Generating leads is easy. There, we've said it. Pick a decent list, say something meaningful, toss in an offer, and plenty of folks will respond. Plenty. If you want more, do it again.

But if you want qualified leads—people that can can progress from being prospects to becoming customers and on to advocates—take the time to fine-tune your data and make sure that your messaging is personal and relevant. It should also have call to action that, in the end, will be indicative of real interest and not the motives of a catalog collector, whitepaper librarian or premium junkie.

Like we said, easy.

Most marketers can deliver a respectable response rate on demand. Truth be told, plowing through a list of suspects (just names on a list) and cultivating a handful of prospects (people with marked potential to buy) is sort of like "Plant seeds. Add water and sunlight."

But what comes next—that is to say, the growing part—can't be expected to happen without proper care and attention.

Leads are, well, like trees. When left alone, they typically don't go away, but instead grow up on their own. They turn in the direction of the light and branch out and do their thing. But for a lead to truly be a lead, you need to take care of it and nurture it—you need to manage its growth from day one, or it's foolish to expect that it will grow to bear the fruit you're after. You need to be the light it's looking for.

Now, contemporary sales management theory tells us that asking salespeople to do anything but sell is a bad idea, because good salespeople just aren't wired to handle a heavy administrative load. Stereotypically speaking, your better salespeople have a real hard time filling out forms, providing feedback in a timely fashion or playing nicely with details. So compliance with sales follow-up processes is tricky right from the start.

And that's why lead management has become so mission critical to anyone accountable for return on investment in marketing. Because leads aren't leads if you pay them no mind. If you've invested time and dollars in capturing data from prospective customers, it's borderline crazy not to take things one step further and invest in some type of lead-management application that will centralize disparate data sources—like those private silos that some sales folks maintain outside the system—and ensure that every last drop of value is wrung out of your marketing.

Nevertheless, since we're talking about salespeople, it's important to understand that policing the process won't be easy, regardless of whether that means dishing out a little punishment or building motivated momentum through strategic incentives. Salespeople are salespeople, and the last thing they want to do is jump through hoops in the office. They jump through enough hoops trying to close deals.

Lead management needs to be comprehensive, insightful and, most importantly, easy to implement and maintain moving forward. As we said, salespeople—the people who need to comply with the process—won't respond well to anything tedious or overly complicated, so getting the buy-in of your sales staff is essential, whether that means soliciting input from the start or clearly demonstrating the value-add to the big picture and bottom line once you're ready for rollout.

Defining a sound lead-management process for any business isn't difficult, it merely requires getting to the bottom of a few key business issues.

1. What type of sales force do you have? Do you sell products, services, or both?

Does your business model include dealer or distributor sales channels? Field representatives? How about a direct sales model?

Understanding the way your business is structured and how your sales teams interact with each other and with sales and marketing management is crucial to wrapping your arms around the psychology of the group and what sort of accountability can be expected.

For instance, it would be unheard of to place the same expectations on a dealer channel as you might on an in-house telesales representative. Also, what you sell and how you sell it are key dynamics that shouldn't be overlooked when identifying sales cycles, reflexive touchpoints and follow-up thresholds.

2. Who's responsible for managing your lead-management process? What sort of hierarchy is in place to see to it that it's working?

Clear, defined reporting structures are a must when developing a lead-management process that everyone can get behind. From lead assignment and reassignment to the monitoring of lead statuses and initiating reminders, it's imperative that the who, what, when, where and why get taken care of appropriately—and that can happen only if accurate roles and a true escalation process are in place from day-one.

3. How do you plan on generating leads? Direct mail? Telemarketing? Online? Well, like we said, generating leads is the easy part. And it shouldn't really matter how you do it if you invest in a Web-based system that can centralize data from any number of disparate sources and allow you to distribute leads quickly and efficiently no matter what sort of delivery method your business model supports (or clings to!).

4. What sort of lead-management process/system are you using? If you already have an existing lead-management platform—an online solution or a shoebox full of business cards—the transition to something more effective can be scary. Integrating with new software sends chills up many a spine, and paper-pushers are known to fold at the thought of giving up the tried-and true.

In the end, the manner in which you choose to manage leads matters least—it's the fact that you have a process that counts. Online solutions surely make enhancing data and appending information easier, but, above all else, you need to go with what's right for you—you need to go with a solution that can grow with your business over time.

* * *

If it's accepted that leads lead to the acquisition of new business and facilitate the cross-selling of products and/or services to customers, then it goes without saying that each and every lead should receive due diligence.

To look at lead management from a slightly different perspective, it's important to take into account that a neglected lead can actually be extremely harmful: i.e., if a suspect raises his/her hand and shifts lead level to that of prospect, follow-up must be mandatory—with absolutely no room for debate. Expressed interest is, after all, exactly what lead generation seeks to accomplish, and not acknowledging that a seed has taken root—that a sapling has appeared—can damage credibility on many, many levels.

So, if a lead falls in the forest—if no lead-management process is in place and maybe more than one lead goes down—of course there's a sound. It's the sound you hate most, the one that cripples you. And it can be thunderous.

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M.L. Hartman is the creative director with Allendale, New Jersey-based integrated marketing and communications firm Interactive Marketing Group ( He can be reached via email at