It's OK, you can say it: Online leads are a pain in the neck.

Sure, they're a great source of new business, but finding a way to make those leads pay is a struggle. The biggest problem for most businesses is timing: They don't have the systems in place to respond to online leads fast enough.

A study by Dr. James Oldroyd, a former research fellow at MIT, examined more than 1 million online leads from 38 companies. The results are striking: The odds of contacting an online lead plummets after just five minutes.

That may sound hard to swallow, but these results have been verified in follow-up studies. And they have big implications for how you structure your sales department to handle online inquiries.

One problem is that many firms treat online leads like traditional leads. For example, a survey found that the average lead response time is 31 hours. That timeframe might be OK for traditional leads, but with online leads it's deadly. Because these are live leads—more like an inbound phone call or a face-to-face customer.

When you think about online customers this way, that five-minute window starts to make sense.

So how can you make sure your online leads convert to sales? Take a look at these three rules for handling online leads:

Rule 1: Don't make leads wait

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image of Michael Boyette

Michael Boyette is the Executive Editor of Rapid Learning Institute and Writer of the Top Sales Dog blog.

Twitter @TopSalesDog