Do members of your company's executive team—along with your peers throughout the organization—see the connection between marketing and the cash flowing into your company's coffers? If not, they probably view you as merely a tactical tool (brochure writer, a trade-show participant, Web-site "put-it-upper"), not a true strategic partner. And they likely underutilize marketing.

To deliver maximum value for your firm, you'll need to correct their misperceptions of marketing's value. How? Avoid the 10 biggest mistakes marketers make.

Adapted from book I wrote with Allen Weiss and Dave Stewart, Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies to Increase the Power, Influence, and Business Impact of Marketing (Wiley, 2006), this article is the first in a 10-part series designed to help you demonstrate the link between marketing and hard, cold cash.

* * *

Harry sank exhausted into his chair beside SignalNet's trade-show booth. It had been a long week, and he was dreading the stacks of work he knew would be waiting for him in the marketing department when he returned to the office. But the sight of the glass bowl jammed with business cards from trade-show attendees instantly revitalized him. A sign on the bowl read, "Win a SignalNet 1200XS—drop your business card here." Not a bad haul, he thought to himself. The sales team is going to love this batch of leads.

As the events crew began packing up the booth, Harry poured the bowl's contents into his carry-on suitcase. Back at MegaMesh the next morning, he proudly handed the stash of cards to Martha, the sales manager.

He had no idea that he had just made a major mistake.

Promising Prospect—or Dead End? How Do You Define "Lead"?

To do their job, salespeople need leads, or prospects, who are ready to buy. As a marketer, you probably supply sales with leads. But what is a lead, exactly?

If you merely dump prospects on sales without first agreeing on the meaning of "lead" and then qualifying each prospect based on your definition, you and sales may end up at loggerheads when supposed leads don't become actual customers. At the very least, you'll confirm any assumptions on salespeople's part that you can't help them turn leads into cash.

Definitions of "qualified lead" vary across organizations. For example, in one firm, a lead may be nothing more than a prospect who demonstrates the characteristics of your company's target market. In another organization, it may be someone who has already put the firm on a short list for a lucrative deal. To clarify your company's definition of lead, ask yourself and your sales partners the following questions:

  • How did the prospect learn about our offerings?
  • Is the prospect a decision maker? A user? A check writer?
  • Where is the prospect in the decision-making process? For example, are they aware of a problem? Have they compared our products to competitors' offerings?
  • Is the prospect new to the product category we're selling?
  • Is the prospect aware of our brand?
  • What is the probability of closing the sale?

Even though you want to maximize the number of leads you pass on to sales, remember that salespeople don't want to devote resources to prospects with a low closing probability. Together with the sales manager, establish a goal for the number and share of actual, eventual customers who come from marketing's leads.

Manage the Lead Pipeline

Don't assume that your work is done the minute you give a lead's contact information to sales. Stay involved with sales during the rest of the process—from the salesperson's first contacts with the lead to the prospective buyer's evaluation of the proposed deal and final decision. For example, throughout the sales cycle, provide valuable advice that helps sweeten the salesperson's odds of closing a sale, determining that a lead isn't going to buy, or winning back prospects who are waffling. In other words, manage the lead pipeline.

To manage the lead pipeline with sales, remind yourself of the buyer's journey*: the steps a potential customer goes through before deciding to purchase—including becoming aware of discomfort caused by a problem and considering purchasing a product or service that will address the problem. The steps in the buyer's journey unfold in a specific sequence, with the total time ranging from an hour or less to as long as several years, depending on such variables as product complexity and cost.

Of course, you and sales want to reduce leakage, or prospects lost from the lead pipeline at various points during the buyer's journey. When prospects leak—that is, they cut off the conversation or fail to respond to prompts—help sales discern the reasons for the leakage so you can discourage loss of other prospects.

But at the same time, accelerate inevitable leakage. Why? For salespeople, the only thing worse than losing a potential customer is knowing that they've invested extensive time and resources to woo someone who was never going to buy anyway. If a prospective customer is likely to leak, salespeople want that leakage to occur as soon as possible. Based on your understanding of marketplace patterns, help them identify likely leakers so they can invest their time and energy in more promising prospects.

To further demonstrate your connection to the cash flowing into your company (as well as help salespeople calculate their potential income), increase sales' likelihood of closing deals. How? Four ways:

  1. Design marketing communications for each phase of the sales cycle, from awareness through consideration to purchase.
  2. Focus your marketing efforts on points in the buying process where high-potential prospects are leaving.
  3. Increase the time face time sales reps have with customers.
  4. Track marketing leads that close.

When you give qualified, promising leads to salespeople and support them through each step in the buying process, you build a reputation as a strategic partner and a cash-flow leader. Your reward? Greater credibility and influence throughout your organization—essential ingredients for gaining the support you need to execute important marketing initiatives.

* The term is from Hugh MacFarlane and Jim Lenskold: "The Marketing Profitability Path: Mapping Your Journey (Part 1 of 4)."

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image of Roy Young
Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.