Saying the Right Thing at the Right Time

Is email the killer app marketers yearn for? You and I have been bombarded with this question repeatedly. I’m not sure I want to get involved in the argument. Does email really need to be the killer app? How about if you and I just agree that it’s a wickedly powerful tool? Like any powerful tool, it has a tremendous capacity to help if used correctly — or to do irreparable damage if used incorrectly.

In a past article, I talked about some of the tactics of successful email communications. Now I want to discuss the overall strategy of email communications. For those of you who remember Objectives, Strategy, and Tactics from school, here’s a place where you get to apply the process.

The first thing you need to have is a clear understanding of how your prospective customer arrives at a buying decision. Below is a very simplified process flow of a buying decision:

  1. Problem/need recognition
  2. Information search
  3. Evaluation of alternatives
  4. Purchase decision
  5. Purchase
  6. Post-purchase evaluation

With a clear understanding of how prospective customers buy, you must now consider how to sell to them. Sales is not a pushing exercise (shame on those who give sales a bad reputation); it’s a pulling exercise where the outcome needs to be a win-win scenario. Remember, if you solve their problems, they will buy your products or services.

Below are the phases your potential customers go through in a complex, multistep business-to-business (B2B) sales process (not to be confuse with the five-step selling process we apply to designing Web-site flows):

  1. Suspects — the entire universe of potential buyers for your product or service
  2. Prospects — those suspects who have expressed an active interest in your product or service
  3. Leads — those prospects in which a decision maker is actively engaged in the buying decision for your product or service
  4. Buyers — those leads who are in negotiation with you and have made a commitment to buy in principle but have not yet purchased your product or service
  5. Customers — those who have paid for your product or service

Your messages must communicate not just information but also energy — energy that will provide the momentum necessary to propel your prospective customers through all five phases. This needs to happen at every step, both within an individual email (the micro level) and across an entire campaign (the macro level).

Now, consider these three questions to determine your objectives every time you communicate with a prospective customer, whether via your Web site, email, or any other medium you utilize.

  • What actions do prospective customers need to take that will lead to them a buying decision?
  • Who has to be persuaded to take action?
  • How do we persuade them to take action?

Below are the general objectives for each of the five phases (long-time readers may notice how they parallel AIDAS):

  1. Suspects — Get their attention so you can qualify potential customers.
  2. Prospects — Gain their interest so you can further qualify and identify the key players (decision makers and influencers), ascertain their needs, and start to analyze your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).
  3. Leads — Stimulate their desire so you can strengthen your past analysis and start understanding their negotiating style, needs, and key issues.
  4. Buyers — Get them to take action so you can verify your past analysis, correct any missteps, and handle any surprises in the way of closing the sale.
  5. Customers — Ensure satisfaction so they truly become customers that you can upsell, cross-sell, and resell.

Having a clear understanding of where your prospective clients are in the sales process allows you to design appropriate and effective messages that communicate to their level of interest. Too much detail early on can kill a sale; not enough information later in the process can kill it just as surely.

Truly powerful communication always addresses the recipient’s question, “What is in it for me?” If not, then you will never break pre-occupation and get her attention (she’s thinking about lunch now, not about your product or service). Always be answering the question, “Why should I buy from you?,” but be sure that you are addressing her at her level of interest and in the language that best suits her dominant personality style. Information that works to convince a potential customer deciding whether to consider you as a possible supplier is very different from the information that convinces her to write you a big, fat check.

A critical element is to understand that there is a huge difference between informing and persuading. Persuasion is designed to move the reader to action, to get results. To persuade effectively you must always take the customer’s point of view, be intentionally short of detail so that you deliberately prompt their questions, and seek out their objections in such a way that the response leads them naturally to the next step in the buying process. Objections are nothing more than questions left unanswered. And remember, too, it’s not what you say. It’s what they understand that is critical. Fully 93 percent of communication is not verbal, so break preoccupation, use action verbs and “energetic” words, optimize design and layout, maintain momentum, and actively lead your prospective client through your buying process.

Talk to the right person, say the right thing, say it in the right way, and say it at the right time, and B2B email communications can, indeed, be your killer app. But if you get any of those components wrong, what will get killed is your sale.

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