Imagine your marketplace is a field of banana trees. Your marketing people are those who nurture and pick the bananas.

Bananas are harvested when they are green, and they turn yellow as they ripen. (Check out Chris Coleman's book, The Green Banana Papers.) In my estimation, 95% of your leads are like harvested green bananas. Here's how to ripen all those green bananas before you pick them.

Effective lead generation is the biggest issue for contemporary business-to-business marketers. But up to 80% of marketing expenditures on lead generation and collateral goes to waste for lack of commitment and discipline. Those tools end up in the scrap heap, because the sales department doesn't know what to do with them.

The secret to successful lead generation, and in turn marketing, in the business-to-business space today is process. This process converts more inquiries into qualified leads and qualified leads into sales. It is called lead nurturing.

Lead nurturing is all about having consistent and meaningful dialog with viable prospects regardless of their timing to buy. It's about building trusted relationships with the right people. In the end, it's the act of maintaining mind share and building solid relationships with economic buyers. It's not a salesperson calling up every few months to find out if a prospect is "ready to buy yet."

Selling How You Service

Most economic buyers subscribe to the notion that how you sell indicates how you will service. A recent study of business-to-business buyers shows that sales people who become trusted advisors and understand the needs of economic buyers are 69% more likely to come away with a sale.

The complex sale requires the following:

  • Your prospect must be familiar with you and your company, and with what you and your company do.

  • Your prospect must perceive you and your company to be experts in the field.

  • Your prospect must believe that you and your company understand his or her specific issues and can solve them.

  • Your prospect likes you and your company enough to want to work with you.

Trust, therefore, becomes the theme for a new type of marketing.

Inspiring Trust

A key aspect of lead nurturing is the ability to provide valuable education and information to prospects up front—to become a trusted advisor. You are then perceived to be an expert. You don't sell; you don't make pitches. Instead, you provide insights and solutions, all within the realm of your expertise and thus become the first they call when there's a need.

When your marketing program has that single point of focus of developing trust, your time is freed up for other things; your business will become more profitable and less reliant on competing on price; selling per se is reduced in the interest of more open and honest conversations with prospects; you win more business on a sole-source basis, and more new business referrals come your way.

Above all, you feel good about what you have to offer.

What's It Worth to You?

Although more and more companies recognize the need for and actively seek better lead generation, a ton of leads doesn't guarantee increased sales. In the complex sale that dominates business-to-business marketing, the actual selling occurs when the sales person isn't even present.

Startling as it may seem, longer-term leads (future opportunities), which are often ignored by salespeople, represent 77% of potential sales, according to research.

Most inquirers don't buy right away, but they do buy. An in-depth study for Cahners Business Information of 40,000 inquiries generated by ads and press releases in magazines serving the manufacturing marketplace found that six months after inquiring, 23% of the subjects had bought the product or service, either from the promoter or from a competitor. An additional 67% indicated that they still intended to buy.

Furthermore, of those from earlier inquiries who bought, 11% purchased within three months of inquiring, 17% purchased within four to six months, 25% purchased within seven to 12 months and 47% bought in a year or later.

Nevertheless, many salespeople believe that advertising inquires are not worth following up. Why? Probably because a majority are likely from longer-term prospects, and salespeople generally need more immediate sales to meet monthly or quarterly quotas and earn commissions.

If inquiries are simply passed on to salespeople, reps, dealers or distributors for follow-up, beware. You may be leaving as many as 8 out of 10 sales prospects on the table for your competitors.

Walking in Their Shoes

Consider what goes through a potential customer's mind as he or she makes a buying decision:

  • How will this product or service help my company? 
  • Why do we need it?
  • Is there another resource out there that's better?
  • Will this solution really work? Can that be proven?
  • Is the resource credible?
  • Can we afford this?

Lead nurturing makes for easier answers to these questions. Of course, you're the source to come to. Over time, you have instilled the sense of value from the trust built by bite-sized chunks.

Typically, a lead-nurturing program includes meaningful letters, emails, voicemails, case studies, success stories, articles, events, white papers and Webcasts. These may take the following forms:

  • Lead-nurturing contests
  • Third-party articles
  • Bylined articles
  • Case studies
  • White papers
  • Research reports
  • Events
  • Webinars
  • Trade shows
  • Live seminars
  • Executive briefings
  • Workshops
  • Conferences
  • Speaking engagements
  • Collateral materials
  • Web site content
  • Blogs
  • Personal letter templates
  • Email templates

The method and frequency of a lead-nurturing program will depend on the solution being sold and the buying cycle. Long lead times generally require spacing out the campaign for a longer duration.

Here's the rule of thumb: salespeople should be brought in about six months before the targeted purchase time. Also relevant is what's being sold and how the particular market might get its information… by phone, for instance, or direct mail, events or email:

An effective plan might be as follows:

  • Day 1: Introductory phone call and follow-up email.
  • Day 28: E-newsletter with voicemail alert that it's there.
  • Day 42: Email recent customer success story, in related industry if possible.
  • Day 60: Personal invitation, from salesperson, to forthcoming seminar.
  • Day 80: Mail case study and personalized letter of transmittal.
  • Day 100: Email recent article of interest on Internet.
  • Day 120: Email "touching base" note.
  • Day 140: Mail follow-up letter with free report.
  • Day 160: Prospect calls you: now a qualified lead!

The Harvest

Proper lead-nurturing programs can yield anywhere from 15% to 200% in additional, new qualified leads. Close ratios are higher. Sales pipelines open up and are stronger. Average sales cycles are shorter.

One company determined that its nurtured prospects bought 100-250% more than those that were not nurtured. The nurtured prospects cited greater overall positive impression of the company. Another company saw client retention improve by 50% from its program.

So, how are your sales leads like bananas?

Well, they are rated by quality, they are consumable, and there's a wide variety. And they are perishable.

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image of Brian Carroll
Brian Carroll is CEO of InTouch ( and author of Lead Generation for the Complex Sale (McGraw-Hill). Reach him via or his blog (