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Every day, companies invest massive amounts of time, money, and effort trying to generate new sales leads. Whether it’s through inbound lead generation techniques or traditional outbound lead generation, getting new business opportunities is a major priority. However, many companies do not put in nearly enough time and effort to develop and manage those new sales leads once they have them.

According to stats from MarketingSherpa, only 56% of B2B sales organizations make any effort to verify valid business leads before passing them on to the sales team. Furthermore, 79% of B2B marketers do not have any formal lead scoring process in place to prioritize sales leads that are most likely to buy.

This is a massive waste of resources and time, as well as a huge missed opportunity. If your company is spending money and time on advertising, content marketing, search engine marketing, and other techniques to bring in new leads, you need to protect that investment by using a consistent sales lead qualification process to evaluate, rank, and focus on the right leads at the right time. 

Lead qualification is the process of talking to prospective customers and asking them questions to draw out more information about their needs. This helps salespeople evaluate whether the prospect is a good fit for what they sell, whether they’re a serious buyer who’s ready to move forward, and how soon they are looking to buy. Asking good questions and learning more about the prospect’s situation up front helps salespeople save time later when they're setting appointments and working through the sales cycle. 

Leads come in many flavors, including short-range and long-range sales leads. Short-range leads are prospects looking to make a purchase from the vendor of their choice within a shorter period of time -- usually weeks or a few months. Long-range sales leads need more time to make their decisions, and can take six to 18 months depending on budget and complexity. 

Salespeople are often hungry for short-range leads, and tailor their qualification questions to uncover these quick opportunities. For example, they might ask qualifying questions such as, “Do you have a set budget for this project?” or “As you look ahead, do you plan on implementing a solution like ours?” And if the prospect responds, “No, we don’t have a specific budget assigned for this yet,” or “No, we don’t have a specific timeline for this year,” salespeople might toss these leads aside in favor of lower hanging fruit. 

But the truth is, just because someone isn’t ready to buy right now doesn’t mean that they’re never going to be ready to buy. It's important to have processes in place for dealing with prospects who represent valuable long-range sales leads. These opportunities require nurturing over time through careful attention and repeated phone and email contacts to gradually build a relationship that readies them to buy.

Here are three considerations to keep in mind when setting up a lead nurturing program: 

Track and Follow

Lead nurturing programs are all about tracking and following long-range leads. You want to stay on the radar of these people, even if they’re not ready to buy quite yet.

The basic tool for tracking and following leads is a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system with customizable fields. A good CRM system should have a “follow up date” field which can be tracked alongside a “last action” field. For example, if a salesperson called a contact on January 15 and talked with them about their current business challenges but was not able to confirm a definite date for a presentation, they should record this information in the CRM. This way, nothing is forgotten and reps can quickly get up to speed on every lead before each subsequent conversation. 

Keep Score

Another key element of a lead nurturing program is lead scoring. Lead scoring is the process of evaluating your leads based on what you know about them, and assigning each a priority score based on how ready and willing they are to buy.

Lead scoring does not have to be complicated -- in fact, the simpler the better. For example, you could score your leads as “A,” “B,” and “C,” or “1,” “2,” “3,” depending on what you prefer. The important thing is to be consistent and rigorous. Based on the business intelligence you’ve gathered about each prospect from email and phone calls, how likely is it they will be ready to buy any time soon? Which prospects are you most excited about? Which prospects have already hinted (or clearly stated) that they’re not ready to buy yet? Give each lead a score, and then update these scores in real time as your nurturing process moves forward. Some leads will increase in rank as you continue to talk with them and build a relationship.

Listen for Subtle Messages

How do you know which leads are short-range and which are long-range? It takes time and experience to know for sure, but in general, short-range prospects will exhibit “buying behavior.” For example, they will often eagerly ask questions, freely explain their buying timeframe, and reveal pain points with their existing vendor. On the other hand, long-range leads are usually more reserved, non-committal, and vague in their responses.

Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules, and that’s why it’s important to keep getting on the phone and talking to your sales leads. A live conversation is the best way to take the prospect’s temperature and get a sense of their receptivity levels -- nuances that can be missed with an email-only lead nurturing campaign.

Short-range sales leads and long-range sales leads can both be good opportunities, but they require different approaches, and marketing and sales departments need to know how to handle both varieties. Long-range leads require a nurturing program to build relationships and trust, answer questions, and work toward the point where the customer is ready to commit to a purchase.

Of course it’s great to have short-range sales leads who are ready to buy today -- but that’s not the case most of the time. If you put a consistent process in place to qualify sales leads and nurture them over time, you will build a solid pipeline of sales opportunities.

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Originally published Mar 6, 2015 9:00:00 AM, updated October 20 2016