Ghosting: The practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication (Oxford Dictionary)
“Ghosting” has become a hot topic in the world of dating in recent times, with bizarre stories emerging of people wiping their digital slates clean, simply to avoid the awkward break-up conversation.
Recently ghosting has made the leap to the business world, where it’s causing plenty of heart-ache and confusion too. After all, it’s both awkward and confusing for a prospect to go dark!
Fortunately, it is possible to keep prospects engaged. Keep reading to learn a simple 7-step process to do just that.
Why ghosting is such a problem
I ran a Sales Academy in Barcelona last year for a group of sales reps from a global technology company. One member of the group had just experienced an extreme case of ghosting with a hot prospect. She couldn’t understand what had happened and wanted answers, so we set about unravelling the mystery together.
Before I tell you what happened in that particular deal, we need to answer a few important questions.
- What causes an otherwise normal human being to suddenly fall off your radar?
- Why does this behaviour seem to happen at key stages of the sales process?
- And are you destined to experience ghosting for the rest of your sales career, or is there something you can do about it?
The B2B sales industry still revolves around people, which means ghosting is a real possibility. And when it happens, there are two very important things to remember….
#1: By their nature people are often unpredictable. They do things we can’t always anticipate or understand.
#2: Most people innately shy away from conflict or having to give unpleasant feedback to others. I’ve spent the past 8 years talking to and interviewing B2B decision makers as part of the Win Loss Analysis services my company Trinity provides, and based on my experience, I’ve arrived at a somewhat obvious realisation:
“Sales don’t go quiet. It’s the people making the decisions who go quiet.”
I’ve also observed a few consistent themes across many of the “Loss Do Nothing” decisions that my company has analysed over the past 8 years. Let’s take a look…
7 themes behind ghosting situations
It’s easy to sabotage yourself, moving too fast or too slow, being too “present” or not “present” enough. But generally, when a prospect goes dark, it can be traced to one of these 7 reasons.
A feeling of undue pressure often makes prospects go quiet.
The lack of a compelling buying need, business pain or opportunity to justify a sale closely correlates to instances of ghosting.
Having no strong internal sponsor at the prospect organisation means no one cares enough to tell you you’re out.
Engaging with a prospect early in their buying process and then pushing them to move forward at your pace is a sure-fire recipe for the silent treatment.
Sometimes, when a prospect moves forward with the competition, they feel uncomfortable telling you and prefer to disappear completely.
Bad service, poor response times, or lack of product/service fit with the prospect’s needs is often a causal factor.
And last but by no means least, doing something inappropriate, unprofessional or unethical at some point during the sales cycle can earn you a one-way ticket to Ghostville.
That’s all well and good, I hear you say. But how can you avoid triggering the ghosting phenomenon in the first place? I’m glad you asked…
After almost a decade of customer interviews, win/loss analysis, and some genuine soul searching, I’ve created a 7-step framework to stamp out ghosting – and when it does happen, to know how to respond appropriately and can keep prospects engaged. Think of it as your own personal Ghostbusting Guide to Sales.
How to stamp out ghosting once and for all
Step 1. Answer the question, “So What?”
So much of the customer feedback I hear these days, comes back to a similar theme: “They talked too much and didn’t listen to or understand our needs,” or “They focused too much on their solution, not enough on our problem.”
The simplest way to avoid falling into this trap is to spend time in discovery, asking lots of detailed questions, then using what you’ve learned to deliver relevant insights. In other words, answer the question, “So What?”
Here, let me show you:
“We’ve got lots and lots of customers. Look at all their logos on the slide behind me.”
“I’d like to highlight 3 specific customers from this slide to talk about, as they had very similar business issues to the ones you’re struggling with.”
“We’ve won lots of awards for our projects over the years.”
“We’re incredibly proud of the industry awards we’ve won, because we’ve won them with our customers. Hopefully this project we’re discussing might also win an industry award.”
Step 2. Get the facts
To work in a sales role, by definition, you have to make assumptions and operate without a complete picture. However, when a customer disappears, before you jump to conclusions, make sure you’ve got all the facts.
- Is your contact sick, on holiday, fired, no longer with the company, having a family emergency?
- Has there been a huge crisis inside the business?
- Have your assumptions about the project changed?
- Has the customer gone into a quiet period prior to making a decision?
- Are they feeling rushed or pressured by your sales tactics?
A million and one things can happen, all of them giving your prospect a legitimate reason for not contacting you. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.
Take the pressure off. Give them permission (and space) to give you a “no update” update. And you’ll be amazed at how often prospective customers reappear.
