When Leads Don’t Convert, the Blame Game Begins

Author: 
Paul Nolan

Jessica Magoch’s phone rings when businesses are struggling to close sales. “When they call me that first time, they say they need help generating leads and help closing,” says Magoch, founder of JPM Sales Partners. With a laugh, she adds, “I want to say, ‘Oh, just those two things?’ That’s the whole sales process.”

It’s where many companies land when they fall short of sales goals a few quarters in a row: Something’s wrong, but they’re not sure what. Sales blames marketing and marketing often points a finger back at sales. With many of the small and mid-size companies that Magoch works with, sales and marketing are one in the same.

“ ‘The leads suck!’ That’s been the complaint of salespeople forever,” Magoch says. “If we’ve established that, then now what?”

She argues that salespeople who constantly complain about weak leads misunderstand their purpose. “Leads aren’t orders. They’re supposed to take you on a treasure hunt of sorts to find out where the sale is. A lead is just someone expressing interest. It’s up to the salesperson to take them on a journey to convert.”

Where do leads come from?

Misconceptions about leads start with the fact that their origin is often imprecise, points out Jeremy Smith, a serial entrepreneur, trainer and conversion consultant for Fortune 1000 companies. In a blog post for The Daily Egg, Smith references a bar chart from HubSpot depicting the various sources of companies’ leads. The mix includes trade shows, direct marketing, social media and other usual suspects. The tallest bar by far, however, is “other.”

“What the heck is ‘other’? It means that we have no freaking clue where B2B leads come from,” Smith states. “Basically, even smart people don’t really know where their leads are coming from all the time. A lot of getting leads has to do with a lifestyle of consistent marketing efforts, a constant cultivation of industry relationships, and the organic mashup of all kinds of interactions, activities, behaviors, and efforts. Voilá! There’s a lead! But where did it come from? It’s hard to say.”

The takeaway, says Smith, is that rather than focus on a single silver lead bullet, understand that B2B lead generation is a composite of unquantifiable activities and behaviors that just work.

Examining social media’s role

Technology provides more ways than ever to reach prospects, but that’s a double-edged sword. The fact that it’s easier than ever to get in front of prospects makes it more difficult to get their attention. If statistics are to be believed, this is the era of the self-educated buyer, B2B buying teams of 9.6 people and prospects that are 50% or more through the buying process before they engage with a salesperson.

These days, any conversation about sourcing sales leads ultimately turns to technology, including social media. B2B buyers are online. Staying in front of them with the right mix of information and sales messages is essential. Wendy White, vice president of sales and marketing for Agencia, the corporate travel arm of Expedia, says the fact that it is so difficult to determine what stage B2B buyers
are at requires compiling a library’s worth of information for every stage of the buying process.

White arms her team with a collection of recognizable tech tools for buyer education efforts, including Salesforce for customer relationship management, Marketo for marketing automation and Outreach for sales engagement automation.

Content, she says, is a tool to get permission to have a conversation with a prospect. Agencia uses whitepapers, webinars, blog posts, social media discussions and other online means to build its brand by providing useful information. Leads garnered through this manner progress slower, White says, but they tend to be of higher value.

The sales cycle for Agencia averages 18 months and can require up to 13 interactions. Staying in front of prospects throughout is vital. “We’re careful about not being in front of a lead with a sales pitch before they’re ready,” she says. “It’s less about getting the initial lead, and more about the opportunity to nurture a relationship. Staying in front of them with strong educational content keeps them engaged with your value proposition.”

Training salespeople to be patient can be challenging, she admits. She says the Outreach platform is marketing automation for sales development reps (SDRs). The software provides visibility regarding the number of touches a rep is getting with each prospect and what messaging to provide. It also allows reps to tailor messaging to each prospect’s situation.

“Most larger companies already have a managed travel program. They’re on a three-year buying cycle. They may be hitting an issue with their current program and looking for someone new. We want to make sure we’re in front of them before that critical last six months before they go to RFP again. It’s less about lead creation and more about engaging them as prospects in a systematic way.”

The dark funnel

Latane Conant refers to companies’ unidentified prospects as “the dark funnel.” Conant is the chief marketing officer of 6sense, an account-based orchestration platform. She says 6sense integrates with a company’s CRM and uses predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to identify who is researching your products and score leads to help salespeople prioritize their efforts.

Effective conversations with prospects requires a deep understanding of their needs. But what if these self-educated buyers don’t want to be reached with sales pitches?

“It’s OK if they don’t want to talk to me,” Conant says. “That’s where the timing piece comes in. There are people in the funnel who are at the target phase, and I’m not going to worry about them much, to be honest. All I want them to do is to learn from me at that phase. They don’t need to talk to me or get emails from me.”

In terms of ROI, Conant says 6sense users should see increased deal velocity, increased deal size and, on the marketing side, improved efficiency of advertising spend to increase engagement.

The role of a salesperson used to be to provide the type of information that companies now share through content marketing. Despite the buzz, some businesses remain hesitant to share too much through whitepapers, webinars and other downloadable content, says Jen Keul, vice president of Leighton Interactive, an inbound content marketing agency.

“Too often, companies want to write about things that feel good to them, but not about what prospects actually want to learn,” Keul says. “They’re fearful that competitors are going to steal information from them, so they don’t talk about what is actually important. They also don’t want to give too much information online because they want their salespeople to nurture them. That’s a missed opportunity. Being fearful to provide the right information is going to lead to losing the opportunity to speak to them at all.”

Some companies that are effectively using content to market fall apart in their follow-up. “I’m amazed at how many companies do not close the loop on marketing to sales leads,” Keul says. “We’ll generate a lead for a client and send it to sales, and sales never informs us what happens. What were the conversations? How much did that close for? What did they actually find in there so we can learn and iterate from that?

“It’s shocking, even for very large companies that we work with, how dysfunctional that marketing-to-sales process is. There is so much more opportunity with even current clients if they’d just communicate. I’m not proposing they stick with a dead lead, but they can’t just walk away. There is a system that you use to nurture them. Too often, you hear, ‘They’re not right.’ Based on what?”

Know your customer

Lead graveyards are littered with prospects who could have been converted had the sales and marketing effort been more focused on learning the specific needs of individual prospects. Marketing clutter is exacerbated by a failure to dig deeper in this regard.

“Why would you try and engage a potential prospect by looking and sounding the same way in totally different environments?” asks Ken Kerry, co-founder and executive creative director of the marketing agency Script to Screen. “Trying to attract as many people as possible with one message is the fastest way to attract no one. If you stop for a moment and analyze how many different issues and challenges your current customers and prospects are experiencing, you will quickly realize that one message and one size does not fit all.”

Ignoring prospects’ unique pain points telegraphs how little you care to solve their problem, agrees Magoch. “A prospect only has one question when they are working with you: ‘Is this person here to help me or are they here to help themselves?’” She says the sooner you can turn a lead into a face-to-face meeting, the quicker barriers break down.