Fulfilling Inquiries… FAST! The Key to Generating New Buyers

From time-to-time, we conduct studies to determine how quickly companies fulfill catalog requests (i.e., inquiries).  While some firms do a great job turning around catalog requests, many do not. Yet, unsolicited (and solicited) catalog requests can be extremely valuable and a high percentage do convert into buyers. Inquiry fulfillment does need to be monitored more closely and given a higher priority. This month, we will discuss the importance of inquiry fulfillment and provide results of a recent study we conducted.

Unsolicited catalog requests come from many different sources. We don’t always know their origin but we do know inquiries are “diamonds-in-the-rough”. If someone takes the time to request a catalog, chances are they are very interested in the products you are selling. Therefore, a high percentage of these inquiries convert to buyers. What’s more, we are able to re-mail the inquiries, those that do not convert right away, another two, three or more times with success. The point is, these are very qualified prospects.

How fast should you fulfill inquiries? As fast as you can! There is a direct relationship between the number of days it takes you to fulfill a request for a catalog and the conversion rate. From my experience, it is best to fulfill the initial catalog request with 24 to 48 hours. Some catalogers “hold” inquiries until they have enough to send via Standard A mail. That is a big mistake. Inquiries need to be fulfilled daily. Again, the faster you are able to fulfill catalog requests, the higher your conversion rate will be.

We recently completed a catalog request study to determine how long it takes catalog companies to fulfill inquiries. We called 19 different companies earlier this year to request a catalog. As of March 3, we had received 15 catalogs. In other words, approximately 21% of the catalogs we requested were never received. This report is very consistent with a similar study we conducted about one year ago. Of the 15 catalogs we did receive, it took from 3 days (best performance) to 43 days (worst performance) for the catalogs to arrive in-home.  On average, it took 15.2 days to receive the catalogs we requested. The results of our study are as follows:

Reference for all Companies (Results as of March 3, 2003)
Company Date Time (min) Hold (min) Call Length
Expected Arrival (days) Actual Arrival (days)
Company A 1/14/03 2:24p 0 2 10 9
Company B 1/14/03 2:29p 0 2 14 18
Company C 1/14/03 2:54p 2 3 7 43
Company D 1/27/03 4:18p 0 1 14 – 21 N/A
Company E 1/27/03 4:20p 0 2 7-10 10
Company F 1/27/03 4:23p .5 2 7 – 10 21
Company G 2/05/03 11:36a 0 3 14 – 21 16
Company H 2/05/03 11:40a 0 1 N/A N/A
Company I 2/05/03 11:43a 0 1 7 3
Company J 2/05/03 11:45a 0 1 14 – 21 16
Company K 2/05/03 11:46a 0 4 N/A 9
Company L 2/05/03 11:52a 0 2 7 – 10 N/A
Company M 2/05/03 11:56a 0 1 14 N/A
Company N 2/05/03 11:58a 0 2 7 10
Company O 2/05/03 12:02p 0 1 7 – 10 15
Company P 2/05/03 12:04p 2 3 7 – 14 14
Company Q 2/05/03 12:09p 0 1 7 – 14 16
Company R 2/05/03 12:12p 0 1 14 5
Company S 2/05/03 12:15p 0 2 7 – 14 23

Note the date we requested the catalog and the time of day we called. We were placed “on hold” a few times.  The call length of average talk time varied and it took 4 minutes to complete our request for a catalog in one case. The expected arrival date was the day we were promised by the operator compared with the actual arrival date. In most cases, it took considerably longer for us to receive the catalog compared with what we were told. There seems to be inconsistency from what the operators are telling us the time lag will be vs. reality. As with many things, it is better to under-promise and over-deliver.

There are a number of issues here which are as follows:

  • The fact that companies, in general, pay very little attention to catalog requests. They are gold, yet companies do not do a good job getting catalogs in the hands of these qualified prospects.
  • The length of time it takes to fulfill the inquiries. For every day it takes after about one week, the value of the inquiry diminishes.
  • There were no incentives provided or “dot-whacks” thanking the prospect for their inquiry and making them an offer to purchase.
  • The re-mail opportunities are minimized due to the length of fulfillment time, if ever.
  • Telephone etiquette is another related issue in some cases.

A few tips when fulfilling inquiries are as follows:

  1. Process inquiries daily; do not wait until someone has time to get to them.
  2. Fulfill these inquires you receive via 1st class mail. Do whatever it takes to get a catalog in the hands of someone who requested it within 5 days.
  3. Thank the prospect for their inquiry with a label placed on the front cover or with a special ink-jet message on the back cover next to the address block.
  4. You might want to consider making a special offer of free shipping or a dollar amount off their order for first time purchasers.
  5. Be sure every catalog includes a source code in order to determine the conversion rate.
  6. Re-mail the non-converting inquiries at least three times.

A few years ago, I tested fulfilling catalog requests via first-class mail vs. Standard A. I found that the conversion rate increased by 20% with first-class mail which was more than enough to offset the additional cost for postage. While you may or may not experience the same rate of increase in your conversion percentage, I do feel it is safe to say that you will maximize your conversion rate the faster you can fulfill catalog requests.

Typical Conversion Rates

We have discussed conversion rates in general but how do they compare and what can be expected? The initial conversion rates for inquiries typically range from 5% to 10%. Re-mailing the non-converting inquiries one, two, or even three times often yields an additional 2% to 4%. These percentages compare favorably with the response rate from a typical rented list at 1% to 2%. Shown below is an actual chart from a consumer catalog company which tracks the conversion rate of inquiries over time:

LETT Direct, Inc.
Date: 04-28-03
(For a Consumer Catalog Company)
7.75% 3.70% 2.56% 2.24% 4.06%

Encouraging More Inquiries

We know inquiries yield a high conversion rate. Therefore, what can we do to generate more inquiries? Here are a few ideas to consider:

  1. Test the use of space ads to generate catalog requests.
  2. Test inquiry-generating cooperative programs which you pay for on a “per inquiry” basis (these programs tend to generate lots of inquiries but the conversion rate can be low).
  3. Encourage more inquiries by placing a catalog request card (bind-in or a blow-in) in your catalog.
  4. Be sure there is a “Tell-A-Friend” section or space on your catalog order form.

We are a society of instant gratification. We order something today and we expect it tomorrow (or within a few days, anyway). Fulfilling inquiries quickly is essential to a successful marketing program. Follow through and maximize your inquiry conversion results!