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When to send a customer follow-up after a service or sale

Expert Don Peppers offers advice on how long to wait before sending a customer a follow-up reminder after a service or sale, and what type of contact or reward is best for a customer.

What is the optimal amount of time to wait after a customer's first contact or sale before sending a follow-up reminder?

For example, we provide corporate services and would like to send corporate gifts to our high-value customers after a delivery of service. We hope this will remind the customers of our service and that they will remember us for future purchases. What is the optimal time to do this follow-up, beyond which the customer may forget us? Is it three months, six months or a year?

Well, it depends on whether this is the first contact or a repeat sale. There's no fixed rule for this. In a business-to-business ( B2B) setting, I think a good guideline is to send a follow-up gift or piece of information more or less immediately, after the first contact, within a few days, maybe a week or less. Now, this customer follow-up should not necessarily be a gift; that is, not in the way you're thinking. I would say, if it's at all possible, sending additional information, sending a report, a white paper, something that the customer would find of interest or useful -- something that they would find of value for their business. Not a bouquet of flowers or tickets to the opera or something personal, but something business-oriented. I think this would be a much more valuable way to use that opportunity.

If you're trying to follow up on a sale, perhaps because it's the first sale, or the first one after a long period of time, then I think a follow-up phone call or email message would be in order. This kind of contact would be especially useful after any sort of service operation, where there is anything unusual that happened with the customer. If there was something unusual with the sale transaction, then the customer needs to receive a follow-up call pretty much immediately.

So for instance, let's say you're a lender, and a customer negotiates a fairly large loan or investment of some kind, an unusual transaction. In that case it's very important to find out from the customer if everything went OK. Ask them, "Did you understand the process? Was there anything we should have done differently?" This is what Martha Rogers and I would call "complaint discovery" where you're using the follow-up contact as a means basically to be sure that there's no unwritten or unspoken complaint on behalf of the customer. Because most customers aren't going to complain, at least not to you -- they'll complain to their colleagues or their friends.

Now if I have a valuable customer that I haven't heard from for awhile, let's say, and I don't want that customer to forget me, and it's been a couple months, three months or longer, I suggest a follow-up customer contact -- again, in the form of some kind of information or inquiry, something more business-related than a "gift."

If you want to stimulate business from high-value customers who are inactive and you're looking at a marketing promotion of some kind, where you're going to offer some kind of inside discount, in that case, I think it's very important to make it a "by invitation only" operation, saying "you're a very valuable customer, we've got a limited supply of this product, we're making them available first to our most valuable customers," that kind of thing.

But there's no right or wrong in any of this. It's a matter of judgment and good taste. And, if you're worried about it, then do a little test. It's not hard. Do a follow-up with every other customer, and don't do one with the rest, to see what happens. Or every other customer, follow up one week and follow the other up three months later and see what happens there. It's really not that difficult to get a reading on what the right operation is for your kind of business and your type of customers. But keep in mind that customers are not ciphers; they're each individually different, and so to the extent that your sales person -- the person who's relating to that customer and knows something about the customer -- thinks that three months is too late or too early, I would pay close attention to the sales person on this, or the account manager, because people are different. And there's not going to be any single right answer to this question.

Hear more in Creating Customer Value, a SearchCRM.com monthly podcast series with Peppers and Rogers.

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