Establish an e-mail trail and close the sale

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Impulse. A well-known discount retailer near my home carries everything from hip clothing to furniture, along with a full line of groceries. This means I can buy my cake and a seat or two all in the same place. Even better, the checkout line surrounds me with eye-catching must-haves gleefully chanting "buy me now."

The last time impulse took over, a pack of gum, AA batteries and a new candy bar looked good. They had me at hello. A retailing rule had played itself out again: Easy access often means easy sales, particularly on low-priced, commonly used products.

Selling boating and marine products falls into a different category than impulse items like batteries, but a similar idea applies: Quickly connect with customers when they want information or are ready to buy. Access and success go together like dollars and sense. This works face-to-face in the dealership and on the Internet. In fact, studies tell us more than 80 percent of consumers with annual household incomes exceeding $75,000 go online to conduct research before making an in-store purchase, according to Sterling Commerce and Forrester Research.

As a dealer or manufacturer, are you managing your business with this in mind? Hungrily pursuing potential sales means treating e-mail responses to online customers with the same urgency used face-to-face in the store or over the phone. Do you do this now? Studies on Web response rates discussed in the August Trade Only ("Lead management in the online marketplace") tell us the honest answer is no. In today's market, where slow is generous and sales are stingy, the importance of the Internet and e-mail for generating and responding to sales opportunities can be huge. In essence, connect now or lose later.

Let's take a look at the impact this may be having on your business and how you need to manage this important dynamic.

If we assume you already have an engaging, well-organized Web site pulling in viewers with jazzy photos, sound, video and the like (you do, right?), then you have the first step covered. What's next? When a customer sees an enticing boating product and clicks on it, do they get extra product detail, an option to fill in a Web-based order form or an e-mail form for more information? Or do you give them the choice, "speak to a salesperson/call me now"? All of these options must be in place if you are going to effectively collect and manage online leads. A multitude of studies have shown the average online attention span for finding results is three clicks - that's it. After that, customers often lose interest. Make it easy to be reached by providing ways to e-mail your business in three clicks or less with online forms, live contact or similar alternatives. This applies to both dealers and manufacturers - everyone who markets anything online.

E-mail derail

Unfortunately, far too many managers allow Internet-based leads to become derailed - or ignored - because they're poorly managing e-mail responses and Web site inquiries. The trend for "bricks to clicks" has grown into "clicks to bricks." Since the majority of potential boat buyers are clicking online to gather information prior to going into the showroom, dealer and manufacturer Web sites can actually serve as decision accelerators. Managers must recognize this virtual value by maintaining easy-to-use and highly responsive Web site features. E-mail derail can be readily corrected. With the right Web site features, your well-managed e-mail responses can be used as a competitive weapon to grow buyer interest and sales.

What type of responses do virtual buyers want? A lead response management study conducted by InsideSales.com/MIT indicates the short answer is fast. Samples of their study results for establishing telephone contact with sales leads captured through a Web form showed:

  • The odds of contacting a lead if called in 30 minutes versus five minutes drop 100 times.
  • The odds of qualifying a lead if called in 30 minutes versus five minutes drop 21 times.

This means, for dealers and manufacturers alike, it's time to move from derailed e-mail to quick, high-quality responses to online sales prospects.

E-mail trail

Beyond being highly responsive to e-mail inquiries, what's the best way to connect with customers online and create an e-mail trail? The most user-engaging "connect live" methods are instant messaging, also known as instant chat or a "call me now" button. A live sales rep receives a request for instant chat when customers click on a button on your dealership or manufacturer's Web site to start a conversation. Within two or three minutes, your sales rep responds to the request with a chat message saying, "Hello, how can I help you today?" Now you have established an even stronger e-mail trail with the customer, and you can gain more information, including an e-mail address and buying preferences.

Another way to create an e-mail trail? Offer a free virtual gift such as advanced boating tips or a discount coupon. E-mail the gift after customers fill in a brief form with their boating interests and contact detail. E-mail trails help take the lead to the next level of warmth by collecting customer specifics and providing quick responses to consumer's online information-gathering efforts.

E-mail sale

In addition to e-mail, the "call me now" button can be even more powerful for growing sales. After typing in his or her phone number, the customer clicks the "call me now" button on your Web site. Voila! In less than five minutes, the phone rings with you on the other end. The "call me now" button can be programmed to ring into your store, your cell phone, your manufacturing site or wherever you want it to ring and have someone immediately call back to speak with the customer. Have your webmaster set this up.

Post business hours by the "call me now" button and provide a "contact us" e-mail Web form for customers to fill out when you're not available. If you don't want to use the "call me now" button, then post a toll-free number. Or do both. Now you have taken e-mail to the next level by moving past derail, establishing a trail and moving to the potential for a sale. Yes, being responsive to e-mail truly has revenue potential.

Customer impulse doesn't mean the prospect is always ready to buy, but it does mean they are ready for something - more product and service information or even a purchase decision. Make it easy for your customers to act on impulse by managing their options to connect with you now, and avoid losing later, in the online world.

Fast e-mail responses are also a great way for dealers and manufacturers to collaborate by sharing online sales leads. Keep your Web site e-mail constantly monitored for quick response - grab them at hello. This helps give your customers the prompt attention they want and the sales you seek. Impulse - virtual or face-to-face - continues to be one of the best tools you can manage to help move access to success and close the deal.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, "Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps." Contact her at mary@masteryoursuccess.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.

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