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

You might call this one The Taco Stand Rule.

Imagine you owned a taco stand and a customer walked up to the counter. He's been thinking about tacos all day. He can smell the tacos cooking. Would you take his information and say, "We'll get back to you within 24 hours with your taco"?

Of course not. The buyer is right in front of you. He's starving. All he's thinking about is tacos. He wants one right now. So... you'd give him his taco!

Think of online leads as if they're standing at the counter of your taco stand. If you make them wait, they're gone.

You will never have a better chance of reaching these leads than the moment when they identify themselves as a prospect. Ten minutes later, they might have moved on to something else. Or stepped away from their desk. Or found someone else who's already sold them what they're looking for.

Rule 2: Build for speed

Most CRM systems can feed online leads to your reps in real time. But that won't do you much good unless you've organized your sales team to support a real-time response.

For example, you might consider creating an inside team that's focused on online inquiries. Or if you don't have enough of these leads to dedicate a specialized team to this effort, train all your reps to know that a well-qualified online lead gets top priority.

Of course, not all online leads are created equal, and you may have to work with your marketing department to screen out poorly qualified leads before they get to your reps—for example, by asking qualifying questions on a Web inquiry form. But the point remains the same: The best time to reach online prospects is at the very moment when they click on a Web form, request information, or sign up for an offer.

To ensure that real-time follow-up happens, you might need to adjust your metrics and incentives. For example, you could track response times and make reps accountable for rapid follow-up, or adjust your compensation plan to create incentives for real-time response.

But perhaps the best incentive is to help your reps understand the concept of the Taco Stand Rule. Once they can visualize that hungry prospect, they'll be much more motivated to contact them immediately. And that will translate into more sales.

Rule 3: Better to be quick than accurate

Oldroyd's study found that it's better to have any sales rep respond to a lead immediately than to wait for the right rep to respond later, when it might be too late.

That has implications for how you structure and manage your sales team. The rep who responds doesn't necessarily have to be the one who will eventually handle the sale. The most important thing is to make that connection within the five-minute window and get at least some preliminary information about the prospect's needs. Once that connection is established, the lead can be handed off to the right rep for additional follow up.

One final thought: You might think that online leads respond better to email than they do a phone call. That's not actually the case:

  • In business-to-consumer sales, research shows that both work equally well.
  • And in B2B sales, the old-fashioned telephone works better: Email follow-up is only about half as effective as phone follow up. Surprisingly, an email followed by a phone call gets even fewer responses. The most effective strategy is to follow up first with a phone call, and then by email.

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Three Rules for Converting Online Leads Into Sales

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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