What is "ghosting" in international business, and how to deal with it?

"Ghosting" in the realm of international business is a perplexing challenge that often manifests as unresponsiveness from potential or existing clients during negotiations or contract discussions.

As an export manager, you've probably had some of the following thoughts:

"It's been weeks since I sent a quote to a potential client, and they haven't responded."

"I try to contact them by phone, but they either don't answer or keep putting me off."

"I've chased a client for payment, but I haven't received a response."

"They said they were interested and would proceed with the purchase, but I haven't heard from them since."

"Are my emails going to their spam folder?"

I've experienced this frequently, and it's possible that, like me, you are dealing with what is known as "ghosting." This is a practice that, when applied in the business world, occurs when a client or party interested in a contract or transaction decides to stop responding to messages or calls during a commercial proposal, in the middle of negotiations, or even when we consider that client to be "loyal and trusted."

Furthermore, in international trade, our clients are often located thousands of kilometers away, in different time zones, and there may be no linguistic proximity or cultural similarities, making communication neither fluid nor dynamic from the start. According to direct testimonies from export managers and international sales representatives, they frequently agree that ghosting is one of their biggest concerns.

The truth is that the cause can be multifactorial, and there are many variables that must be carefully analyzed to understand why they are ghosting us and, above all, how to prevent or reverse it as much as possible.

First and foremost, we must acknowledge that not every time a potential or current client doesn't respond is solely our fault, as it may be due to larger factors such as a lack of time, a desire to avoid direct rejection, or it not being the right time for them to make a purchase. However, this does not excuse the concern it raises for exporters.

Polite but Firm Follow-Up and Information Extraction

- Follow-up is essential for building a successful and long-lasting relationship between exporters and importers. If ghosting persists, and you start to worry, it's never a bad idea to send an email in a courteous and elegant manner addressing your prospect with questions like, "Has there been any issue?" or "Do you need to review any other aspects of the terms or the offer? We are at your disposal for whatever you need." This expresses interest in finding out if there's been an unforeseen issue and shows that you genuinely care about the business relationship.

- Personalizing the message and the manner of communication are also key factors in arousing the buyer's interest. This way, they'll think of you as a distinguished contact who takes into consideration their specific needs and requirements.

- Obtaining commitment and feedback from the prospect: Whenever possible, try to extract the information you need. If there's a pending payment or meeting with your prospect, propose a date and confirm it, or announce that you'll call at a specific time and inform them. To expedite the sales process or get a quick response, mentioning a potential price increase or promotions can create a sense of urgency in your buyer. By being concise and subtly committing the other party, you can obtain the necessary information. It goes without saying that there are payment methods that the exporter should consider to avoid payment issues, such as advance payment or the use of a documentary credit. Here's a link to our article on the reliability of the importer, where we discuss the importer's purchase history, business credit reports, and cultural differences as key factors for analyzing a customer's reliability.

- Follow-up strategy in the sales process and lead nurturing: On one hand, it's necessary to classify leads as potential customers, analyze their characteristics, and determine their position on the journey map (how prepared they are to make a purchase). Using a CRM and its customer management and email automation systems, among other functions, greatly facilitates this process. On the other hand, lead nurturing is equally important and aims to nurture the prospect (previously classified in lead scoring) and achieve a sale or a meeting with the internal team. Automated emails, reminder systems, calls at specific intervals, updates on your catalog, a monthly newsletter, personalized content, a list, a survey, or other resources are examples of ways to remind your target that you're interested and can reignite their interest in case of ghosting or a "hesitant lead," positioning yourself in their top-of-mind.

Try to put yourself in the customer's shoes, understand their situation and priorities

Finding the cause of a potential or current customer's ghosting can help us determine the most effective and appropriate solution, so it's necessary to empathize with that person, understand their situation and context, their needs, strengths, weaknesses, and other variables:

- Patience level: Many times, companies need a certain amount of time to make a decision to buy our product, so depending on this and the complexity of the process, we should adjust the frequency of our follow-up emails or calls.

- Many customers don't want to explain and avoid rejection: It's important to understand that, at times, the buyer doesn't want to invite criticism from suppliers and doesn't want to be forced to justify their decision. The only time this buyer will be willing to provide reasons for their rejection (which we should view as improvement opportunities) is when there's a genuine interest, and they might consider building a relationship in the future (often, if there's complete ghosting from the start, it's often advisable not to persist).

- Is the customer also evaluating products and prices from my competition?: It's very likely they are considering or have received offers from your competitors. Therefore, you need to know the prices and competitive advantages they may have over you in advance and ensure that your value proposition is stronger. Understanding your competitor's operations and features, as well as studying the relationship they may have with our potential buyer, is crucial. Price is a commonly used argument, which is why it's essential to understand the importer's priorities in detail.

- The decision and evaluation of the proposal are in the hands of their superiors: One of the most common situations leading to ghosting is when the person to whom we initially presented the product is not the one who will ultimately make the decision (they must elevate it to their superior, manager, or department head).

Taking all these factors into account, understanding the reason for your prospect's ghosting will be easier, and with that, you can recover that contact. Personalizing proposals to importers with information about their current suppliers will make you stand out from your competition and reduce your chances of experiencing "ghosting." Additionally, having the support of the marketing department to stay top-of-mind with your customers will increase your chances of them considering your product when they need it.

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