing follow- up sequences were implemented by customers who targeted warm contacts with follow-up sequences, while the lowest-performing customers were targeting cold leads. Differences between follow-up sequence length and target prospects make comparisons between individual sequences far more difficult, but some data points still stick out.
- The average number of emails needed to solicit a response was 2.1. This implies that you should send at least three follow-ups.
- The maximum number of emails sent without a response which eventually elicited a response was seven. Sending four or five follow-ups should be enough to solicit a response. If you haven’t received one by then, you should likely move on or risk your emails being flagged as spam.
- Open rates for individual steps within some sequences reached as high as 100%.
- The response rate from a single follow-up (second email) often matched the response rate of the first email, resulting in a 100% increase in response rates versus no follow-ups. Additional follow-ups after the second provided incremental improvements
Across the board, the data illustrates that following up clearly improves response rates by virtue of giving the receiver an excuse to respond but there are diminishing returns after four or five follow-ups. Building a standardized process and using follow-up automation tools each go a long way in reducing the effort of following up and the resulting follow-up fatigue.
Time, money and other resources have already been spent bringing each prospect to the table. Don’t let them slip through the cracks because you didn’t send that next email as a result of follow-up fatigue.