Dealing with Client Unresponsiveness

Do these laments sound familiar?

“I had three or four good discussions with a prospective client about doing some work with his company, and now he doesn’t return my phone calls or emails.”

“They have our proposal but I haven’t heard a thing back from them. I’ve called and left several messages but gotten no response.”

Advisors and other service providers are rarely satisfied with the level of responsiveness from the executives they are trying to sell to. But in the last few years the unresponsiveness seems to have grown into an epidemic. I’ve been a consultant for 32 years, and it’s the worst I’ve seen.

Why is this happening? And how should you react?

Here’s why clients will always be less responsive than you would like, and why it’s worse now:

1.     There is relational asymmetry. There is invariably an asymmetry between the importance of your engagement to you and its importance to your client. The sale or project in question may represent 20, 30, or even 50 percent of your time and attention. But for your client it might only account for five percent their daily life. It’s like when you haven’t eaten all day and are starving, and you’re waiting in a restaurant to be served. You can’t think about anything but that cheeseburger that you ordered, but for the restaurant it’s just one meal out of hundreds.  What is urgent and important to you is probably important but not urgent for your client!

2.     Clients are preoccupied with urgent, short-term issues. Your client probably works in a large organization, and they are subject to all the short-term craziness that big corporations can impose on individual executives. I once had a prospective client who didn’t get back to me on a major proposal for weeks because she had to attend seven holiday parties in ten days at different locations all over the country!

3.     There is more uncertainty. The economic turmoil of the last five years has changed many of the dynamics of the corporate buying process. A variety of things are slowing down client’s ability to respond: Approvals must be made at a higher level; corporate budgets are more changeable and may get cut or augmented on short notice; procurement is now involved more frequently; and executives are feeling less secure about their ability to make decisions and stick to them, concerned that they will be second guessed.

How should you respond and react?

1.     Do a better job of walking in your client’s shoes. Talk to them about the pressures and constraints they are under. Spend time at their office or in their operations. You’ll be more empathetic, you’ll have a better understanding of why they are perhaps not being as responsive as you’d like, and you may just learn some things that will help you add more value in the relationship.

2.     Be proactive but don’t stalk them. Always try to get a commitment to a next step—for example, if you submit a proposal, make an appointment to discuss it when you give it to your client. Don’t be afraid to say to a client, “I’ve addressed this problem successfully for a number of other clients. Would it be helpful if I put together an outline of an approach that I think would work for you?” After two or three attempts to connect with your client, consider a time out. Don’t email them six times in a row if they aren’t responding. Instead, send a short, handwritten note saying you’d be delighted to pick up the issue with them if and when if it becomes a priority again in the future.

3.     Be helpful. Don’t make the sole focus of your interactions a series of attempts to get them take the next step to conclude a sale with you! Be helpful and add value. Send them an article or book that might help them better understand their issue. Suggest an introduction to a past client who has confronted the same challenge. Send them a note saying, “I’ve been thinking about your situation, and here are the three key questions I would be asking myself if I were in your shoes,” and so on.

4.     Remember that it’s all about them not you. Most of the reasons behind your client’s unresponsiveness have to do with issues they are grappling with, not with you. Just because they are not calling you back doesn’t mean they don’t like you and don’t respect your work. It doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in collaborating with you. It usually just means some other priority has reared its head and they are not focused on you and your proposal right now.

Do everything you can to add value and be responsive on your end. Then, sit tight—the issue may become important again to your client and suddenly they will be more responsive. Or, it may not. And we all know the best antidote to that scenario is to have a variety of leads that you’re working on. When all your eggs are in one basket, and that basket gets put in cold storage, it’s not a good feeling. So, convert that angst and worry into redoubling your outreach efforts to current clients, past clients, and other executives in your network.

What has your own experience been? What have you done to manage client unresponsiveness and indecisiveness? Please share your comments, below. 

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