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How bad timing can hurt your sales

by Donald Cowper  |  February 19/2013  |  ,

Sales Timing

If your timing is off, your prospects won’t become clients. Tim, an independent IT consultant, learned this lesson the hard way.

A hit of bad news

A few years ago a good friend of mine suggested I hire his buddy Tim to set up my home office computer equipment. I took his advice and was glad I did. I found Tim to be a total whiz with hardware and an all-round fantastic guy. While he performed his tech wizardry, we chatted about his business, including a recent hit of bad news.

A-level clients wanted

Tim, who was in his mid-20s, had decided to run his own business after being unable to find a good fulltime gig after university—yup, the job market, even for bright IT guys, isn’t always roses. Most of his clients were solopreneurs like me, but what he really wanted and needed were bigger clients—companies that weren’t yet large enough to have an in-house IT guru, but big enough to have tech issues where Tim could earn thousands of dollars at a time and charge retainer fees for ongoing service. He only had a couple of A-level clients like that.

Wowing the big prospect

His piece of bad news was that an A-level company that he figured should have become one of his clients had just chosen another tech specialist. The company in question was a consulting firm. The year before, a friend of Tim’s introduced him to Andrea, the head of the firm, at a party. Soon after, Tim met with Andrea a couple of times and developed a proposal for her office that totally wowed her. Tim was certain he had a new best client.

The Dear-Tim email

Unfortunately, after dangling on the hook for a few weeks, Tim received a short though apologetic email from Andrea saying she wasn’t going to be able to go ahead. She added she loved his ideas and said she’d be in touch if things changed on her end. Tim was crushed. He’d put everything into making the sale. Their mutual friend later told Tim that Andrea was swamped with some new business challenges and not to take the rejection personally. That same friend had just recently given Tim the crap news about Andrea’s hiring the other tech guy.

“Apparently Andrea felt bad about not going with me,” Tim said. “But with how crazy her year had been I’d slipped her mind. This new guy just happened to call out of the blue right when she was starting to think about the systems stuff again. I would have gotten the contract for sure if I’d been the one to call her.”

I told Tim I felt for him and said I’d heard this kind of sucky story countless times from freelancers and small business owners.

Off the radar

“Did you ever contact Andrea since getting turned down?” I asked.

“No,” Tim said. He’d thought about it, but he kept hearing from their mutual friend how tied up she was and he didn’t want to bug her.

“I can understand your feeling like that,” I said, “but by not keeping in touch, you move off your prospect’s radar, leaving yourself vulnerable to someone else with better timing swooping in.”

Bad timing = no deal

As I explained to Tim, you can meet the client of your dreams and have the perfect solution for them, but if the timing isn’t right, the deal won’t happen. One of the problems a lot people make in sales is that they focus on their own timing, not the prospect’s. You go out and try to make sales because the timing is right for you—you’re ready to take on a new client. But your client might not be ready to take you on. That’s common. The truth is you’re really lucky if your timing matches up with your prospect’s timing.

“In fact,” I said to Tim, “I think you suffered from seeing the sale as a one-time opportunity. You went and made your pitch, got rejected and considered the deal over. But the truth is, it just wasn’t the right time for the deal.”

Your perfect partner is unavailable

I told Tim to consider how crucial timing is in personal relationships. Let’s say you meet the perfect partner one day, but they’re unavailable. Maybe they’re focused on their career, or preoccupied with a health or family issue. Maybe they just got out of a long-term relationship and aren’t ready for a new one. Or maybe they’re dating somebody. There could be any number of reasons why a relationship between the two of you isn’t possible right now. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t make a perfect match someday. You just have to keep that person in your network or build a friendship and make sure you’re around when the timing is right for the two of you. It’s the same in business.

Elizabeth’s timing-is-everything approach

When Tim asked me what he should have done, I told him about a client of mine, a graphic designer named Elizabeth, who takes a long-term perspective. If she meets a great prospect and doesn’t earn their business, she keeps them in her pipeline. Elizabeth is a master of building relationships—not just client relationships, but prospect relationships. She touches base regularly, but is careful not to pester. She might send a quick one-line email to say hi. Or put a quick call in. Or send an invitation to a function she’s running. She makes a point of reaching out every few months, because she knows she has to be top of mind whenever a work opportunity comes up. She’s grown a fantastic business full of A-clients by adopting this approach.

Tim would put my advice into practice and one day phoned to tell me that he’d just landed a huge client, and that it had everything to do with making sure he’d stayed on their radar.

The big takeaway: the first time you meet a great potential client, the timing might be off. They might not need your services right then. They might not have the money for you. They might be bogged down in other priorities. Any number of things could be going on. Whatever the case, you want to make sure you’re top of mind when the time is right. Make contact every few months. Build a relationship. Get them to see that you’re not just in it for a quick sale. Like a good friend, you’ll be there when they need you. My friend Elizabeth recently landed a monster contract with someone she’d first met over six years ago. All the little things she did over the past six years to build a rapport were about to pay off in spades. As Elizabeth sees it, her future income is secured by the dozens of prospect relationships she has that will go paid when the timing is right.

If you want to share your own story about how good or bad timing has affected your business, please let us know in the comments section below, or shoot me an email at donald (@) freshbooks (dot) com.

Author’s note: this post is based on business owners I know or have coached. I’ve changed their names and some telling details.

For other stories by Donald step into The Cowper Files.

Donald Cowper is a Small Business Writer at FreshBooks. He’s a successful entrepreneur, an experienced coach and the coauthor of two bestselling business books—Mega-Selling and The 8 Best Practices of High-Performing Salespeople.

  • Erik T

    Thanks for the article Donald. In my world of corporate sales, the customer usually dictates timing. The rule we adhere to is making sure that you have 3 or 4 times as many opportunities as your sales target in order to ensure that you meet your objectives. Same rule could apply here. You know your capacity and your requirements as a business. By soliciting business from several different sources, you’re more likely to find a customer who’s timing is more aligned to your own, and could find yourself in the enviable position of having to politely decline an offer based on your being at capacity rather than having to hope for a single deal to close. Hopefully that will leave a positive impression on the prospective customer, and may make them more receptive to your timing if you have the ability to take them on in the future.

  • Security Gates

    I couldn’t agree more with how you compare possible perfect match someday with how timing is important in business. Indeed if things didn’t work out at present it doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be opportunities in the future, keep these potential clients within your network.

  • Sean Miller

    Awesome article, so right on the money and so helpful for my business.

  • Donald_FreshBooks

    Hi Erik, great points! I like your rule of 3 to 4 times as many opportunities as your target. I think that guideline would work for a lot of small business owners.

  • Andy H

    Great article! It shows that sometimes we focus too much on the opportunity in front of us and not enough on the longer term process. It’s so important to have a calendar of different marketing initiatives that will keep you in touch with each of your prospects throughout the year–and keep you top of mind.


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