How to Qualify Leads

Last Updated May 16, 2007 10:12 AM EDT

I've been harping on lead generation because that's where sales pros need a lot of help. In fact, over 70 percent of sales leaders are not satisfied with their lead generation process, according to a survey of sales managers conducted by Jim Dickie, the head of the research and benchmarking firm CSO Insights. Actually, I'm surprised that number isn't higher because I've never, ever heard a sales rep say: "Gee we've been getting plenty of great leads!"

According to Tom Roth, president of Wilson Learning, the root of that dissatisfaction lies in the widely-held (but hilariously mistaken) belief that the best way to get higher sales volumes is to have the sales team call on as many prospects as possible. As a result, marketing groups tend to generate long lists of generic "prospects" in the hopes that the sales pros can turn those so-called "prospects" into real live customers. Then management turns the screws on the sales teams to make more cold calls.

However, Roth's research reveals that when sales pros use generic prospect lists to make cold calls, it takes on average 30 calls (ouch!) to generate a single sale. That's not only a lot of time-consuming cold-calling, it's also morale murder, since even the most talented sales pro can get discouraged after making dozens of calls without so much as a nibble.

Sales pros don't need bigger generic lists of prospects, but shorter lists of qualified leads that are more likely to turn into real customers. However, since they're probably not going to get that kind of list from Marketing, Roth recommends that sales pros winnow down generic lists to the prospects most likely to buy. Here's how to pre-qualify a list of "prospects" and turn them into actual leads:

STEP 1. Define your target industries. Based upon your experience (and that of your colleagues) figure out which industries have both the greatest need for your offering as well as the money to purchase your offering. Limit your target to one or two industries at most. Now go through the generic list and scratch out everyone who isn't in one of those target industries.

STEP 2. Define your target job titles. Within each industry there are "natural" buyers who either purchase offerings similar to yours or greatly influence such purchases. Based on your experience (and that of your colleagues) figure out the two or three specific titles that this natural buyer usually has within your target industry. Now go through the edited list from Step 1 and scratch out every remaining prospect that doesn't have one of those two or three job titles.

STEP 3: Craft a targeted message. Based upon what you know about that natural buyer in your target industries, create a compelling message. You want a message that identifies the problem that keeps the prospect awake at night and which your offering helps to solve. The most effective messages have a high emotional content. For example, if you're selling security software, rather than the "our software is industry-leading, third-generation, and robust" message you got from the marketing group, try something like "what do you plan to say to the CEO when hackers steal your customers' credit card numbers?"

STEP 4: Reality-check the list and the message. At random, call four or five of the prospects on your edited list. Do not attempt to make a sale at this time. Explain that you're trying to understand how to sell into the prospect's industry. Ask them to confirm that the targeted individuals inside the targeted industries are actually the people you should be calling and that the message will prove effective. If there's a disconnect, re-examine your assumptions and return to Step 1.

STEP 5: Help Marketing create better lists in the future. Make your cold calls. If you find (as you probably will) that pre-qualifying your cold calls results in a higher number of average sales per call, save yourself some time and trouble in the future. Ask Marketing to purchase or generate prospect lists that fit the demographic of your proven target. Warning: when the marketing group sees what you've done, they'll probably want you to come work for them!