Fishing for B-to-B Fortune
Your B-to-B direct marketing campaign is in the mail. You’ve reached the inboxes of the decision-makers you targeted, despite the best efforts of the gatekeepers who guard them. Your phones are ringing, Web traffic is up, and leads are coming in. Your campaign is a hit!
You already can visualize the higher numbers on next month’s sales reports, the kudos from your boss and the vice president of sales—maybe even that raise you’ve been hoping for.
This happy scenario is the outcome B-to-B marketers dream about when they use direct mail to generate sales leads. Depending on the target audience and the product or service being promoted, B-to-B campaigns can and do produce positive, immediate sales results.
But more often than not, the complexity of the business buying decision—involving multiple decision-makers, the specific requirements of end-users and the role of influencers—creates a lengthy, complicated sales process. This is especially true for business purchases that require a substantial investment.
A fast, easy sale isn’t necessarily a likely outcome. Odds are that a significant number of the leads you’ve generated with your B-to-B direct mail will need to be nurtured over time before they’re willing to buy.
So how can you keep those mail-generated leads interested until the answer is “yes”? Here are some ideas.
Nibbling the Bait, But Not Yet Taking It
The goal of an outbound B-to-B lead generation direct mail campaign is to get potential prospects to raise their hands and indicate their interest in a product or service.
Asking questions on the mailing’s response form, the Web reply form, or during a call with the prospect, B-to-B direct marketers filter respondents by sales potential and readiness to buy, in order to gauge the value of each lead.
The hottest prospects typically are sent to the most effective closers: the sales force. As sales representatives begin following up, prospects tend to fall into three groups:
• Converted to a sale: The prospect becomes a customer.
• Qualified, but not ready to buy: The prospect has the potential to become a customer (need, budget and purchasing authority), but doesn’t want to make a purchase, yet.
• Not interested/not qualified: A future sale is unlikely; the prospect doesn’t have the budget, need or authority to say “yes.”
The key question is what to do with that second group: qualified prospects who have nibbled on the bait but not yet taken it.
Seven Steps for Success
Priming these potential customers for eventual conversion to a sale requires building a relationship. The sales team is likely to continue making periodic follow-up calls, but marketing—especially direct marketing—also plays a pivotal role.
The marketing process should be systematic, tailored to the prospect’s needs and driven by data. Here are seven key steps for success:
1. Capture contact data to facilitate a dialogue. During lead qualification, it’s critical to ask the right questions to determine the prospect’s budget, authority, need and readiness to buy.
But it’s just as important—during lead qualification or at the point of initial response—to capture the contact data needed for an ongoing sales dialogue. It’s especially critical to obtain business prospects’ e-mail addresses and permission to receive e-mails from you.
One way to get this data is to require it for fulfillment of your original mail offer, such as a product sample, free trial of your product or service, or premium.
2. Automate feedback from the sales force. An enduring issue in B-to-B sales and marketing is the challenge of getting feedback from the sales team about leads. Sales representatives may resist participating in lead tracking and reporting because it takes them away from what they do best: talking to prospective customers.
Yet the only way marketing can support sales by establishing an ongoing dialogue with prospects who aren’t ready to buy is to find out about those prospects: who they are, what they’re interested in, and their reasons for putting off a purchasing decision.
One solution is to automate the process with a sales and customer relationship management (CRM) software system that requires the sales team to report on the outcome of each prospect encounter. Many of today’s most popular systems, like Salesforce.com, Goldmine and Onyx, offer this capability for lead and campaign management. It makes it relatively painless and easy.
Another option is to offer a financial incentive to the sales team to ensure their participation. Either way, you must have good prospect information before you can take the next step.
3. Develop a segmented, data-driven contact management plan. The prospect data you’ve gathered now can be used to build the foundation for a contact management program—a carefully planned series of regular touches with leads to keep them interested, keep your product and company top of mind, and create additional opportunities for them to say “yes.”
