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Beyond lead nurturing/scoring: Five lead management best practices

24th Feb 2012
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With B2B sales cycles changing, Fergus Gloster shares five lead management best practices to drive revenue growth.

As Dylan wrote, "The times, they are a-changing", and B2B sales cycles are no exception. In particular, social media and the dragging economy have caused major ripples in the business world. There are conflicting reports on how the recession has affected B2B sales cycles. Tight budgets, fear of making bad decisions and increased available options have delayed buyers’ plans and contributed to the length of sales cycles in many circles. However, for the few projects that are ready to go, sales have been closing at lightning speed.
Additionally, social media and user-generated content have really changed the sales process and cycle length. Prospects can find information, ask questions online and learn more about a brand than ever – sometimes before even seeing it, knowing where to buy it or communicating with the organisation that offers it. By the time many leads make contact, they are already close to making a decision and require less marketing resources to clinch the sale.
For prospects who are undecided, though, early-stage lead nurturing is more crucial than ever. If marketers don’t spend enough time working with the lead in the early stages of the sales cycle, it can end up dragging on or petering out. A sales professional who ensures that he or she has an understanding with the customer early on is much more likely to close the sale without having to retread part – or all – of the process.
Most organisations have a large number of sales leads that are of little or no value. Opportunities that fall through after long periods of time actually cost businesses money, due to time and effort expended on what eventually just becomes a dead lead. The true cost of these long “fail” cycles is misallocated resources, inaccurate sales forecasts and missed opportunities for sales to move on more promising leads. Successful lead management can help give direction on where these commodities could be better spent.
Lead management
I think one mistake many marketers make is to think of their lead management requirements too narrowly — and to be honest, quite a few demand generation vendors make this mistake as well.
The fact that today's buyers take control of their buying processes using search, social media, and other online tools means that marketers need to move away from a mindset of "generating leads" and towards a model of "managing leads". Done well, this unlocks serious revenue growth. A good sales force automation system can help sales teams be more productive and allow demand generation teams to generate more qualified, sales-ready leads per month at lower cost per lead.
Two of the most important components of any lead management solution are:
  • Lead nurturing to educate buyers and establishing that your company understands their problems and knows how to solve them.
  • Lead scoring to know when to pass leads to the sales team – and when to keep them in marketing for further nurturing.
Most B2B marketing automation solutions provide at least some form of these capabilities, though it's worth digging into the details; for example, best practices for both nurturing and scoring require the ability to trigger actions based on complex customer behaviors, which is not available in every solution.
However, achieving the full benefit of lead management requires much more than just nurturing and scoring. Those are necessary but not sufficient components of a complete solution; by themselves they don't automate many of the marketing processes, especially the key interfaces to and from marketing and sales that are necessary to really unlock growth.
The problem is that as more and more vendors enter the lead management space, it's becoming harder than ever to determine what's right for your company. Of course, I have my biases, but here are my top five lead management best practices that go beyond lead nurturing and lead scoring. These are proven methods to drive revenue growth, and in my opinion a complete marketing automation solution needs to support these processes.
  1. Be everywhere. Cast your marketing net wide so customers will find you no matter where they are searching. As a corollary to this, focus heavily on best practices and thought leadership so prospects will find you even before they are looking for a solution. And, once they do get to your site, be sure you've optimised your landing pages so you maximise your chances of converting the traffic into engaged prospects; landing page testing is a key part of this.
  2. Build prospect profiles. Create a lead database to manage and store all your leads, and then make sure you have a strategy in place to keep that database clean / de-duplicated. Collect information from your prospects over time (progressive profiling) and even more importantly build a profile of their interests and engagement by tracking behaviours: web pages they visit, content they download etc. This will allow you to segment your leads to precisely target them with the right content.
  3. Automate lead handoffs. When a lead becomes sales ready, you want to get it to the right sales channel with as minimal impact to the sales team's current processes and workflows. Make sure to define different lead status values to indicate whether someone is a "qualified prospect but still nurturing" or a true "sales ready lead". Update the lead status inside the CRM system and tag the date the change. If necessary, change the owner of the lead (again, inside the CRM system) to assign it to the right rep or lead queue. Also, depending on your internal processes, send the appropriate sales rep an alert and/or create a task for them to follow-up. Don't fall into the trap of trying to do these critical steps manually; only by automating these capabilities with lead management workflows will you be able to keep up with the lead volumes.
  4. Provide sales lead insight. It's not enough just to let the sales rep know they have a new lead. You also need to give them the history and insight about the interesting moments that caused that person to become a lead. And, once sales are engaged with an opportunity, you should continue to provide information that helps them sell better and move the deal along faster. Remember, the "human conversation" is just as (if not more) important a part of the dialogue with prospects as marketing's emails.
  5. Recycle leads as necessary. There are two forms of lead recycling. The first is when you assign a lead to a particular sales rep or partner and for some reason they don't or can't follow-up in a timely fashion. (This is not always the rep's fault. For example, we have a policy that a certain category of leads get a five minute follow-up. But, if the assigned rep is in a meeting, it may not be possible to call right away.) In this case, make sure you can track when sales acts on a lead, and have a process in place to reassign the lead or escalate the issue in a timely fashion if your ‘service level agreement' is not met. (Hint: Waiting until tomorrow is not fast enough.) Second, there will be times when a sales rep cannot connect with a prospect, or the customer is not yet ready to enter into active buying discussions. Without the right lead management processes, reps will "hang on" to these leads, creating a black hole where leads aren't being nurtured yet sales cannot proactively engage. Be sure you have the ability for reps to recycle leads, and to specify the timeframe when they want that lead to come back around to them.

As you evaluate marketing automation software, take into account all the workflows and processes you'll need to manage your leads, not just lead nurturing and lead scoring. Your sales team will be glad you did.

Fergus Gloster is managing director of EMEA for revenue performance management specialists, Marketo. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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