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B2B Lead Generation by Phone: An Interview with Michael Brown

This is one of a series of occasional interviews with top practitioners on topics of interest to business-to-business lead generation, marketing and new business development professionals.

Michael A Brown

My guest today is Michael A. Brown. He is the B2B telemarketing and telesales consultant and telemarketing trainer whom I frequently recommend to our clients.

Michael, first off, I know you hate to use the word “telemarketing.” Why?

Three reasons:

First, the word carries lots of unpleasant baggage from the business-to-consumer world. Telemarketing is why your home phone is on the national do-not-call list.

Second, businesses that try to recruit good callers for lead generation and nurturing but refer to them as telemarketers are usually unsuccessful. “Telemarketers” are entirely different people from those you really need in business-to-business marketing.

Third, “telemarketing” does not really describe the job function or its importance to your business.

What should we call it instead?

I recommend using more accurate words: sales lead initiation/development and business development are among the most popular terms. The “tele” prefix is unnecessary. That one is doing these things by phone is self-evident.

Given all the “e-“ and social media, does the phone still have a role in B2B lead generation, lead nurturing or lead qualification?

Absolutely, but usually later in the lead process than before.

Indeed, cold-calling has fallen from grace and fallen out of bed. That is because for the most part (70 percent by some accounts), business considerations now begin on the Internet. So the phone becomes integral once a prospect has inquired via a company’s website or has responded to a marketing message in another medium.

The phone is where the human engagement and business dialogue take place and where the lead can be developed into a genuine opportunity. And yes, human beings do need to communicate LIVE! Beware the technology pitchers who allege that all lead nurturing or development can be done via e-mail.

Do you have any success secrets, Michael, that you can share about using the phone to find, cultivate and identify qualified, sales-ready leads for the folks in sales?

Yes! The secrets are silver bullets, crystal balls, magic wands and Ouija boards. But seriously, the real strategies and tactics for success are not secrets at all:

  • To find leads, seek out relevant events based on what organizations in your market sectors are doing, are considering or recently have done that make them brighter blips on your business radar. In other words, go beyond mere demographics and look for companies’ actions such as expansion, reorganization, introduction of new product lines … actions that make them more likely than others to need your products or services.
  • To cultivate leads, conduct conversations and give (information, guidance, etc.) before trying to get. Also do what good physicians do: diagnose and then prescribe. Doing so differentiates your communication favorably from that of telemarketers and your competitors and allows you to “make the case” for the prospect to take the next forward step in the consideration process. Do not attempt to leapfrog the due-diligence of lead development by rushing to a quick transition to sales.
  • To identify qualified, sales-ready leads, start by meeting with your sales team and executives to hammer out a mutually acceptable set of criteria for what actually constitutes a “qualified” lead. Select the most important criteria and assign point counts to each. Establish a point count “release threshold” for passing viable and right-timed leads from marketing to sales.

Michael, I agree that is a critical first step in improving B2B lead generation programs. In fact, I am often asked by clients to facilitate the process of working with sales to come up with an agreed-to lead qualification definition and lead scoring criteria. That foundational work can have a huge impact on lead generation program results.

It was not easy to do this for a big software company that was a client of mine, but it sure did work! The pilot division’s sales rose 31 percent over the next quarter.

There is a lot of buzz about appointment setting as an approach to B2B lead generation. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Yes, marketers are making lots of calls to lots of prospect companies, trying to convince them to agree to an in-person meeting. Unfortunately, some marketers are going about it in the wrong order! They pitch the appointment right off the bat rather than first seeking the two prerequisites:

  1. A likely business matchup, ascertained via good questioning and qualification
  2. Agreement by the prospect that there will be genuine value in a meeting … that it will not merely be a “grip ‘n’ grin” session or a “dog and pony show”

Absent the prerequisites, bad things almost always happen:

  • The prospect refuses an in-person meeting, viewing it not as a valuable event, but rather as a vendor-centric pitch or a geographically motivated (“our rep will be in your area”) drop-in.
  • The prospect agrees to meet but cancels before the meeting.
  • The sales person shows up but the prospect is not available or not even there! S/he “forgot.”
  • The meeting happens, but the participants are not authorized to act, so no sale results.
  • Marketing’s credibility with sales drops sharply.

Resist the urge to meet prematurely. Refocus campaigns on establishing credibility, then viability, then desirability. Leverage your combined marketing … phone, e-mail, webinars, etc. … to the hilt. Then, when you do secure a meeting, it will have substance and a much greater likelihood of success. Because sales’ time and prospects’ attention are so precious, meet only with viable prospects who are excited about meeting.