Use data to group prospects with similar characteristics—e.g., company size, SIC/NAICS code, type of industry, geographic region or future potential—into segments for targeted communications initiatives. Then, develop a systematic communications plan for each segment that regularly provides prospects with relevant information tailored to their specific needs and interests.
The frequency of contact depends on many factors. Most B-to-B marketers try to reach prospects at least quarterly; for others, a bimonthly or monthly contact is appropriate. A mix of tactics and channels, such as direct mail plus e-mail, can help you keep in touch with busy, hard-to-reach decision-makers.
4. Mail information that helps the prospect make the buying decision. Since you already are in a sales dialogue with these potential customers, you should have a meaningful reason to re-contact them, rather than just add them to your mailing list for future promotions. Commonly used tactics include:
• Newsletters that provide valuable insight into broader industry trends or more specific product usage information, such as new product applications, add-ons or peripherals, or upgrades and enhancements;
• Whitepapers or reports from industry experts that illuminate key issues of concern to prospects or demonstrate your company’s thought leadership in your industry;
• Case studies that illustrate how other customers successfully addressed their needs using your product or service; and
• First-person testimonials from satisfied customers, which give prospects a peer-to-peer perspective on working with your company.
5. Tailor the mail to the prospect. From the prospect’s point of view, he already has a relationship with your organization, especially if he’s spoken to or met with a sales representative.
Nothing turns off prospects faster than letting them feel like you don’t know who they are or that they’ve already started talking with you. Thus, it’s vital your mailings reflect prior contact and the budding relationship.
A data-driven sales/CRM system can help you track contact with prospects and tailor future initiatives accordingly. It’s also smart to customize communications to various individuals within a company, depending on their level of authority or role in the buying process. An end-user will be more deeply interested in details of the product’s application, while a C-suite executive may view the purchase in relation to industry trends or return on investment considerations.
When appropriate, personalize mailings with the signature and direct contact information of the sales representative who is also communicating with the prospect.
6. Treat top prospects like they’re already customers. Even among qualified prospects, not all are equal. Move your very best leads—those with the highest potential to become a sale or offering the highest potential revenue—into a preferred contact queue that treats them like they already are customers.
Consider sending these prospects higher-end, highly personalized mailings, rather than the same mailings sent to less qualified prospects. Or temporarily offer best prospects the advantages only customers receive, such as advance notice of sales or special offers, preferred pricing, samples of new products, or invitations to customer-only events.
7. Create opportunities to engage prospects in a face-to-face dialogue. The holy grail for most companies marketing to business executives is an in-person meeting with the prospect. Enabling this type of interaction should be a key goal of your contact management program.
Mail prospects invitations to events, seminars or educational programs, or encourage them to meet with you or attend activities you sponsor at industry trade shows. Identify potential opportunities for face-to-face contact and use direct marketing to promote them.
When They Still Haven’t Said “Yes”
Be realistic about the time frame for B-to-B lead conversion. Large transactions may take months or even years to complete. It’s usually better to keep prospects for big sales on your contact list and continue sending them information, even if they are not responsive. Executives change jobs often, and the next decision-maker could be the one who responds. Or the company’s needs could change suddenly, making the acquisition of your product or service an urgent priority. By communicating regularly and staying on prospects’ radar screen, your marketing initiative could be the tipping point that finally results in the sale.
If enough time has passed without a response to make you question whether the prospect is still interested, make a last-ditch effort to find out. Send a personalized letter from a top company official, or make a phone call to determine if the company still has a need for your product or service and wants to receive future communications from you.
If the answer is “yes,” probe further to understand the time frame and the additional considerations that must be addressed before the company can act. If the answer is “no,” take it off your list for now and attempt another contact at some reasonable time in the future.
Jean M. Gianfagna is president of Gianfagna Marketing & Communications Inc., an award-winning direct marketing agency and strategic consulting firm in Cleveland. For more information, visit www.gianfagnamarketing.com, or call (440) 808-4700, ext. 11.