Channel partners obtain leads from a number of sources: website inquiries, trade shows, webinars and vendor partners, among others.
Making the most of those potential business opportunities is the task of lead management. In the past, this activity was mainly manual and, consequently, offered a limited ability to qualify leads -- that is, determine where a potential buyer stands in the sales pipeline. More than a few leads fell between the cracks in the absence of more rigorous oversight.
VARs and integrators, however, have taken steps to bolster sales lead management. Customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation software provide a technology foundation for more sophisticated lead management and segmentation. Channel players also pay more attention to lead "nurturing" to keep longer-term sales opportunities from languishing. Marketing automation, in particular, can prove useful in keeping leads alive.
The software assistance only comes with cost and effort, however. CRM has become somewhat easier to deploy now that products are more modular and cloud-based options are available. That said, solutions may require customization, which adds expense, and the initial setup can prove time consuming, according to some channel executives. VARs can expect to pay $40 to $70 per user per month for some of the more popular CRM options.
Pricing for marketing automation solutions, meanwhile, generally depends on the number of leads to be tracked. Some systems start at $1,000 to $2,000 per month, although a few products are available for less than $1,000 per month.
Automation on its own, however, can't solve all sales lead management challenges. An organization should look to its underlying business process before layering on technology.
Turning to software
The transition from manual approaches to automated lead management tools is well underway.
"There has been a massive shift in how B2B companies market to and nurture leads with the rise of marketing automation software over the last few years," said Michael Cohn, senior vice president of marketing at Cloud Sherpas Inc., a cloud services broker based in Atlanta, Ga.
Cohn said Cloud Sherpas uses Pardot LLC's cloud-based Marketing Automation tool quite heavily to help manage multi-touch lead nurturing campaigns to generate and qualify sales-ready leads.
"Since the system is tightly integrated with Salesforce.com, our CRM, the marketing automation software has helped us shorten our sales cycles," he added.
Advanced AV, an audiovisual systems integrator based in West Chester, Pa., also taps CRM to help handle lead management. The company has been using SalesLogix from Sage Software Inc., but is now implementing Microsoft Dynamics CRM as the replacement for that system.
John Greene, vice president of sales and marketing at Advanced AV, said all leads are entered into a central database and assigned to an account manager who scores the leads and determines where they stand in the sales pipeline. A pipeline grading method, such as the one Greene mentioned, lets a company's marketing team get a grip on how close a potential customer is to making a purchase.
At one end of the sales spectrum are information seekers -- sometimes called "suspects" as opposed to prospects -- who might visit the corporate website to obtain general information. Such leads are typically the ones that need the most nurturing. At the other end, a lead evolves into an opportunity -- a person with a budget and immediate buying plans. It's at this point where the lead typically shifts from the marketing staff to the sales team.
Here's how the process works at SBS Group, a business management technology solutions provider based in Edison, N.J.: The company has designated an inside sales rep to handle the company's lead qualification, noted Kimberly Kohlhepp, marketing director at SBS. When leads are qualified to opportunity status, the rep distributes them to the appropriate salesperson, she explained. If leads don't qualify immediately as opportunities, the rep nurtures them using a pipeline grading system, Kohlhepp said.
SBS Group uses Microsoft Dynamics CRM to track all leads, regardless of source. The company also deploys Microsoft's CRM software for its customers.
Product vendors, meanwhile, tap automation to provide better leads for their channel partners. ABBYY Software Ltd., a software and services company whose U.S. operation is based in Milpitas, Calif., is one such vendor.
"We have a marketing automation tool in place, so when we go to events or do email campaigns where we get some suspects, we can continue to nurture them," said Jackie Risley, director of product marketing, data and document capture products at ABBYY USA.
Marketing automation lets ABBYY USA assign points to leads as potential buyers take actions such as downloading whitepapers or case studies. As leads accumulate points, the company can then differentiate between suspects and prospects. ABBYY's channel account managers, marketing staff and inside sales personnel call on leads that are moving from suspect to prospect status to discuss their specific needs.
"We do a good amount of qualification before we send a lead to a reseller," Risley said.
Leads are distributed to resellers through mechanisms such as ABBYY's partner portal.
ABBYY's push to boost lead quality is part of an overall effort to engage more closely with partners, Risley noted. In January, the company rolled out enhancements to its Certified Partner Program. The upgrades include exclusive joint marketing opportunities for VARs that show a higher commitment to ABBYY products.
Best practice: Start with a plan
But software applications alone won't get channel partners very far if they haven't thought through the intricacies of handling leads. Developing a plan is a best practice VARs and integrators should pursue, according to marketing advisers.
"In many ways it boils down to having a playbook," said Joanne Dawson, an independent demand generation and marketing program consultant in the Boston area.
That playbook -- or blueprint -- for lead management may get short shrift in the rush to automate marketing. Dawson said organizations should take the time to understand the lead management process and identify the key personnel associated with that process.
"From my perspective, that tends to be one of those areas that is overlooked," Dawson said. "They may have some tactical issues they are trying to address with CRM or marketing automation tools. But they have not mapped out their entire process and tied people to that process."
Dawson said if a company designates CRM as its sales lead management system of record, the key constituents would include anyone participating in the lead management communications stream. Those individuals could include sales, the marketing team, and pre-sales personnel, she said.
She also noted the importance of linking leads to a company's key performance indicators. The lead management program should be placed in a broader, corporate context.
"How are we going to report out on the status of the leads, and how is that going to relate to the business KPIs in terms of end results and meeting our business goals?" she asked.
Fine-tuning lead management
Channel companies, having adopted the essential elements of lead management, now look to tweak the process. The ability to more finely differentiate and nurture leads represents one pursuit.
At Advanced AV, Greene said the company has a method for sorting leads and plans to continue segmenting leads in a variety of filters including vertical market and technology.
Kohlhepp, meanwhile, called lead nurturing one of the biggest lead management challenges. She said SBS uses marketing automation software, which is embedded into its CRM system, to help with the process. But additional steps may be taken to support lead nurturing this year.
"We will look at further automating our nurturing, more so than we already have," Kohlhepp said.
Dawson said automation can ease the job of segmenting leads based on multiple attributes, which would be extremely difficult to do manually. "Having a marketing automation capability helps enormously in the segmentation," she said.
Marketing automation also helps companies shape their marketing campaigns. Dawson said such tools can determine where prospects stand regarding qualification and the buying cycle, which gives marketers an idea of which offers to focus on. A tool can help track and manage information on a prospect's industry, title, budget and future plans. For example, if a lead cites plans to evaluate technology in the coming months, the marketer can send an evaluation guide.
"The more relevant you make the content, the better engagement you are going to get from the prospect," Dawson said.
John Moore has written on business and technology topics for more than 25 years.
This was first published in January 2013