The Question That Qualifies Prospects
Feb 10, 2016 / By Dan Richards, Special Business Development Contributor
The powerful psychological influences behind asking this simple question can cut through the subterfuge of whether a prospect really wants to meet with you or not and can drastically reduce the number of canceled meetings and appointments you set.
When most advisors talk about qualifying prospects, they think about a potential client’s net worth or level of assets. But there’s a second test of whether someone is a legitimate prospect—and that’s whether they’re genuinely interested in hearing from you.
That’s where a simple question can help determine if prospects who say they’re busy and ask you to contact them down the road are serious. After all, you want to know whether people are simply trying to get off the phone—and their agreement to talk in the future is a cop out—or whether someone is truly open to talking, but is genuinely pressed for time right now.
That simple question that tests a prospect’s interest in talking to you? “If I get back to you in three months, will you have more time to talk then?” The principle of human behavior behind this question is “the law of consistency.” And it can also reduce the chance that prospective clients cancel a meeting, increase the odds of those initial meetings being successful, and get top clients to come out to your events.
The law of consistency at work
Arizona State’s Robert Cialdini is well known for his research on the laws of influence, the things that motivate someone to act. One of those is the principle of consistency—once people have made a commitment, they feel the need to make future actions consistent with that commitment. Some examples of the law of consistency at work:
In another experiment, researchers saw a seven-fold increase in the number of people agreeing to go canvassing for funds for cancer research. In this case, the control group was simply asked to volunteer. For the experimental group, a friend told subjects that he or she had been asked to be an area captain for the cancer fundraising drive coming up in a few months. These friends would ask, “If I agree to do this, would you consider volunteering for one evening to help out?” Subjects who said “yes”—and felt committed as a result—were seven times more likely to volunteer when their friend followed up.
The Horsesmouth article “Nine Words That Saved $600,000” describes how a Chicago restaurant reduced no-shows from 30% to 10% with one small change in their response when customers are making a reservation. Historically they did what most restaurants do, saying, “Please call if you have a change in plans and can’t make it.” By changing their response to “Will you call us if you have a change in plans and can’t make it?” and waiting for guests to say “yes” the restaurant secured a small commitment from customers—and that small commitment led to a dramatic increase in the number of people who called if they couldn’t keep their reservation.
From permission to commitment
Advisors can learn from this, by shifting prospect conversations to ask for similar low-level commitments. Here’s a simple way to think about this:
If what you say to a prospect begins with “Can I” or “May I,” what typically follows is a request for permission to act—with minimal obligation on the prospect’s part. Sure, prospects find it easy to say “yes” to “May I send you some information?” or “Can I check in again in six months?” but the issue is that saying “yes” entails little or no commitment on their part.
If instead your question to a prospect begins with “Will you?” or “Would you?” you’re asking the person for action. So, for example “If I send you the article I mentioned on tax savings strategies and touch base in two weeks time, will you have time to look it over?” asks a prospect for action, not permission. And if a prospect says they’re too busy to meet right now: “May I call you back in a couple of weeks?” is simply asking for permission. Try instead: “Will you have more time to talk if I call back in a couple of weeks?” Now you’re asking for a commitment.
If prospects answer that as they think about it, they won’t have time to read that article or to talk, then they’re telling you that they aren’t really interested and you now can make a more informed judgement as to whether it’s worth continuing to follow up. Note that you can soften the commitment by replacing “Will you have more time to talk if I call back in a couple of weeks?” with “Might you have more time to talk?” or “Is it possible that you’ll have more time to talk?” but the more you soften this, the lower the bar and the lesser the commitment.
Reducing meeting cancellations
The same principle of gaining commitment is being used to get key clients to show up for meetings and out to appreciation events, reduce the number of prospects cancelling meetings, and almost eliminates last minute calls from clients saying that they can’t make a lunch presentation.
One advisor emails his assistant when he’s booked an appointment to meet with a prospect. His assistant couriers the prospect a folder with a letter from the advisor and some background information, as well as a parking pass. As soon as they get that package, the prospect’s commitment level goes way up—since beginning to do this, cancellations have dropped dramatically.
Another advisor began mailing clients an agenda for their annual reviews with a cover note saying “Here are the things that we agreed to talk about when we sit down. I very much look forward to getting caught up.” Once clients got that confirming letter with the meeting agenda, their commitment went up and calls to reschedule meetings went down. Note that sending that agenda in the mail worked better than emailing the agenda—getting a letter results in much higher commitment than getting the same information via email.
A team of advisors who ran monthly lunches for clients were having difficulty with last minute cancellations. They reduced these to almost zero by calling 10 days beforehand and saying: “I’m calling on two things with regard to the lunch a week from Friday. First, I’d like to talk about the questions you’d like answered, so that we can ensure the presentation addresses your key issues. And second, our office manager has asked me to find out what kind of sandwich you’d like.” By having clients feel that their questions would be incorporated into the presentation and telling them that there would be a sandwich there with their name on it, the commitment to attend the lunch went up substantially.
A successful advisor runs monthly events for small groups of clients—from wine tastings to comedy nights and book readings by best-selling authors. She gets a great response to these, but has struggled to get her best and busiest clients to come out. She made one change that increased participation by her top clients. A couple of years ago, at the end of her reviews she asked top clients for feedback on half a dozen events she was considering for the following year. Now when an event is coming up that a top client had indicated was a good idea, she calls them to extend a personal invitation. As soon as clients tell her that an event is a good idea, their commitment to attend goes way up.
In principle, I strongly recommend asking prospects for action instead of permission, with one caveat: Be careful to avoid questions that cross the line into manipulation and into pressure-based stereotypes. For example, every advisor has heard the “I get paid in two ways” referral spiel:
“I get paid in two ways…by the work we do together and by introductions from happy clients to your friends and family. If a year from now you’re satisfied with the job I’ve done, do you think you’d be comfortable introducing me to your friends?”
When clients answer “Sure” to this question, it’s not a commitment, it’s a way to defer the unpleasantness of having to say “Not on your life” until some future point down the road.
When homeowners in a midwest city were asked to put a large sign on their lawn asking passersby to “drive safely,” only a small number agreed. But the number of homeowners who agreed to post the lawn sign went up dramatically if two weeks earlier they had agreed to put a small sticker in their front window with this message. By making a small commitment first, people were predisposed to act consistently and to say “yes” when asked for a larger commitment.