Why the Most Promising Leads Often Fall Flat

Sometimes, the urgency of the lead is inversely proportional to the probability of conversion.

It was six in the evening. I was about to wrap up for the day. The phone rang. I was tempted to let the caller leave a message. But I was curious, so I picked up the receiver.

The voice was animated. “Hello, I’m Sal Esposito. You don’t know me.” A pause. Then, “Wow, I can’t believe I actually got you on the phone! I’m such a fan of your books. Actually, all of us are here at Stevens Brown.”

“I’m delighted you’ve enjoyed them. How can I be of help to you?”

Sal’s enthusiasm was over the top. He sounded like a kid who just walked into his living room on Christmas morning and sees the tree with all the presents stacked under it.

Sal explained his situation and continued, “The approach you take in your books really resonates with us here. It’s just what we need. We’re ready to pull the trigger on this. Everyone’s lined up behind it. What’s your availability like? How soon could you start on a program with us? And how much would you charge? I know it’s hard to say without getting more details, but maybe you could just give me an idea of your fees?”

Most initial calls are exploratory. Usually, a potential client is just thinking about doing something. They feel dissatisfaction with their current progress, and want to explore getting help. Not Sal—he was so excited he couldn’t contain himself. He compressed what might normally be hours of conversations with a potential client into 20 minutes. We agreed that I would send him a short outline with some ideas, and then we’d talk again in a few days.

Before I did anything I went down my checklist. Is this an urgent issue for the client? Yes. Does Sal “own” the problem—is he the right executive to be dealing with? He seems to be. Are they dissatisfied with the current rate of progress? Absolutely! Do they trust me as the preferred provider to help them? Well, they loved my books—it seems like they do.

Yet, something nagged at me. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

Over the next week, Sal called me two more times and I sent him a proposal, with several options. The nagging feeling persisted, but I brushed it off.

We were due to talk the following week, but Sal cancelled the call. Then, nothing. He stopped answering my calls and emails. No signed proposal came back. No kickoff meeting was scheduled. No conference call with his colleagues took place. The intensity of the deadening silence matched Sal’s initial, unbridled enthusiasm. I’d been proposed to for marriage, and we’d sent the invitations out to the guests. But now the bride had disappeared.

Three weeks later I got an email from Sal. It was short: “Look, I think we have to put this on the back burner for now. Some other priorities have emerged that we have to deal with. I’ll be back in touch. We really do feel there’s a great fit here. We just love your work.”

That was five years ago, and I never heard back from Sal. Not once.

During my career I’ve had quite a handful of encounters with others like Sal. The storyline is the same each time: The prospective client calls you and just can’t wait to get started. And then, after you spend a week or more running around meeting their demands, the opportunity mysteriously dies. You are offered no more than a vague, curt explanation, if that.

Although I never did business with Sal’s company, I can thank him for this principle: Serious engagement needs a relationship.

I’ve learned there are no shortcuts when it comes to getting real and lasting results. You need the foundation of a trusting relationship. In this case, I was taken in by the prospective client’s enthusiasm and excitement.

Had I slowed things down, and built more of a relationship, there still might not have been a sale. But the odds of getting one would have been higher. I would have discovered what was really going on in Sal’s organization. I might also have uncovered some red flags and not wasted my time.

I mistook enthusiasm for my books for a trusting relationship. But enthusiasm alone—for your products, your company’s brand, or your personality—is not enough by itself to conclude a contract.

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