Published: August 25, 2017

Sales leads are the first thing a sales team needs to begin the process of cultivating customers, which ends ideally with the closing of a sale.

Investopedia defines the term like this:

"A sales lead is a prospective consumer of a product or service, created when an individual or business shows interest and provides contact information."

The key elements that transform a random person or business into a sales lead are the following:

  • Interest
  • Contact information

It's important to note that a sales lead is not a sales prospect. That requires further qualification by sales and marketing efforts to gauge the lead's level of interest and potential for conversion.

The challenge is unearthing leads. It's no accident that the most searched Google terms after "sales lead" are

  • B2b sales leads
  • Free sales leads lists
  • How to get sales leads for free
  • Free business leads database

It's not easy to find a promising cache of sales leads.

So where to begin? Investopedia again:

"Businesses gain access to sales leads through advertising, trade shows, direct mailings and other marketing efforts. They can also purchase sales leads from third-party companies."

Generating Sales Leads

Traditional marketing drives only about 30 percent of total sales leads. The traditional process of sales prospecting and cold calling limit sales professionals in their ability to find high-quality sales leads. (More on cold calling in a bit.)

Seventy-five percent of buyers use social media to research solutions before they make a purchase.

CIO.com listed the nine best ways to generate sales leads:

  1. Customer referrals.
  2. SEO, SEM and PPC. That's search engine optimization, search engine marketing and pay per click.
  3. Cross-promotions and co-marketing.
  4. Providing useful content.
  5. Speaking at trade shows, conferences and industry events.
  6. Using LinkedIn.
  7. Using Twitter.
  8. Providing contact information on every website page.
  9. Live chat.

"Facebook may have a mobile-minded ad unit to make the job easier for folks in the lead-gen field, which generally consists of the automotive, insurance, educational, medical and credit card industries," Adweek reported.

As for LinkedIn, it's a potent lead generation platform in its own right, John Hall, the CEO of Influence & Co., wrote recently on this site:

"Publishing content on LinkedIn is a tactic my team at Influence & Co. wholeheartedly believes in, and we sing its praises to our clients and our networks all the time. A great example of this involves my friend Dustin McKissen. A few years ago, he was working as a director of marketing and decided that he wanted to start sharing the different lessons he’d learned along the way. Naturally, LinkedIn caught his attention, and he realized he could educate others through content on its publishing platform. He didn't try to take over the world in one post; he consistently developed several pieces he knew would be valuable for his readers.
"Fast forward to present day, and he has more than 20,000 followers on LinkedIn, writes for additional platforms like Inc. and has begun consulting on his own just by using the platform for what it's intended: to educate and engage with his network and enhance his brand."

The ability to research potential clients and leverage this information separates the social selling heroes from the also-rans. When you’re using LinkedIn for sales lead generation, here are three areas of focus that can help you find the right people to engage and turn them into allies.

Know who’s tracking you. When this research leads them to your LinkedIn profile, it’s a good indicator that you should engage. LinkedIn provides a robust set of tools for analyzing who’s been viewing your profile and how they got there.

Make the most of advanced search. LinkedIn’s Advanced Search provides a powerful set of filters that can help find the people you want to connect with.

Find the key relationship of your suspects and prospects. Your profile visitors and your Advanced Search activity can tell you who might be the most in need of your sales solution. Now that you have your pool of potentials narrowed down, take a look at each profile to find your key relationship that can lead to a warm introduction.

The internet can provide a fertile ground for quality sales leads, but finding sales leads requires more than simply sending notifications to social media followers, according to Investopedia:

"The internet makes it possible for sales professionals to reach an indefinite number of geographically diverse sales leads, but person-to-person contact can still be the best way to find sales leads in local communities. For example, a salesperson looking for local sales prospects for a business-to-business service could find potential sales leads at community networking events in his field. The local chamber of commerce can also be a good place to find leads. Small company owners looking for sales leads can also help business or consumer leads find out about their product or service through local media mentions. Small business owners should be prepared to pitch their story to journalists at local news outlets instead of waiting for the media to find out about their business."

Classifying and Scoring Sales Leads

"A typical telemarketer makes at least 140 live calls, talks to at least 40 decision-makers, acquires at least 10 fresh contact emails, and sends out reference materials to at least 140 contacts – all in a day’s work," said the Callbox Blog

The blog offered a way to classify each lead to determine its potential to result in a sale.

  • Hot Lead. This is a lead that 1) has an approved budget that's ready to go, 2) has the authority to green-light a purchase, 3) has a demonstrated need for your product or service, and 4) is at a point in time where a purchase is foreseeable.
  • Warm Lead.  This is a lead that meets two or three of the above criteria.
  • Cold Lead. This lead has two or three disqualifiers. Further nurturing is needed.

