But first, the back story. I needed some work done at a property I own. I found three contractors online and reached out to each of them to get a quote. Cue crickets.
No response. Nothing! So, a few days later, I politely followed up with each to prod the process along. Again, nothing. Finally, after four weeks of repeated e-nagging, one finally coughed up a quote. Most of the details were wrong, but at least someone at the other end was responding with minimal signs of consciousness.
Fast-forward two months. The work is still not done. At this point, I’m still trying to convey the specifics of the job and to get an estimated timeline. If I had an option, I’d take it. But the sad fact is, as spotty as the communication is with my contractor of choice, it’s still better than his competitors. One never did respond, even after a number of emails and voicemails. One finally sent a quote, but it was obvious he didn’t want the work. Fair enough. If the laws of supply and demand are imbalanced this much in their favor, who am I to fight it?
But here’s the thing. Market balances can change on a dime. Someday I’ll be in the driver’s seat and they’ll be scrambling to line up work to stay in business. And when they reach out to their contact list, a lot of those contacts will respond with an incredulous WTF. If you didn’t want my business when I needed you, why would you think I would give it to you when you need me? A prospect spurned has a long memory for the specifics of said spurning. So, Mr. (or Ms.) Contractor, you can go take a flying leap.
If you’re going to use online channels to build your business, don’t treat it like a tap you can turn on and off at your discretion. Your online prospects have to be nurtured. If you can’t take any new business on, that’s fine. But at least have enough respect for them to send a polite response explaining the reason you can’t do the work. As long as we prospects are treated with respect, you’d be amazed at how reasonable we can be. Perhaps we can schedule the job for when you do have time. At the very least, we won’t walk away from the interaction with a bitter taste that will linger for years to come.
In 2005, Benchmark Portal did a study to compare response rates for email requests. The results were discouraging. Over 50% of SMBs never responded at all. Only a small fraction actually managed to respond within 24 hours of the request.
I would encourage you to do a little surreptitious checking on your own response rates. Prospects contacting you need your help, and none of us like to hear our pleas for help go unanswered. Twenty-four hours may seem like a reasonable time frame to you, but if you’re on the other end, it’s more than enough time to see your enthusiasm cool dramatically. Make it someone’s job to field online requests and set a four-hour response time limit. I’m not talking about an auto-generated generic email here. I’m talking about a personalized response that makes it clear that someone has taken the time to read your request and is working on it. Also give a clear indication of how long it will take to follow up with the required information.
Why are these initial responses so critical? It’s not just to keep your field of potential prospects green and growing. It’s also because we prospects are using something called “signaling” to judge future interactions with a business. When we reach out to a new business we find online, we have no idea what it will be like to be their customer. We don’t have access to that information. So, we use things we do know as a proxy for that information. These things provide “signals” to help us fill in the blanks in our available information.
Another example of “signaling” would be hiring new employees. We don’t know how the person we’re interviewing will perform as an employee, so we look for certain things in a resume or an interview to act as signals that would indicate that the candidate will perform well on the job if hired.
If I’m a prospect looking for a business -- especially one providing a service that will require an extended relationship between the business and myself -- I need signals to show me how reliable the business will be if I chose them. Will they get the work done in a timely manner? Will the quality of the work be acceptable? Will they be responsive and accommodating to my requirements? If problems arise, will they be willing to work through those problems? Those are all questions I don’t have the answer to. All I have are indications based on my current interactions with the business. And if those interactions have required my constant nagging and clarification to avoid incorrect responses, guess what my level of confidence might be with said business?