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In Lead Management, the Best Process Wins

Marketers love to exercise their creative muscles, their right brains, and think up wonderful new ideas for persuading prospects to buy. But in business-to-business, creativity is, frankly, not necessarily much help.

As dull as this may sound, the secret to success in BTB is in process. It’s not about marketing creativity. It’s not even about conducting more or better lead generation campaigns. The leverage lies in converting more inquiries into qualified leads and, then, more qualified leads into sales.

The company with the best inquiry management is the one that will win. Inquiry management is about setting up a solid, methodical process, and then executing daily.

Consider findings from Performark, a Minneapolis-based inquiry management company, which conducted a study in 1995 and again in 2001 in which it responded to more than 1,000 BTB advertisements in trade publications.

Performark found that 61 percent of the inquiries it submitted in 2001 received absolutely no response over 60 days. Worse, that result was down from its 1995 experiment, when a mere 43 percent of the inquiries were ignored. So it looks like we are getting worse, not better.

Remember, these are inquiries resulting from paid ads, which carry calls to action, like to a Web site, toll-free number or bingo card. The marketers who bought these ads intended for readers to respond and maybe, one would hope, buy something. But most of these marketers failed to put in place a process to handle the inquiries. How pathetic.

On the other hand, look at it this way: When the situation is this bad, the company that does handle inquiries well will clean up, without investing much at all.

Here’s how to create a great inquiry management process. Begin by optimizing each step in the inquiry management chain:

Response planning. Start response planning early in the campaign development process. Make sure you have a unique code that identifies responses from every outbound communication. This can be a priority code, a special toll-free number, an operator’s name, a unique URL, anything. Offer multiple response media, including phone, Web, BRC, fax and e-mail. And don’t be shy about including qualification questions on your reply form or your inbound-phone scripts.

Response capture. Your response capture process will work only if it’s designed by the people who manage the inbound media. Put together a cross-functional team.

Then, consider the best strategy for each medium. For example, set up a dedicated fax number for inquiries so they don’t get mixed up with regular daily business communications. And ensure electronic inquiries from e-mail and your Web site are acted on immediately. Log the inquiries into a database and match the name against prior contacts to avoid duplicates.

Inquiry fulfillment. Most BTB inquiries are asking for more information, so give it to them. The secret is speed. In the Performark study, 75 percent of the companies that did respond got their material out within one week. This is good news. And it indicates the value the best companies put on fast delivery. Also, try to match the fulfillment material to the need and the value of the prospect. And all things being equal, consider migrating from print collateral to flexible, downloadable Web-based materials.

Inquiry qualification. Many of your inquiries will require additional qualification before they are ready for handoff to sales. The secret to qualification is involvement of the sales team in setting qualification criteria. Don’t let them tell you they want everything. But listen to their views of an ideal qualified prospect: The sales side knows a lot better what they need than you do in marketing.

Lead nurturing. When the prospect isn’t ready to see a sales person, but will be ready eventually, move the inquiry into a nurturing process. Nurturing involves a series of ongoing communications intended to build awareness and trust and to maintain contact until the prospect is ready to buy. You can use a variety of tactics, from catalogs and newsletters to surveys, white papers and birthday cards.

Lead tracking. Let’s not forget the process of closing the marketing loop, to attribute a closed sale to a marketing campaign. It ain’t easy in BTB, but it’s worth some effort, if only to justify marketing budgets, not to mention giving you the tools to refine campaign tactics and improve results next time. Supplement your closed-loop tracking system with end-user surveys or data match-back analysis.

Optimize your inquiry management process and you can triple, even quadruple, your revenue from lead generation campaigns.

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