You could say sales leads are a lot like nuts. Often, after a little tree shaking, they fall out of the tree and right into your lap. But cracking them, well, that’s entirely up to you. And to use a common phrase, some nuts are tougher to crack than others, but experts say it’s worth trying to crack all of them.

“Follow up on all leads and sales will surge. Simple but true,” says James Obermayer of Villa Park, Calif., executive director of the Sales Lead Management Association. “Salespeople fail to follow up on
between 75 percent and 90 percent of all leads. The only way to get the total yield from inquiries is to follow up on 100 percent of them.”

And don’t fall into the mistake of prejudging inquiries based on their source, he adds. “All sources are equal, so follow up everything equally, based on the inquirers’ stated need.” Jim Cecil, chairman of the Nurture Institute, a marketing agency in Woodbridge, N.J., agrees wholeheartedly. “Realize that every
lead is a unique opportunity that always requires different approaches.

Appreciate any referral as an opportunity, an introduction with vast unknown potential, demanding acute relationship-nurturing skills. “And accept that a phone inquiry is also an opportunity that may yield permission to further educate and assist and needs instant action and persistent follow-up.”

That persistent follow-up could pay off handsomely, as Obermayer says that 45 percent of all inquirers will buy something within 12 months. “So you want to nurture the prospect over time and deliver the information they need to make a decision when they want to buy.”

Obermayer adds that properly managing sales leads is the only true tool to measure marketing’s successful contribution to sales. “Stop the sales lead leakage. Hunt down and count every inquiry,” he says.

1. Create a system. Jay Hidalgo, CEO of the Annuitas Group, a sales consulting company in Grand Rapids, Mich., says a system for managing leads can boost sales by 50 percent in a year.

He offers four ways to launch such a system.

  1. Audit the way you handle leads to find and document problems and how they impact your bottom line.
  2. Develop and document the best solutions for each problem.
  3. Implement the solutions you expect will give the best potential impact first and then measure the effectiveness of all changes.
  4. Where possible, automate the process.

Experts say a key element in any system is a database that can capture any and all leads that come in.
M.H. “Mac” McIntosh, a sales consultant in North Kingstown, R.I., says databases are vital and that advisors should work to make resources available (such as data-entry staff or outside services) so that information can be entered correctly and quickly.

Sales consultants also recommend you make sure your prospect database is set up to record the sources of leads and how they come to you (phone call, e-mail, friend referral, web, business-reply card, etc.), so that you can evaluate which programs are working best for you.

2. Nurture your leads. Cecil says nurturing leads is most analogous to farming. “It’s the ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’ situation,” he says. “Think of nurturing as a term to describe the experience your customers have at all their points of contact with you. In that critical span of time from planting to harvesting, nurturing describes specific behaviors that ultimately make all the results of the harvest possible.”

Cecil says most clients who become valuable endorsers do so following an often prolonged
courtship. Hidalgo agrees. “Nurture your leads and you’ll develop long-term relationships with prospects and eventually make them customers,” Hidalgo says.

He recommends these steps to nurture effectively:

  1. Segment prospects into categories, explaining where they are in the buying cycle.
  2. Develop your communications schedule for each segment. For example, those later in the buying cycle might receive more personalized communications. Conversely, those earlier in the buying cycle can get more bulk communications.
  3. Balance sales messages with useful content.
  4. Use multiple communications channels: e-mail, phone, letters, etc.
  5. Automate the process with assistants, technology, call centers, etc.

3. Be patient. Cecil says he believes impatience is the number one problem among salespeople when it comes to managing leads. “Most fail to realize that 80 percent of all leads are in fact not hot when they first appear,” he says. “So that means 80 percent are indeed slow adopters, yet may be viable opportunities when actively pursued.”

Obermayer’s numbers are similar. “We know that about 75 percent of the sales are made from the fourth to twelfth month. Not everyone will buy within three months. You need to have relentless follow-up beyond the three-month mark. This is when most competitors stop following up and fail.”

McIntosh says many advisors look only for the immediate opportunities when leads come in. “They lack patience to develop the longer-term opportunities that represent three out of four sales opportunities from prospects,” McIntosh says.

Hidalgo adds that advisors often and mistakenly treat leads as if they’re ready to buy now. “Only a small percentage are ready to buy now,” Hidalgo says. “The rest should be nurtured along until they’re ready to buy.”

4 Sell last. Another mistake some advisors make, Cecil explains, relates to patience. They’re more
prepared to sell than to serve. “Many advisors are just seeking assets and they often ignore a lead’s personal values about money,” Cecil says. “When trust must go before commitment, it’s always a good time for nurturing.
Selling goes last.”

Cecil says investors are logically and emotionally skeptical. “Decisions about money have shifted. Those surviving the financial advisory implosion will have their tenacity and integrity tested as never before imagined,” he says. “The need is great and the opportunities for ethical advisors are vast.”