Breaking Through (Part One): My (humbling-as-heck) lesson about inbound sales communication

Recently, I posted a joke about a trend I’d been seeing a lot on LinkedIn and in my email inbox. I wrote:

“Pro tip: if you’re hoping I’ll reply to your cold outreach email or linkedin message, maybe don’t start your message with ‘Dear Benton’”

Almost immediately, things got weird. Typically, a post like this might get a few likes, and a few hundred views. I didn’t use a hashtag, nor did I tag anyone. In other words, I wasn’t trying to get a bunch of views or create some sort of viral thing. I was just feeling sarcastic after receiving a bunch of impersonal, (I felt) poorly written sales pitches. Most of these came through LinkedIn, but plenty have guessed my email address and hit my inbox. Bad form, I thought. I’d had enough. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

That post, to date, has received over 15,000 views and has dozens of comments. Many responses were sympathetic – others who felt like these were mass-communicated, spaghetti-on-the-wall spam tactics. But a few folks pushed back, citing cultural differences and pointing out that my snark might be misguided. Others questioned my logic. “So what if it’s a mass communication, or a poorly written note? Aren’t you still limiting yourself from opportunity by not responding?” (I’m paraphrasing).

Whoa. This is some provocative stuff – these folks make some pretty good points. Many of us work in industries that are fairly agnostic to borders – is my bias toward a certain style, format or salutation actually holding me back? Am I being so snooty that I’m missing out on good opportunities? Worse yet, could this be an unintentional form of discrimination? I decided that I need to think more seriously about this.

I take this kind of thing personally. Introspection isn’t always easy. I hate discrimination and I despise unfairly biased thinking. I absolutely shudder to think I might be guilty of either. From a purely business perspective, if we’re missing opportunities for any reason, I had better get to the bottom it. I decided to conduct a little experiment.

I chose two messages that I wouldn’t normally entertain. Instead of ignoring them, I wrote a thoughtful response to each. The first was an inbound email, the seventh in a series of uninvited communications from an overseas firm looking to sell us on their services. The second was a LinkedIn message from a firm that builds explainer videos (the example they sent was about stem cells!). In each case I responded, saying that I typically don’t reply to such communications, but that I’d be happy to learn more. To the overseas firm, I offered a 15-minute call to learn about their product. To the LinkedIn message, I wrote that I’d received dozens of similar communications, and that I’d be interested in knowing what sets the sender’s firm apart, and also how they think they could help us. Here goes nothing, I thought. The results confirmed my hunch that I can and should do a better job of exploring inbound opportunities. Much, much better.

The overseas firm blew me away. No joke. The 15 minute call went 45 minutes. Then, I asked my partner to review it – he called it a ‘no brainer.’ He’s right – it’s got the potential to help our team in a number of ways. While I still maintain that they approached me in the wrong way, we’re definitely going to buy their product.

The firm that builds explainer videos fared worse. I got a canned message back with a list of giant enterprise examples (that have no reasonable connection to who we are or what we do). The sender suggested I talk to someone else in her organization if I was interested. Not impressed.

There’s a lot to learn, here. First off, I’m clearly guilty of not thinking deeply enough. I valued form over function – mostly due to being busy. Maybe that sounds like a tough pill to swallow, but I’m happy to have learned my lesson. We’re better for this humbling experience.

But what about the senders? Wouldn’t they benefit from some tweaking to improve their own efforts? I think so. This problem won’t be solved by expecting folks to look in the mirror and become more open to inbound sales pitches (though as I’ve experienced, we all should). There’s always room to improve, and for any business development or sales professional looking to break through the noise, there are better ways to get the prospect’s attention.

I’m going to tackle this topic in part 2, next week. Stay tuned!

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