Step 3. Change your language
For too many of us, corporate-speak is our default setting. But that can unnerve a prospect, making them go quiet.
All it takes is a slight change of language or tone to reawaken a sleeping prospect. For example:
“Would you be interested in…” versus “Would you be open to…”
“I just wanted to follow up…” versus “I’d love to get your feedback on…”
“I’d like to understand your business issues” versus “Can you help me understand why you made time to see me in the first place?”
Scripted, automated, unnatural as opposed to tailored, relevant and natural…. Which would you prefer?
Step 4. Add some value
If ever an expression has lost its meaning in the business world, it’s “Add Value.” It gets thrown around everywhere, but few people understand what this expression really means. So let me break it down for you.
You’ve heard that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Well, it turns out that “Value is in the eye of the beholder” too.
Our job as sales and marketing professionals is to understand what our prospective customer deems valuable – and find a way to give it to them. Cialdini’s Principle of Reciprocity states:
“People are obliged to give back to others the form of behaviour, gift, or service that they have received”
What this means in a sales context is this: If you have added value to your contacts at each stage of their buying process, as humans, they will feel morally obliged to respond to your emails, pick up the phone when you call, or agree to meet, when otherwise they might not have.
Step 5. Align your sales and buying process
So often, in the B2B sales world, we become obsessively focused on our own internal focuses and lose sight of what’s happening on our customer’s side.
I once coached a guy transitioning from the customer side of the fence to becoming a sales rep for the first time. He printed off a one-page copy of a sales cycle and created a one-page copy of a customer’s buying cycle also.
He’d take these two documents to meetings and use them as a simple way to create shared understanding of the steps both sides needed to take to complete a sale.
Want to hear something funny?
His win rate was very high, and none of his prospects ghosted him. Why? Because he took the time to look at the world from their perspective.
Step 6. Change the channel
I’ve sat in many sales forecast calls and heard reps answer the question, “How is this deal tracking?” by saying, “I’ve emailed my contact three times and haven’t heard back from her.”
Let’s be very clear, folks: Some people like email; some hate it. Some respond best to voicemail (although increasingly, people have simply stopped checking). Text message can be good. Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Viber – all can work.
An actual phone call (old school I know) can be extremely effective, as can a letter, a visit to their office, outreach to a colleague, or a personalised video message.
Need I go on?
The number of communication channels available to sales professionals is endless. Don’t just focus on the ones you’re used to. Ask your customers and prospects which they prefer to use.
By identifying the mode (and frequency) of contact they’re most comfortable with, your hit rate will improve significantly.
Step 7. Fall on your sword or qualify out
This brings us full circle to Barcelona, intent on solving the mystery of the Ghosted Sales Cycle. Some quick context:
- It was a high-value sales cycle, which had been underway for some months.
- The sales rep in question was French, and in France, they use formal language and tone when engaging in business activities.
- The sales rep had been in regular contact with her internal sponsor at the account for some months and then nothing: no answered calls, no returned emails, zero contact for almost 6 weeks.
We talked it over and, given how much time had passed since her last contact, plus the nature of her relationship with her sponsor to that point, I suggested the “Fall On Your Sword” approach could bear some fruit.
What is the “Fall On Your Sword” approach?
With this strategy, you take the high ground. Apologise for whatever you may have done to make the customer disengage from the process.
She crafted an email to her contact and apologised. She told them she could only assume she had said or done something during the sales cycle that either caused offence or simply failed to demonstrate the value her prospect was expecting from her.
“Qualifying Out” or “Falling On Your Sword” are not strategies to be taken lightly. Both can easily result in the sales cycle grinding to an abrupt halt.
However, if there has been an extended silence and if done professionally and respectively, both of these methods can deliver very rapid responses, even from prospects that have appeared dormant for months.
The rest of the story
The sales rep and I crafted the email together, sent it off, and went back to our workshop. At lunch time, the sales rep came to see me with a shocked look on her face.
She told me she’d just received an email from her silent prospect. He apologised profusely, explained that the lengthy delay had resulted from an internal business issue on their side, but that now they were ready to re-engage. Could she make some time to meet with him next week?
The sales rep was ecstatic at this turn of events, and I was happy she’d been able to pull this opportunity back from the brink.
The world of B2B sales continues to fracture and become increasingly commoditised. As a result, we’re likely to see more of the Ghosting Phenomenon.
Your job as a sales professional is to ensure that – win, lose, or draw – in all your customer engagements, you’ve earned the right to receive feedback, and the prospect values you enough to be honest, no matter the outcome.
Adopt the 7-step framework we’ve outlined here, and you’ll keep prospects engaged. You may also become a recognised Ghostbuster.