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September 8, 2014 // 8:00 AM

New Research Reveals Average Lead Response Time [Sales Data]

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stopwatchLast month, InsideSales.com released new research on lead response times. Were they fast? Slow? Well, how you react to the data depends on how you look at it.

For instance, traditional sales wisdom has long held that the company that responds to a lead first dramatically increases their chances of winning the deal. According to InsideSales, “50% of buyers choose the vendor that responds first.” The report cites 2007 data from Dr. James Oldroyd which found “the odds of the lead entering the sales process, or becoming qualified, are 21 times greater when contacted within five minutes versus 30 minutes after the lead was submitted.”

With that mindset, the median first call response time to an inbound lead is a bit disheartening at three hours and eight minutes. But this isn’t nearly as depressing as the average -- approximately 61 hours -- or the 47% of companies that did not respond at all.

To Linda Richardson, founder of Richardson and faculty at The Wharton School, this final statistic was the most alarming.

“If one salesperson calls or emails in 30 minutes or sooner and another responds two days later, it says volumes to the prospect. Quick response time sends [a message] about respect, urgency, and responsiveness,” she said. But “the worse situation is the large number of leads that simply get ignored.”

However, Matt Heinz, president of Heinz Marketing, pointed out that not all leads require or even want a lightning-quick reply.

“The more transactional the sale, the more important to follow up quickly,” he said. “However, if the lead is a white paper download, then by definition they're not sitting by the phone waiting for you to call. Just because they filled out a form and downloaded a white paper does not mean they want to talk to someone right now.”

Trish Bertuzzi, founder of The Bridge Group, also noted this distinction.

“The problem with the data is that it treats all leads equally,” she said. “If someone fills out a ‘contact us’ form, a fast response is a must. If someone downloads a white paper or attends a webinar, they probably don't want to hear from you at all, never mind before they have even absorbed the information.

“Smart organizations have figured out that the lead score should dictate the response time and not the tick of the clock,” she continued. “Let a well thought out strategy dictate your process -- not a stopwatch."

Time aside, the report also covered number of attempts made and methods of communication used by sales organizations. According to the research, the median persistency rate was one attempt, and fewer than 25% of organizations used the phone during any point in their follow up.

Both Heinz and Bertuzzi advocated six to eight attempts with a variety of media. Heinz recommended leaving voicemails after a call not because it necessarily boosts the chances of a buyer returning the call, but because it increases familiarity with the salesperson and company. He also advised using social media to like updates and follow buyers as a way to further diversify follow-up channels.

Large Companies Faster to Respond Than Small

The data was also broken out by company size and industry, which separated the relatively speedy from the sluggish. Regarding median first response time, “we find that Healthcare, Retail, and Manufacturing industries are slowest, while the Telecommunications, Media & Internet, and Business Services industries are fastest,” the report stated.

Heinz speculated that healthcare and manufacturing might have older processes and systems in place that aren’t well adapted to keep up with today’s quick pace of business, while Bertuzzi said their slow rate is “probably because they are laggards in the adoption of inside sales and don’t have dedicated teams in place to convert leads.”

In terms of size, the data showed that larger organizations have slower lead response rates than smaller companies. The median overall response time was 48 minutes for companies with 300 employees or less, 1:38 for companies with 301-2500 employees, and 1:28 for companies with 2501 or more employees.

Richardson chalked this up to complexity.

“Larger organizations can be slower to respond because there may be more layers. For example, a lead can come into marketing, get qualified, sent to a sales leader, and assigned to the salesperson who may or may not respond quickly,” she said. “Whether the organization is large or small, I believe it boils down to the sales leader and front line managers, and the message and protocol for lead management they establish. We are in a rapid response era and best in class companies have lead nurturing processes.”

Heinz espoused a similar view. Larger companies “may have good systems in place for marketing leads [or] white paper downloads, but those ‘I want to learn more about you’ leads sometimes just go to a phone number,” he said.

To avoid having an inquiry fall through the cracks, he suggested that the more complex the company or sales process, the more important streamlining processes, systems, and workflows should become. Although he admitted it isn’t the most titillating part of marketing, “focusing on the non-sexy process can make a huge difference in whether you have first mover advantage in the conversation.”

So what moves can companies make to shorten their response rates and become the first mover?

Heinz said companies should hammer out an ideal response time that is agreed on by both sales and marketing. To encourage salespeople to stick to the timeframe, sales leaders can opt to withhold leads from those responding too slowly. “Leads are a privilege, not a right, for salespeople,” Heinz said.

Richardson also emphasized the collaboration between sales and marketing. “Leads are valued and maximized when there is sales leadership that partners with marketing and provides its team a protocol, tools, and coaching.”

However, Heinz added that sales organizations should keep the buyer’s perspective in mind when recalibrating follow-up processes. For instance, people downloading a white paper don’t necessarily want to be contacted immediately.

And to Bertuzzi, shortening the lead response rate isn’t the right objective in the first place.

“We are focusing on the wrong end of the donkey here,” she said. “As opposed to being fast, how about having better conversations when we do reach buyers?”

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