A clear challenge is finding the time to cultivate each lead to convert it from cold to hot, LinkedIn has said previously:

"The unfortunate reality is that upwards of 80 percent of leads generated by marketing are neglected or never acted upon by a sales rep. Why does this happen? There are the common scenarios discussed such as lead quality, lead readiness for a sales person (aka SRLs or sales ready leads) and lazy sales people… but let me share the least discussed reason in marketing circles, sales saturation!"

Sales saturation results when salespeople have more leads than they are physically able to follow up with. The most difficult and therefore overlooked issue is the number of leads an individual salesperson is able to contact on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. To avoid that situation:

  • Set realistic goals. Adjust your efforts to focus on quality leads that fit your sales teams’ focus and deliver a realistic number of leads your sales team can follow up with each week.

  • Amp up your lead nurturing strategy. Refine your lead nurturing efforts to further qualify and prime your leads. This way, marketing delivers a fantastic client experience with continued education during their process and the leads you do hand off will be of higher value to your sales reps and more worthy of their time.

  • Work to deliver both quality and quantity: Focus on providing the leads your sales team needs, both in quality and in quantity. Communicate with your reps to understand the quality of the leads you’re delivering and how they can be improved.

Lead scoring is the bridge from marketing to actual sales, according to Sweta Patel at MarTech:

"Marketers must be vigilant about lead scoring and which leads they are sending off to sales. In most cases, we see that many of the leads forwarded to sales are bypassed or completely ignored. Why? Salespeople feel that the leads are not qualified, and they can’t afford to waste their time focusing on 'marketing' leads when they can find hot leads elsewhere. ... Lead scoring is used to rank prospects against a scale that represents the perceived value of each lead. The resulting score is then used to determine which leads the sales team will engage, in order of priority."

Patel sets forward a three-step process to score sales leads:

1. Define the leads. Narrow the search for leads to MQLs: Marketing Qualified Leads. These are leads that fit one of the following criteria:

  • They've requested a demonstration.
  • They've requested a free trial.
  • They've requested certain types of content.
  • They've viewed certain web pages.
  • They've opened or clicked emails.
  • They've followed or engaged you on social media.
  • They have specific job titles.
  • They work for a specific type of company.
  • They've sustained interest in the company or products.

2. Establish the handoff process. Implement a service-level agreement that involves each team making commitments about how they handle the leads as the status changes to ensure that no leads slip through the cracks.

3. Set goals. The other key purpose of the service-level agreement is to establish reasonable goals for lead generation. The goal-setting process flows from the top down to determine the number of MGLs the marketing team is ultimately responsible for.

A Word about Cold Calling and Emailing

The conventional wisdom is that cold calling is dead in the age of the internet. The statistics are stark: Fewer than 2 percent of cold calls results in a meeting, and the relative cost per lead with this approach is extraordinarily high,LinkedIn has previously said. More and more, the industry is recognizing it as a waste of time.

Only one out of 50 customers lists the phone as the preferred method of being contacted. Decades ago, when salespeople were reaching prospects on their office lines, cold calling made more sense. Today, with more individuals relying on their personal cell phones for work, sales calls from an unknown number feel more intrusive. The ubiquity of caller ID also makes these attempts easier to screen.

But hold up:  Are there cold calling methods that actually prove effective? In modern selling, the term needs to be more flexible, encompassing unsolicited outreach as a whole. For some cases, dialing up a non-qualified prospect might be a good option.

Here are five cold calling (and email) strategies that work:

  1. Tap into social intelligence for sales outreach. Research a prospect from a quick scan of LinkedIn profiles or Twitter feeds.
  2. Complete research on the sales prospect’s industry. Take a little time to brush up on what’s happening in the industry in which your prospect operates. Lead your communication by referencing a news story and asking how it might affect the business.
  3. Personalize your sales communication. Customize all elements of your outreach so it speaks to the lead in a direct way. You should generate plenty of material for such purposes with the previous two steps.
  4. Use digital sales tools to automate and optimize your efforts. There are a variety of apps and services available that can assist with research steps or track and document interactions. One example is Rapportive, which collects info from a LinkedIn profile and then displays it in your Gmail interface.
  5. Embrace inbound marketing principles for selling. Of course, it is best when prospects reach out to you instead of the other way around. Take every measure to make yourself discoverable and approachable.

Here are five more ways to warm up a cold call or email:

  1. Use an effective attention-getter
  2. Make a friendly introduction
  3. Offer a customized value proposition
  4. Use a conversational tone
  5. Position yourself as a listener

Identify yourself immediately and quickly explain the specific relevance of your call or message. If possible, explain how you came across them (“I saw your blog post on such-and-such” or “I noticed we have a mutual connection in so-and-so”).

Any time you can offer a free resource, with no expectation of reciprocation, you’ll increase your chances of a response. And, again, leave the door open for them to do most of the talking or writing.

Cold calling continues to fade out as a selling tactic, but with the right steps you can still reach an abundance of contacts and achieve results. It’s all about making these calls, emails or messages less cold by developing context, familiarity and an understanding of the prospect’s needs.