I recently completed a website benchmarking project – essentially to compare one company’s website with those of its key competitors.

This kind of benchmarking isn’t just technical. A key part of the process is a form of mystery shopping – to see how each company compares when various types of sales enquiry are sent, via the websites.

The results were staggering – but sadly quite typical. Of the ten companies reviewed, only three responded at all. Of those that responded, the best took four days to get back to me. Part of the process was to show mild interest (definitely not a tyre-kicker, but not a buyer either) to see how the initial contact was followed up. Not one company followed up the initial contact.

This highlights something I see again and again with websites – that they are disconnected from the sales process and that website enquiries are not given the priority they deserve.

When buying a new car a few years ago, I went to many of the websites of main manufacturers, requesting brochures. About half of the brochures I requested simply never arrived. One arrived to surprise me some nine months after requesting it – perhaps that’s their brochure gestation period.

This is not rocket science. Any sales person will tell you that speed of response is essential in winning the sale – leave it a day or so, and the lead is cold, or the customer’s needs have been met by a competitor.

One training company which I worked with implemented a simple system and very successful system: a four-hour response time to all enquiries. This immediately increased their sales by around 30%. The rationale was that, to most customers, their ‘need’ is actually a ‘problem’ – it’s something that they want to deal with quickly and put behind them. So, the company that can provide a solution to that problem in the fastest way is more likely – in many cases – to win the business simply by virtue of being on the ball.

For simple enquiries (say, for a single course or perhaps even 10 people on a course) a price/proposal was provided. For more complex enquiries, a follow-up would be made to tell the customer – clearly – when a price/proposal would be provided, or to ask for more information. In many cases, customers were given their information within an hour or so of making the enquiry.

In the competitive training market, many sales people and company directors would tell you that buyers put price above everything. This strategy reveals this to simply not be true in many cases. Speed of response equals problem solved, plus it engenders a high degree of confidence in the supplier which in turn creates trust.

Even in the healthiest economic climate, it’s unbelievable that companies will invest in websites and then fail to follow up the leads that the site generates – but it happens all the time.

Sometimes companies think that an enquiry is not worth responding to, because – for one reason or another – it doesn’t look like a sale will result, or it’s ‘the wrong kind of business’. This is short-sighted in the extreme – even if there isn’t going to be a direct sale, the company has missed the opportunity to impress someone who may later have been able to recommend a friend or colleague. Every enquiry is an opportunity to impress.

It’s common for there to not even be a defined process for managing inbound enquiries – they go to a ‘sales pot’ and are followed up ‘sometime’. All that’s needed is a simple system:

  • The enquiry is sent directly to someone for whom response is a defined part of his/her role.
  • A service level is put in place to define response times and fulfilment times.
  • Information is provided in a structured, standard and impressive way.
  • All potential customers are communicated with either verbally or via e-mail with the express goal of ‘hitting it off’ and creating a relationship.
  • All enquiries are later followed up a few days later.

The lesson is a simple one. It’s great to develop ambitious website strategies, but if you aren’t doing the basics right, it’s just a waste of time and money.