In your expert opinion, Michael, when does it make sense for a company to do its phone-based B2B sales lead work in-house versus outsourcing it?

These are the key factors in favor of in-house:

  • Full account management. Even if someone else could “manage” your accounts, you would not want them to.
  • Combined marketing – sales contact teams. Team members have to wear the same uniform.
  • Customers expect in-depth content knowledge and business process skills. The effort, energy and investment you make in educating your marketers should return value to your customers and to you, not to rented callers.
  • Reps must have the business prerogatives and authority to plan and execute the next step in marketing or selling.
  • You need multi-call and/or inbound-outbound continuity with the same rep. It is harder to get dedicated reps when they do not work for you.
  • Frequent discussions among marketing, sales, prospects and customers.
  • Complex and rapid changes in your marketplace and your product/service offerings.

The factors that favor outsourcing include the following:

  • General or universal messages and campaigns
  • Consistent, easily learned communications over time and among accounts
  • List validation
  • Leads’ prequalification with limited criteria
  • Sudden volume of inbound response or outbound notifications, as for product recalls
  • Events promotion and registration
  • Order acceptance

Also consider this: almost anyone can accumulate data, but only callers who actually interact live with prospects can accumulate wisdom. Therefore, if the callers wear an outsourcer’s badge, you will get the data, but the wisdom will go to the outsourcer. If they wear your badge, your company will get the wisdom along with the data.

If outsourcing, how do you choose the right company to do the phone-based sales lead work?

  • There are b-to-c calling agencies pretending to be good at b-to-b. Most are not. Consider only the “real-deal” experienced b-to-b players.
  • The company does not staff-to-forecast; rather, they forecast-to-staff. If the former is the case, their “stable” of callers and the callers’ quality will fluctuate widely. Also, the company’s management will spend more time recruiting and interviewing than attending to your project. Conversely, forecast-to-staff generally yields a more dependable group of permanent callers, meaning a greater likelihood of continuity and success for you and your campaigns.
  • They have no more than 30 percent temporary callers. You need to know who is calling on your behalf at all times and that they are trained and competent to do so.
  • Their focus matches your need: that is, they can conduct stand-alone campaigns or carry on sustained lead development.
  • Their labor market, education and turnover rates will support the right types and levels of calls to the kind of people you need to reach. For example, do not accept recent high school grads to contact your C-level prospects.
  • They can demonstrate their experience calling prospects and customers whose profiles match those in your market sector. They have audio recordings of real calls and will let you listen to them. You can monitor calls from anywhere on the planet.
  • They apply valid business-to-business practices and metrics, not business-to-consumer. There is a HUGE difference.
  • Their technology is compatible with yours.
  • Their customers’ customers say good things about the calls they received.

One other thing … do not even consider a pay-for-performance outsourcer. Any outsourcer must execute successfully and consistently to your lead criteria with a blend of production and artistry. Allowing variable performance would put your lead efforts and sales quotas at great risk. Some of my clients who outsource lead services reject the notion of pay for performance … they consider it a gimmick.

Are there benchmarks for what a company should expect to invest in its phone-based sales lead programs? For example, a benchmark for the cost per qualified lead generated by phone?

I wish there were in b-to-b, but there probably never will be. Most b-to-b outfits guard that sort of information very closely. My clients won’t let me reveal theirs.

I can report that the numbers are all over the map … from $35 to more than $3,000 … and depend chiefly on these factors:

  • The definition of a “qualified” lead or the absence of an agreed definition.
  • Complexity and price point(s) of the company’s product or service. Enterprise IT leads cost more than office supply leads.
  • Compensation or outsource fees matched (or not) to the reality of the job in the company’s marketplace. For example, do not expect million-dollar deals to flow from a $15/hour caller.
  • Reach-rate: how many attempts it typically takes to speak with a prospect live and engage in a business conversation.
  • The CFO’s astuteness or gullibility.

Michael, you mentioned that I should ask you about something useful you wanted to offer our readers?

Yes, I’d like to offer them a free copy of my 10-Point Phone Marketing Checkup for Lead Generation and Qualification. Here’s the link they can use to get it: http://michaelabrown.net/checkup.html

Wrapping things up, Michael, are there any final thoughts you want to share with our readers?

Mac, thank you for inviting me. I’ll close with some good news … despite all the online marketing and social media and e-hype, people have not thrown away their phones! Prospects and customers still will speak with us if … and only if … we can make a compelling case for a conversation, and if that conversation is about them, not us. We also have to pursue leads by phone in context with our other marketing and sales media so that our communication strategy is cohesive and valuable.

Now I must excuse myself so that I can call a prospect. Cheers!

Thanks, Michael.

Readers, please join the conversation.

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