Research Reveals a Tactic 34X More Effective Than Email [New Data]

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Emma Brudner
Emma Brudner




Trends tend to go in cycles. There's a reason for the saying "what's old is new again" -- if something was popular once, odds are it'll come back sooner or later.

Modern sales practitioners and experts spend a lot of time talking about ways to optimize sales emails and social media messages for the best response rates. But could it be that face-to-face is actually the way to go in our digital times?Researchers from Western University recently studied the effectiveness of different communication channels to get people to take a survey, and the results spoke loud and clear.

"We found that people were much more likely to agree to complete a survey when they were asked in-person as opposed to over email," Vanessa K. Bohns, assistant professor at Cornell University, wrote in an HBR article. "Face-to-face requests were 34 times more effective than emailed ones."

Bohns attributed this stark difference to two factors. The first is what face-to-face interactions offer that emails lack: Nonverbal communication. "When we replicated our results in a second study we found the nonverbal cues requesters conveyed during a face-to-face interaction made all the difference in how people viewed the legitimacy of their requests," she wrote.

Secondly, she pointed to the email recipients' perception of the ask. Think about it: How often do you click on a survey link from an unknown sender? Yup, that's what I thought.

So what does this staggering statistic mean for salespeople? Should reps reallocate their time spent on email to traveling to buyers' offices and shaking hands?

Well ... not quite. Just like so many other things in sales, the effectiveness and appropriateness of different connection channels hinges on the timing and context.

"It's not realistic for a sales rep to go out and meet with hundreds of prospective customers in a territory for the very first interaction they have; nor is a prospect interested in taking an in-person meeting the way they may have 10 or 15 years ago. The sales rep [should] create enough value through channels such as email and social so that the prospect is compelled to take a first meeting," Brian Signorelli, director of HubSpot's global sales partner program, explained. "However, as the mutual exploration continues and approaches the final decision-making stages, asking for a purchasing commitment through email or social is almost never appropriate and should -- at a minimum -- be done over the phone or video conference."

Signorelli also pointed out that the type of sale is relevant when deciding on the best method of communication. "For businesses selling complex, high ticket items, face-to-face is likely appropriate."

Michael Pici, director of sales at HubSpot, agreed that the connection channel should shift as the relationship progresses.

"There is a reason in sales when salespeople receive an email from a prospect asking a question and ask their manager what to do, we say 'Pick up the phone and call them,'" Pici said. "Going from text to phone to in person each adds new context and investment to a dialogue, which in turn leads to better understanding of intent and trust."

As for how to kick off a relationship via email that becomes a phone conversation and eventually an in-person or video meeting, Jeff Hoffman, sales trainer and creator of Your SalesMBA, had some words of wisdom for reps. From his point of view, it's all about making the right initial ask and building from there.

"Keep it simple and easy to respond to," Hoffman said. "I try to create a question that can be answered in less than 10 keystrokes. Something like, 'How can I get a copy of your PowerPoint presentation?' has a better chance of a response than three choices of times on when to meet." Then, once the rep receives that initial response, they can start to build credibility, provide value, and eventually maybe even close a deal.

What do you think about this data point -- is face-to-face back in vogue (or did it never go out of style in the first place)? How do you tailor your ask to different connection channels? When is a face-to-face meeting most effective, or appropriate? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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