Saturday, November 18, 2006

B2B Pipeline Management

"The Pipeline" and lead management are primary focus areas for many B2B marketers. B2B marketers have traditionally focused on generating leads, but more and more they are being asked to manage leads once they are "in the pipe". In fact, this is probably even more important than getting the leads in the first place, especially with sales forces that are overworked and have limited capacity.

There are a couple of key problems B2B marketers have traditionally faced once leads are in the pipeline.

  1. Bad Leads. If marketers handed off every lead that came in to the sales force, marketing would very quickly lose its seat at the table. So, marketers are forced to somehow qualify every lead. This is expensive and requires a lot of thought ahead of time.

  2. The Ready-to-Buy Problem. Customer know when they are ready to buy, but a lot of times companies don't. The common problem--customers are warm for a couple days, the company misses its chance (due to poor data, planning, systems, communications--the reasons are endless) and the customer is gone forever.

  3. Stale Leads. In a lot of companies I've seen, about 80% of the leads are essentially stale, but they are not treated differently than the fresh ones. This brings up a larger problem with leads. Even though in many companies campaigns are rigorously segmented and targeted, it's rare to see this kind of discrimination once leads are in the pipeline.

These three problems combine to create what I've sometimes heard called "The Lead Black Hole." Marketing creates all these leads... and they are swallowed up into the ether. So what are some solutions to these problems? Well there are a couple of things that I'd recommend to get started.

1. Pre-qualifying leads. The goal here is to minimize additional expense and single out those leads that don't need a human touch--either to move forward in the funnel or to get rid of altogether. This step is done with data only--no human interface necessary. It is important to realize that best-in-class organizations build models to both to cull out bad leads (e.g. company name ACME and name John Doe, etc. and to promote high quality leads further down the pipeline in certain cases.

2. Qualifying leads. A good proportion of leads that enter the pipeline will need to be qualified. Qualification is almost always done via telephone. While this is an acknowledged best practice, there are some challenges. First, some buyers will be ready to move very quickly on the initial qualification call. Traditionally, however, the lower cost tele resources used for qualification are not really able to handle this kind of "close" opportunity. Second, lead qualification is expensive. Qualifying a lead adds $30+ to the cost of every opportunity downstream in the funnel. In many cases, lead qualification is more expensive than lead generation.

3. Active Lead Nurturing. Once a lead is qualified, it is a mistake to automatically send it downstream to sales. Some leads are certainly ready for sales immediately--and it's critical to harvest these quickly. However, the vast majority of leads need to be warmed up before being passed off to sales. Nurturing then, is a thoughtful cadence or sequence of marketing touches designed to answer the buyer's questions and move him through his own funnel--I sometimes call this the latent funnel. Continuous reassessment is key--the movement to sales must happen at the right time to avoid losing opportunities to competitors or malaise.

4. Better Stage Tracking and Reporting. Good CRM discipline is key. In a lot of companies, the link between sales CRM and lead tracking is fundamentally broken in some way. There is an incredible variety of manifestations of broken CRM (I don't have to tell readers that) but suffice to say it's really hard to manage the pipeline without a good system for managing leads and getting pipeline information to tele, analytics, marketing managers, and sales.

I'll keep writing more posts on lead management and the pipeline over the months. I'll try to outline some blinded cases where I've seen things work well--and not work so well too.


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