I just got a great question, “How much follow up is too much?” The sales person was concerned about annoying the customer with too much follow up—even though the customer had requested the follow up.

All of us face this challenge, we’re anxious to move forward, we want to know what’s happening, what the customer thinks, and where they are in their buying process. We’re anxious to know what’s happening and to close the deal, but we don’t want to annoy the customer.

The right answer to this question is, “It depends,” but I think much of our concern about follow up is because we haven’t asked the right questions or come up with the right agreements in the first place. Our questions are driven by not knowing or having shared expectations with the customer.

Our questions and follow-up often comes from not knowing where the customer is in their process or not knowing what the next steps are or not knowing what they think or not knowing what we should be doing next.

If we ask the right questions, if we understand the customer’s buying process, if we reach the right agreements with the customer in each meeting, we understand much of what we want to know. We also can set the expectations for following up on the next steps. As a result, our follow-up is expected–perhaps even scheduled–and never annoying.

In each meeting with the customer, we need to close agreeing on specific actions and next steps. We agree on actions the customer will take, those that we take, when they will be completed and our next meeting. In essence we’ve created a shared project plan with our customer, with well defined goals, milestones, and shared expectations.

Too often, sales people pester customers with questions like, “Where are you in your decision making process?” These questions rise out of failure on the part of sales to understand this or help the customer define it. Early on, we need to understand the decision making process—who’s involved, what steps they go through, what approvals are needed, what the timing for each of these is, and the customer’s plan to keep on track. Once we understand this, our need to ask the question plummets because we know. If the customer doesn’t know the answers to this, then we can create great value by helping them establish that process, keeping themselves on target to reaching a decision.

Likewise, questions come up about capital approval/allocation processes, budgeting processes, contracting, purchase order, and other areas. We need to be asking questions about these early in our sales process. We need to understand the steps involved, people involved, timing. We need to establish, with the customer, times for checkpoints. We need to understand the consequences of delays and how the customer will address these.

Often the customer doesn’t know. This is the perfect opportunity to help them understand and put a plan in place, establish a schedule, milestones, and come to agreement on next steps and follow-ups.

The customer’s buying process and our sales process is really a project plan. In every good project plan we have well defined actions, next steps, milestones, and follow ups. We have well defined metrics to help us keep on task and on schedule.

If we are asking the right questions, setting the right expectations, gaining the right commitments to next steps in our shared project plan, the issue of “how much follow up is too much,” becomes a non issue.

Follow up is important. But if we are asking the right questions, if we establish the right agreements, if we have a shared project plan with the customer, we don’t have to pester the customer because we don’t know. We’ve set expectations, we know the next steps and we can execute our shared project plan.